Saturday, January 26, 2019

Skulls, scarred trees: A reporter's 1882 visit to Chickamauga

Confederates advance through the woods at Chickamauga. (Alfred Waud | Library of Congress)

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As Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan walked through the bullet-scarred woods at Chickamauga, his guide told him to look down. The sight shocked him.

" I saw a skull as yellow as the stones around ...," Morgan wrote in a lengthy story about his visit to the battlefield in northwestern Georgia in the summer of 1882. "The round thing of bone, with unsightly sockets and the pitiful seeming of poor Yorick's skull, lay in a sort of hollow, with the green leaves of plantain for a pillow."

Rib bones lay nearby, more remains of a soldier who died at Chickamauga in September 1863.

"The guide obligingly offered to show me the legs  which having brought the poor devil hither failed to take him away," Morgan wrote, "but I had seen enough."

Reminders of the horrific battle appeared elsewhere, too.  On the slopes of a hill, the men found scores of large holes in the ground -- the temporary graves of soldiers.  Elsewhere, Morgan and Tom discovered burial trenches "that looked as though they must have contained whole companies."

Below is Morgan's Chickamauga visit story published in the Philadelphia Times on Sept. 4, 1882. (The correspondent's stories about his visits to the Franklin, Tenn., and Seven Days battlefields also are posted to my blog.)

Special Correspondence of The Times


When one unfolds his paper here on Chickamauga field and glances at the cable news, those absurd little dog-fights in Egypt seem as much like nothing as the letter 0 without the rim. "General Sir Garnet Wolseley reports the loss of five men killed," runs one dispatch descriptive of a battle, and as I put that line mentally in contrast with the grisly work and grand sweep of death here, there comes to mind the remark of Douglas Jerrold at the sight of a very tall woman waltzing with a Tom Thumb of a man. "Heigho!" said the wit, "there goes the mile-stone dancing with the mile." In this valley two fierce armies met in such shock of battle that men enough to people a city fell, never again to see the sun. More than five thousand died on the field and five thousand times Sir Garnet's five went, with cracked crowns, limping away.

The first glimpse at rare ground

VIDEO: IN THE FOOTSTEPS ... of Confederate Brigadier General James Deshler’s troops. Hit by a shell in the chest, Deshler was killed at Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1863 — the pyramid monument of cannon balls marks the approximate spot.

With Lookout Mountain, dark and cloud-capped, on his right, and the long, low line of Missionary Ridge on his left, the visitor finds the road of seven miles from Chattanooga hither bordered with most pleasing objects. I was surprised when Tom whipped his horse from the Rossville pike into a by-way, remarking as he snapped his lash among the bushes: "Heah we am, an' we come a-kitin'; put nigh ez fas' ez I kited way from heah 'bout twenty yeah back."

"Were you here during the battle?"

"Deed I was! Coase I diden' know nuffin, ' furr I was jess a youug' un den."

"A kid?"

"Dat's hit, dat's hit, boss; an' ef ye specs me to sling in a tech ob dat ar Yankee slang I kin let ye know dat it wa'n't no picnic 'bout dat time, nudder. 'Twan't no picnic furr a cent, nur no hay-copper, nudder. By de great ho'n spoon, dat battle wuz a time to snatch de debbel hisself bald-headed."

"Must have been hot?"

"Hot! Did ye ebber say 'scat' to a wild-cat, wid his claws a-clawin' yer wool? Nebber seed sich a hot time!"

"Tom, I'm afraid you're piling it on."

 The Game of Pow and Zip

Union Colonel Edward King, Army of the Cumberland's II Brigade commander, was killed here.
 "Wish I mout drap stone dead ont'n dis buggy ef  'taint so, ebbery wo'd ob hit," protested the darkey, slapping his knee with his palm; "doan ye see, boss, I was Moss' sarvent boy, saddled his hoss an' done dem kind o' things, lookin' out fur pone bread all do time. You know dat simmon tree we pass wile ago? Dat day Moss an' me was dar restin' when I heah suppin go 'pow!'" and Tom blew the last word from his puckered lips so that they cracked very much like the report of a rifle.

"Something go 'pow ?' "

"Dat's her," he went on, growing a bit excited, his arms sawing the air at every word and his eyeballs showing their whites at every exclamation; "dat's hit. I up an' says, kind o' peert like: 'Moss, doan' ye heah dat ? Dem's Yanks.' 'O no, yo dam little nig,' says he; 'wat yo skeered 'bout?' Den sho come agin 'p-o-w! p-o-w! p-o-w !' right slow like, an' den, by golly! ez quick ez a whissel, 'zip! zip! zip!' Git out o' heah! Git ont !' says Moss, hoppin' up in his saddle. 'Pow! zip! pow! zip! zip!' Bress de lan', honey, de woods uz ez full ob zips ez de nigger church down at Ha'd Scrabble am ob shiners, comin' quickern yo co'd wink, an' ebery zip was a Yankee bullet!"

"You got out?"

