Sunday, August 12, 2012

Day 10: Lookout Mountain, Chickamauga, Stone Mountain


We were, as it turns out, only about fifteen minutes away from the Lookout Mountain section of the Chattanooga and Chickamauga National Military Park, so we visited that first. The views were absolutely stunning, and though the Chattanooga campaign was a bit difficult to follow, the Lookout Mountain portion was fairly straightforward. The visitors' center had the original large-format painting commissioned by General Joseph Hooker to celebrate his victory at Lookout Mountain in the “Battle Above the Clouds,” and had good interpretation of the same.

Its exhibits were crisp and new and well-done, alternating explanatory text with interesting facts (Rosecrans and Longstreet were roommates at West Point!), and never overwhelming with too much text.

Point Park itself, where the Confederate guns were placed, was stunning. The views over Chattanooga and Tennessee were breathtaking. There was also a neat little exhibit case with Civil War signal corps artifacts and explanatory text – the first time we've seen anything on that part of the army.
Confederate gun emplacement overlooking Chattanooga.
Twisting trails around Point Park.

Seriously, wow.
After Lookout Mountain, we realized we were only a few miles from Rock City, one of the great tourist traps in North America and the location of the climax of Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods. We decided to take a detour, and it was – an experience. Tacky alternated with genuinely lovely. Gaiman's thesis in his novel is that the old world gods came to America with immigrants, and that the holiest places in America are roadside attractions, because they collect that which is uniquely American – a kind of entrepreneurial something-out-of-nothing pop-culture blend. Rock City is certainly the perfect place for all of that to come together.
Lover's Leap at Rock City
Next up was the Chickamauga battlefield, the major battle that led up to the siege of Chattanooga. The Confederates won this battle, but ultimately lost the campaign when they failed to successfully siege the Union army at Chattanooga. The battle itself was characterized mostly by staggering failures of communication among the general staff of both sides. Braxton Bragg wrote vague orders and his troops did not attack in time; William Rosecrans pulled a regiment from his right flank to shore up a perceived hole in his left flank. There was no hole, and the removal of a regiment left an actual hole in his right flank at the exact moment James Longstreet arrived to reinforce the Confederate left and made an offensive.

The Union lines crumpled and fled, all except a few brigades under George Thomas's XIIth Corps, who held Snodgrass Hill thanks to determination and to a particular brigade equipped with Spencer repeating rifles, giving Thomas the nickname “The Rock of Chickamauga.” His delaying action allowed Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland to retreat safely to Chattanooga. Once the Confederates failed to siege the city, it proved the perfect base of operations for Sherman to march south to Atlanta the following spring.
The slight rise to the left of the photo is where Thomas and his brigades held during the retreat.
The Chickamauga visitors center might have been the nicest we've seen so far. It had a beautiful, welcoming lobby with a big relief map of the battlefield, and some neat exhibits that made good use of artifacts to create scenes. Unfortunately, its orientation video was the worst I have ever seen. I was physically cringing through much of it. It began with a fairly standard framing voiceover leading up to the battle, but the segued into an odd first-person narrative in which two actors playing reminiscing Union and Confederate soldiers (though still wearing their uniforms during what was supposed to be a meeting years after the fact?) chatted about the battle with an odd mix of supposedly personal information and strategic overview. The editing was clumsy at best, and the jaunty way the narrators used slang and referred to actions meant that at the end of 23 minutes I had not the slightest idea what had happened in the battle, and was utterly shocked to hear that the casualties had been so high – in the tens of thousands. It was distasteful and confusing – and as the cherry on top, the Union soldier (or the actor playing him) had a thick Southern accent.
Beautiful, informative entrance hall.

Still from the video; faked Union and Confederate soldiers to the left.
Luckily, there was an old-style electric map in another exhibit that we, along with a dozen other visitors, crowded around in order to understand the order of battle. The driving tour was quick but good, and actually had a nice balance of length and stops. Shiloh had 20 stops, which was wearing; Chickamauga had only 8, but all were important and interesting.

From Chickamauga, we followed in Sherman's footsteps south to Atlanta, then skirted the city to arrive at Stone Mountain, the largest granite outcropping of its kind in the world. Stone Mountain functions as a sort of Confederate shrine: carved onto the mountain is a bas-relief of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. The gardens leading up to the mountain feature small terraces dedicated to each of the Confederate states. (On Mississippi's terrace, the placard noted that among its famous leaders was Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, who “served ably under extremely difficult times.” You don't say.)
Stone Mountain
At the base of the garden were two parks, one dedicated to Valor and the other to Sacrifice, featuring more apologia and some marvelous cognitive dissonance.
"Valor" park.

Many of the sites we've been to have had to handle the difficulty of being in the South while also telling an accurate, whole picture of the war. Stone Mountain was not a museum, nor even a cultural site; it functions today mostly as a family adventure center, with a ropes course and other children's activities. It was definitely the most Southern point of view we've seen so far, and given tomorrow we're turning north for good – it will most likely retain that honor.

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