The battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, just across the state line from Chattanooga, was principally fought on the 19th and 20th of September, 1863. I could barely say the word Chickamauga five years ago; now it’s a place to which I feel strongly attached. I wrote about it in my masters’ dissertation and it is the main set piece battle in my novel, Whirligig. I frequently query my connection, how an interest in the Civil War and then in writing conspired to bring me to that place. But beyond that, I often ask myself why I had that interest in the first place?
Depending on which account you read, it’s estimated that around 28,000 men were killed or injured at Chickamauga. It was a huge battle and the Union’s loss checked their advance until the following spring. It was the very first battlefield to be established as a national park and was dedicated as early as 1895. Since then, the Park Service has laboured to re-establish the site as it was in September 1863. The small number of scratch farms caught up in the fighting have been rebuilt, the lines of the trees and the fields are the same as they were, even the flora is as close as they can make it. Everything has been done with the thought that we need to have things as they were. Individually and collectively it seems that we have a need to preserve the past.
The practice at Chickamauga, as it was on many of the major battlefields in the decades after the war ended, was for regiments from both North and South to gather as re-joined countrymen on the anniversary of the battle to remember fallen friends. They raised funds for statues and markers, placed them at places they charged or defended. Over time, Chickamauga became pinned to those two horrific days by the monuments, like some specimen in a museum.
It’s really two things that combine to allow us to reach back and imagine – no doubt poorly – what must have been endured: the preserved place itself, and words; words from the men who fought and from historians since. My guiding tome was Peter Cozzens’, ‘This Terrible Sound’. When I pitched up in 2013, I knew the battle through the great care with which he had understood and recounted it. And with the place preserved as it is, I was able to step into the woods at the exact spot where my adopted regiment, the 125th Ohio, went into battle on the first day, walk along the line of their charge on the second, and sit to contemplate on Snodgrass Hill where they had been part of the Union’s final stubborn stand.
An aunt of mine passed away last month. Mrs Joyce Sayer. She had worked at Bletchley Park, Bedfordshire, during WWII decoding Nazi radio signals. She became a hut leader before she was twenty and kept this to herself for fifty years until it was no longer an official secret. Mixed in with my sadness at losing her I discerned my regret at not having counted as she did. She made a difference when it mattered. Perhaps that is a clue to my fascination with America’s great Civil War, a time America’s future, when the very definition of freedom, was on the line.
But Cozzens’ book is named as it is to remind us we should not, even for a moment, wish ourselves back there. The ‘terrible sound’ he refers to is the cry of the wounded soldiers who were unable to crawl away from the fires that swept the woods in the night. The sights and sounds of the day would have been equally grim. I remember I took myself to sit on the battlefield at dusk, alone with the monuments, trying to edge a little closer to the past. Ironically the great battlefield of Chickamauga has become a place of peace in a busy world, a place for reflection. People find it so hard to cope with modern life. Some of my friends have read books or taken classes in ‘mindfulness’, a means of focusing on and appreciating the moment: the present. It has its value. But I think we also need places like Chickamauga, places we can contemplate the past: ‘hindfulness.’ I certainly do.