The stop wasn’t on my itinerary, but I find my way here nonetheless. It’s four years since I was in America and eight years since I was at Chickamauga in the very north of Georgia, just across the Tennessee line from Chattanooga. I’ve finally made it out to check details for my third book, Tigers in Blue, the last in the Shire’s Union trilogy. The battle of Chickamauga is the epicenter of the first book, Whirligig. It’s where the 125th Ohio were christened the Tigers. This place matters to me, but I still wonder at being drawn back here.
My itinerary took me on a clockwise loop out of Nashville, on to Knoxville and then down to Decatur in Alabama, where the fastest route was via Chattanooga. Why not stretch the extra ten miles south and overnight close to the battlefield? It would be rude not to. I’d digitally booked my motel at short notice and gone bargain basement to keep down the trip cost. It was mostly basement. They had no knowledge of the booking, but there were a couple of rooms left. There was a comical series of visits to the desk to get in, get a cleaner room, understand the wi-fi code (3 trips) and finally to confirm would they like the fridge in my room left open to defrost, as I’d found it? It didn’t affect my mood. I dined at Sonic Burger and looked forward to walking the battlefield in the morning.
The weather had been in the nineties so I’m out early. There are more deer than dogwalkers out under the low sun. Aside from one 30mph state road and the smaller tour roads themselves, the battlefield is more of less as it was. Though there’s an argument to say it was even more unspoiled before 120,000 soldiers turned up to do battle here in September of 1863. The Widow Glenn, whose tiny house was commandeered as a headquarters and burned out during the fighting, would certainly have thought so.
Familiar with Chickamauga, I have no particular agenda and just enjoy the time. Like visiting an old friend. I find my way to the places that mattered to the 125th, but otherwise let my mind wander. It gets extra roving privileges in a place like this and I begin thinking on my connection to both here and to America. But for Covid I would have been here two years ago. Despite all the changes in the world, America seems to be having the same arguments as when I was last on this side of the pond (this based on my scientific sample of news outlets and talking to strangers in Nashville bars). It’s still Trump vs the establishment, race-relations more than ever, still the gun lobby verses the glaringly obvious (just a different school massacre). We have our own protracted issues in the UK, some very similar, and it makes me think how poor we are in our western societies of actually reaching a point of decision. The arguments have long since taken precedence over solutions. Exhibit A: Our clown minister was recently pictured raising a glass and toasting a room full of other drinkers on a date where he had confirmed to parliament that there was no illegal party during lockdown. After seeing the photo for the fiftieth time that day, I watched a news anchor proceed to ask the question, ‘Did the PM therefore lie to parliament?’ Well, yes. Of course he did. You just showed the proof! He’s bang to rights. Yet we’re now so trained to consider the other point of view that we’ll entertain it even if it’s plainly false and patently ludicrous. Whole nations are now confidently basing their propaganda on the fact that western media will listen and broadcast lies as often as you want to tell them. No decision, no move forward.
Maybe it’s why I find history is so attractive. We can debate on the finer points, but for the most part it’s a done deal and you can see the outcome. Chickamauga, in and of itself, settled little, except for the 37,000 men killed, wounded or missing. But put together with the thousands of other civil war engagements (mostly not on Chickamauga’s scale) two things that mattered were decided. The Union would be preserved, and state-sanctioned slavery would end. Given the war cost an estimated 750,000 lives, it makes you wonder if a little prevarication is such a bad thing. As a decision-making process, war is clearly flawed. But decades of arguments, compromises and elections failed to deal with the fundamental wrong of human bondage.
The historical resolution I enjoy while walking the gentle slopes, touching the cool stone of the monuments, finding a bird’s nest in one of the cannon, is all from a safe distance. During the long years of the war, people would have been as we are now. More so, in fact. Frustrated, frightened, angry, wanting the world to move on. When I leave Chickamauga for the three-hour drive down the Tennessee Valley to Decatur, I avoid the news channels and listen to sport instead, something else that usually ends in a result. Unless it’s cricket.
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2.