"Spee so, spee so, an' Moss he got out wid a hole in his boss' belly-band. Dat was de startin' ob de battle. Now, boss," he continued, taking the tone of the guide once more, "ef ye'll git out ob de buggy I'll show ye suppin' show  -- show ye suppin' wuff seein'."

In the Blackjack Woods

                     PANORAMA: The wooded terrain of the Chickamauga battlefield. 
                                       (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

We were riding through flat woods, the larger trees of which had been much cut up on the 19th of September, the first day of the battle. Here had occurred a series of brilliant charges and counter-charges, none of any account except that in them hundreds were slain. Most of the trees are blackjacks, which, though so hard that lightning itself scarcely can crack the wood, bear countless scars and axe-marks. The scars were made by bullets Yankee lead on one side and rebel lead on the opposite bark. The axe-marks were caused by Chattanooga darkies, who from the blackjacks and among the leaves picked thousands of pounds of valuable metal. Tom hitched his horse to a sapling in silence. Then he led the way between trees until he came to an oak as big arouud as the body of Senator David Davis. In the bark, about five feet from the roots, was a wound such as might have been made by the see-sawing of a limb swayed in the storm's fitful mood.

Tom's private corpse

In the woods of Chickamauga, Tom the Guide pointed out the skull of a soldier to the reporter. Later,
 they found another one. Above, a Civil War soldier's skull shows the effects of a bullet wound.
(Library of Congress)
"Well, Tom, that's nothing."

"Drap yer eye, sah!"

Looking down I saw a skull as yellow as the stones around, for one of which in approaching the tree I had mistaken it. The round thing of bone, with unsightly sockets and the pitiful seeming of poor Yorick's skull, lay in a sort of hollow, with the green leaves of plantain for a pillow. Lifting a broad, flat stone Tom brought to light an array of ribs still held evenly in shape like hoops around a shattered keg. The guide obligingly offered to show me the legs, which having brought the poor devil hither failed to take him away; but I had seen enough, and he fell to chatting of the merits of that particular lot of bones. He found them, he explained, while chipping a bullet from the tree a year or so ago. The bullet probably killed the soldier and there he remained and yet remains except his teeth and one jaw- bone. The latter was carried away by a son of General Breckinridge and the teeth have been picked out one by one as relics. Recently a party of women went to the place and one of them fainted at the sight.

"This seems to be your private corpse, Tom."

"Yes, sah; I'se a -- a -- what word's dat I heah 'em usin' ober in Chattanooger? Moner-- ist, or suppin."


"Monoperlis; dat's hit. I'se a monoperlis," and Tom almost shook his teeth out in loud guffaws as he chucked the skull into the hollow and moved on ahead.

What is apt to startle one

But Tom's bonanza was not the only object of the kind found in our tramp. Within a hundred yards of the first skull we saw another as round and as brown as a rusty cannon ball. A bit beyond we came to a grave where rain-washed clods failed to do their duty. Not long ago, when this grave was discovered, a letter was sent to the keeper of the nearest Federal Cemetery letting him know about it, In response a government officer came up from Atlanta and visited the grave. Reaching his hand down among the leaves he drew out a button marked " C. S. A."

"That settles it," he said and returned to Atlanta without his bag of bones.

The Union lad has his green coverlet trimmed with daisies, but the darling of his Southern mother sleeps among the brown briars on the borders of the wilderness. That it is a thumb's length only from the solemn to the grotesque was thought of when, leaving the woods for our buggy, we came upon a smooth oak board holding above a mound this inscription:

 3 or 4
C.S A 
are burred hear. 

Desolation at the field's centre

A trot of ten minutes took us out of the flat woods and along a level road with trees bordering to the Widow Glenn's place, which is the centre of the battle-field. Here [William] Rosecrans had his headquarters and here on the 20th of September, the great day of the great battle, some heavy fighting was done. The house stood on the crest of a hill, as high as any round about, and with his glass Rosecrans could see along both of his wings. As he looked to the east he could catch a glimpse of the yellow Chickamauga winding between low banks. More than two miles in front of him was [Braxton] Bragg's line of 70,000 men, there being among them [James] Longstreet and his fresh legion from Virginia. As at Murfreesboro [Alexander] McCook was on the right, and as at Murfreesboro McCook was driven in utter rout. But here Crittenden went with McCook. The whole right wing was swept from the field. Officers and men ran alike, Rosecrans with them, and some of the officers did not stop until they got to Chattanooga. It is no use to mince the meat of this issue, for it is as plain as the nose on one's face that here Rosecrans, McCook, [Thomas] Crittenden, Davis, Sheridan -- even Phil, the hero of the Winchester ride -- all got out of the way all except the admirable Lytle, whose lips were dumb iu death.

Now the place is desolate. Where the fine old farm house stood are piles of stone overgrown with horse-weed. I cast a stone into the old well to hear it go "ker-chug," but no sound came from the dark depth. The mouth of the well is half hidden in rank grass, and the rotting curb itself is half choked with the what-not of a wrecked habitation. The few garden trees that remain bear sweet peaches, and some walnuts fit to crack hang here and there, but these small evidences of former thrift serve to sadden the scenes they suggest.

