A Chickamauga Memorial: The Establishment of America’s First Civil War National Military Park
By Timothy B. Smith
(November 2009 Civil War News)
Illustrated, maps, index, 211 pp., 2009. University of Tennessee Press, 110 Conference Center, 600 Henley St., Knoxville, TN 37996, $43 plus shipping.
Over the past few years Timothy B. Smith has established himself as one of the leading authorities on the initial preservation of Civil War battlefields in the 1890s. He has previously written about the formation of Shiloh (This Great Battlefield of Shiloh: History, Memory, and the Establishment of a Civil War National Military Park) and the initial period of preservation (The Golden Age of Battlefield Preservation: The Decade of the 1890’s and the Establishment of America’s First Five Military Parks).
Now he has tackled the first battlefield that became a National Military Park, Chickamauga.
Even though battlefield preservation efforts began very early in some instances it wasn’t until the 1890s that the effort began seriously. In 1888 two Union veterans of Chickamauga, Henry Van Ness Boynton and Ferdinand Van Derveer, toured the battlefield and decided that Chickamauga should be preserved.
There were already efforts at Gettysburg to preserve that battlefield but what made Boynton and Van Derveer’s idea different was that they wanted to preserve the entire battlefield. Gettysburg’s efforts were focused only on saving Union positions, while the newly hatched plan for Chickamauga was preserve both sides’ positions.
Boynton was in a unique position to make this happen. He was the Washington correspondent for the Cincinnati Gazette, founder of the Gridiron Club and friendly with many national politicians. He also was a staunch defender of the Army of the Cumberland, and had written a rebuttal against William T. Sherman’s memoirs.
When Boynton returned home from his battlefield tour he threw himself into the effort to create a national military park at Chickamauga, which also intended to include sites in Chattanooga. He started with articles in the Cincinnati Gazette, which were eventually published in book form. He also lobbied politicians to spend federal money on creating the park, another new way of preserving a battlefield.
When his efforts to convince Congress to pass legislation creating the park succeeded they turned to Boynton to write the bill. With no guide to follow he created a bill that needed few changes and would be the template for future battlefield park legislation as four other battlefields became national parks in the 1890s.
Boynton was then selected as the first park historian. From this position he would greatly influence how the story of the battle was told. No plaque or monument could be placed during his watch without his approval.
The fight on Snodgrass Hill took on greater prominence in the Chickamauga story and it was no coincidence that Boynton’s regiment, the 35th Ohio, had fought there. There were obviously controversies over positions but Boynton almost always prevailed.
Interestingly, the way Boynton preserved both battlefields was different. At Chickamauga the entire battlefield was purchased, sometimes through condemnation proceedings. At Chattanooga only land along roadways with some small side parcels was preserved. This was done primarily because Chattanooga had grown in the intervening years and huge parcels of land could not be purchased.
This method was first copied at Antietam and became known as the Antietam Plan but Smith argues, quite correctly, that it should be called the Chattanooga Plan. Within both units of the park both methods of preservation were utilized.
Since the 1890s preservation efforts, nationally and locally, mainly followed the Chattanooga Plan. In recent decades preservationists have gone back to Boynton’s original idea of preserving huge tracts of land.
It was not long after Chickamauga became a park that the Spanish-American War began. The U.S. Army needed areas to train and garrison soldiers before sending them to Cuba. Chickamauga became one of these sites. Over 70,000 passed through the park on their way to the war. Their presence damaged roads and left a mess behind.
A few years later the Army would build Fort Oglethorpe just north of the park. The park was still used for maneuvers but the total impact was lessened. The park was again used as a staging ground for World War I, with 60,000 troops using the park. Trenches were dug on Snodgrass Hill to simulate the trench warfare the men would see in Europe.
In 1933 FDR transferred the park to the Interior Department and it would not be used by the troops for World War II.
Smith’s book in some respects can be considered a biography of Boynton as Boynton was the prime moving force in the early days of the park. From 1888 until his death in 1905 there probably was no other man who was more active in park activities than Boynton. In fact one wonders if Smith might write a biography of Boynton sometime in the future.
I have one minor complaint about Smith’s book. It is that he ends the story with the 1933 transfer to the Interior Department. He does a brief recap of events at the park since then but I wish there was more.
I do understand it, however, as Smith’s goal was to write about the formation of the first national military park and that story is over by 1933. I think this book is a worthwhile addition for anyone with an interest in Chickamauga or who has visited our national battlefield parks and wondered how it all got started.
Nicholas Kurtz graduated from the University of Colorado-Denver in 2001 with a B.A. in history. He loves wandering battlefields and is an aspiring author. Although he finds all aspects of the war interesting his primary interest is the Western Theater.