Nicely: Union Army buildup key to growth of Chattanooga

Nicely: Union Army buildup key to growth of Chattanooga

April 13th, 2014 By Maury Nicely in Opinion Columns

The evolution of Chattanooga into the "Dynamo of Dixie" in the last half of the 19th century can be traced directly to the efforts of the Union army to capture Atlanta during the Civil War.

Following the battles of Chattanooga in the fall of 1863, the town was left in ruins. Virtually every tree had been cut down for firewood or fortifications. Buildings that had not been destroyed were hoof-worn and blood-stained after their use as stables or hospitals. Describing his arrival in Chattanooga at the end of the war, Union veteran Xenophon Wheeler called the town "a scraggy, unkempt, unsightly, sprawling place ... and one of the most undesirable places to live that I have ever seen."

The presence of the occupying federal army, however, would prove to be a godsend for the battle-scarred town. In spring of 1864, Chattanooga became the staging ground for the invasion of Georgia. As engineers and quartermasters flooded into the town, the sounds of cannon were replaced by the whine of sawmills. This buildup led to the construction of warehouses, corrals, shipyards, a waterworks and a timber bridge across the Tennessee River.

With the Confederacy defeated, the Union army began the process of demobilization. Millions of dollars' worth of government goods were sold by auctioneer H. Clay Evans, a federal soldier who would return to Chattanooga in 1870 to become a prominent businessman, mayor, and congressman.

The government auction enabled many Chattanoogans to rebuild their fortunes in the aftermath of the war. Ironmaster Robert Cravens, whose home had been destroyed during the battle along the flanks of Lookout Mountain, attended the auction, where he bid on a lot of hundreds of surplus government wagons. Cravens offered $6 per wagon, indicating that he wanted to buy the entire lot. The auctioneer declined the offer, doubting Cravens' ability to pay -- but he allowed Cravens to purchase one row (about 100) of the wagons. The amount made by Cravens on the sale of the wagons enabled him to rebuild his home, and he kept one of the wagons on the porch of his home as a reminder of his good fortune.

Not all of the auctioned items were of this magnitude. For years after the auction, eccentric stonemason Daniel Hogan, who lived a hermit-like existence in a shack next to a quarry that became known as the "Stone Fort," proudly wore a union overcoat that he had purchased during the auction.

In addition to the surplus government goods that were sold off after the war, the return of Union veterans contributed significantly to the growth of Chattanooga as a manufacturing center. Newspaper advertisements like this one in the Daily Republican in 1868, which read, "Wanted Immediately: Any Number of Carpet-Baggers to Come to Chattanooga and Settle," contributed to the commercial growth of the town.

One such transplant was Gen. John T. Wilder, who relocated from Indiana to East Tennessee after observing the rich natural resources of the region during the war. In 1867, Wilder, along with several other northern investors, established the Roane Iron Co. in Rockwood, Tenn. In 1870, the company merged with a rolling mill in Chattanooga, which they renamed the Roane Rolling Mill.

The rolling mill had been established by Gen. William T. Sherman in 1864 for the purpose of repairing railroad tracks damaged during the war.

In 1865, this enterprise also had been sold into private hands during the demobilization of the Union army in Chattanooga. Employing hundreds of workers, the mill soon became the largest employer in the town, the acorn from which Chattanooga would grow to become the "Dynamo of Dixie."

The post-war transformation of Chattanooga into a city characterized by puffing smokestacks and sectional reconciliation was epitomized by the election in 1871 of Wilder as mayor. This event -- the election of a man who only eight years earlier had carried out the bombardment of the town, sending cannon shot hurtling from across the Tennessee River -- was evidence that Chattanooga was a unique part of a new South, and it also set the stage for the creation 25 years later of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.

Maury Nicely is an attorney with the Chattanooga law firm of Evans Harrison Hackett PLLC. He is the author of the Chattanooga Walking Tour & Historic Guide and East Tennessee Walking Tour & Historic Guide. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.