The Rock of Chickamauga

Union General George Thomas,  the
 "Rock of Chickamauga."
(Library of Congress)
When half the grand army was in rout, the other half drew itself around the "Rock of Chickamauga" and withstood as wild a storm as ever split to shreds the sails of a ship of state. With Rosecrans gone [George] Thomas took foothold on the eminence known in books as Horseshoe Ridge," just beyond the Dyer house and a little out of eye-shot of the Glenn place.

I would like to picture this hill in all its outlines if I were able -- would like to make at this point a sort of red-letter mark -- for long after readers and writer are dead and gone the hill will be a place of pilgrimage, a Mecca for lovers of the brave. Now it carries its wild covering of ages, but the generations yet to spring will clear it and crown it while cannons thunder. From its crest will be lifted a pillar of stone, and thereon will stand the image of the hero. On his front pressed the enemy, on his left thousands stormed, and, like the incoming of mighty waves, line after line rolled against his right. But there Thomas stood, almost surrounded, yet with no thought of surrender, calm in the midst of the thrust, the parry, the hoarse call of man to man, the rattle of many muskets, tho roar from huge logs of iron too hot to touch, smoke that screened and reddened the September sun -- firm in the whirlpool of battle.

Sights on the famous hill

Snodgrass Hill, where George Thomas made his famous stand. (Library of Congress)
Rhetoric is rhetoric and fact is fact, and so I hasten to tell the reader that this hill with a history is known locally as Snodgrass' hill. As the worshipful knight in armor of gold walks in the same footpath as the clown with cap and bells, so the words " Snodgrass" and "the Rock of Chickamauga" walk the same chalk line of fame. Guided by Mr. Dyer I climbed the slope on the east to the spot where General Thomas stood in the thick of the battle. The whole surface of the hill is well salted and peppered with bits of flint. Growing out of the gravel are trees of several kinds -- black jack, black oak, hickory, pine and sassafras -- and the devil's shoe-string, with the roots of which one could securely bind a Samson, is found here and there among the vines. Most of the old trees are scarred and chipped.

The Union defenders of the hill fired down the slope, and while their bullets remain on one side of a tree the bullets of the enemy may be dug from the other. Hundreds of scooped-out places, like such as are, made by wallowing swine, are found on the slopes by the score. All such sinks once contained dead men, but the bones have been shoveled out to fill the cemeteries. In some places we came across burial trenches that looked as though they must have contained whole companies, so long, deep and wide do they yawn even in these days of peace when the partridge flutes among them and the whippoorwill whistles above. Three or four little grave mounds, whereof the reddish soil seemed newly turned, were objects of surprise to me until Mr. Dyer coming up explained that here on the top of the hill was the unfenced burying ground of the Snodgrass family. These are not the only undisturbed graves, for on one of the spurs of the Horseshoe is a pit containing the bodies of a dozen Union soldiers, and in the timber just at the foot of the western slope thirteen Confederate soldiers of the Fifth Kentucky lie in a row.

On the Creek of Death

Lee and Gordon's Mills on the Chickamauga battlefield. (National Archives)
It was hard to leave the great rock of the battle-field, but bruised feet and tired legs drifted of their own accord down the main slope to the buggy. Then with Tom once more at the reins we drove along several roads and came to the Chickamauga at the noted Lee and Gordon's mills. One of the millers dusted his coat as he told me why the Cherokees, whom events have made prophetic, named the narrow red stream dashing past us "Chickamauga" or, as the Cherokee Chief John Ross translated the phrase, " the creek of death."

Deer feeding in the coves of the stream would die, colts milking their creek fed mothers would turn their little hoofs to the daisies and even men who drank milk produced along the stream would suffer death. "It is 'milk-sick,' "said the miller, "more than that I don't know; the Kentucky Legislature once offered $10,000 to anyone who would get at the cause of the disease -- whether the ailing was caused by mineral or vegetable matter -- but no one knew or knows. The Cherokees suffered from it on this creek and named the stream the Chickamauga."

So passed my fancy that I had stumbled upon a legendary prophecy fulfilled. Plain facts were as cold as the water that hurried along to the Tennessee, and in a double sense it must be set down that this drain of a great battle-field is "the creek ot death."


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  1. Awesome, as always. Thanks John

  2. Fascinating. Great post.

  3. This was a terrific read, thanks for posting it. Having written a book about Horseshoe Ridge and the fighting there, I very much enjoyed reading about the reporter's experience there so long ago.

  4. God rest the Souls of Chickamauga both southern & northern sons. Amen

  5. Abraham Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died in 1818 from what was and is known as the “Milk Sickness”. This is caused by drinking the milk of cattle that have grazed on the white snakeroot plant (milkweed) that contains the toxin tremetol. The definitive conclusion that milk sickness was caused by tremetol was not determined until the early twentieth century. In 1818, all the preadolescent Abe could do was helplessly watch his mother die.