William Glenn Robertson: Seeing the Ground

River of Death--The Chickamauga Campaign: Volume 1: The Fall of ChattanoogaToday we welcome a guest post from William Glenn Robertson, author of River of Death–The Chickamauga Campaign:  Volume 1: The Fall of Chattanooga, just published by UNC Press.

The Battle of Chickamauga was the third bloodiest of the American Civil War and the only major Confederate victory in the conflict’s western theater. It pitted Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee against William S. Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland and resulted in more than 34,500 casualties. In this first volume of an authoritative two-volume history of the Chickamauga campaign, William Glenn Robertson provides a richly detailed narrative of military operations in southeastern and eastern Tennessee as two armies prepared to meet along the “River of Death.”

River of Death–The Chickamauga Campaign:  Volume 1: The Fall of Chattanooga is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Seeing the Ground

Although I first saw Chickamauga as a child in 1954 and later as a young adult in 1966, I never really “saw” the area encompassed by the Chickamauga Campaign until I began to design an elective course called the Staff Ride at the U. S. Army’s Command and General Staff College in 1983.  One of the pillars of Army Staff Riding is to take students to the actual ground of the campaign/battle so that their perceptions of the terrain gained by reading might be refined by actually seeing the ground in person.  The first iteration of the course in the spring of 1983 only visited the battlefield itself.  While there was much to be learned from studying the battle, I believed that additional insights could be gained by visiting sites associated with the preceding month-long campaign.  The Staff College agreed to extend the field trip by one day to accommodate the campaign study in subsequent years.

In the summer of 1983, my wife and I traveled to Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to survey potential sites and routes.  Highway maps were inadequate for our purposes, as were the USGS 1:24,000 quadrangles (too detailed) or 1:250,000 (too large).  Nevertheless, we set out, with my wife driving and me attempting to correlate battle reports from the Official Records with the inadequate maps.  After getting lost a couple of times and traveling some roads we have not seen since, we finally built a satisfactory route.  Much has changed since 1863 and, indeed, since 1983, but the critical land-forms have not.  No one can truly understand what the armies of 1863 had to overcome without retracing their steps as closely as possible.

Three of the four major Federal crossing points on the Tennessee River are relatively unchanged.  The sites at Caperton’s Ferry, Bridgeport, and Battle Creek all encompass channels more or less the same width as in 1863.  Only at Shell Mound has the river been appreciably widened into a lake, displacing the railroad and highway slightly.  At Shell Mound, also, is Nickajack Cave, a now flooded but still visible cavern explored by virtually every Federal soldier that passed that way.  Rosecrans’s primary forward logistics depot, Stevenson, Alabama, retains much of its 1863 character along its main street.  The train stations of 1863 are no longer extant, and Rosecrans’s headquarters, the “Little Brick,” is just a pile of vine-covered bricks.  Also, the Alabama Hotel is no more, but a contemporary fortification, Fort Harker, still stands.

The trek of McCook’s Twentieth Corps over Sand and Lookout Mountains to Alpine, Georgia can be approximated only.  The route up Sand Mountain from the river existed as a dirt track in the 1980’s but was so bad we damaged a rental car on it during one of our recons.  The modern road ascends the mountain north of McCook’s track but generally follows it on top of the plateau.  It descends Sand Mountain into Lookout Valley south of McCook’s route, but William Winston’s imposing home in Valley Head still stands as a bed and breakfast.  Halfway up Lookout Mountain the modern road intersects a much smaller and steeper road that approximates McCook’s path and leads to the spectacular DeSoto Falls on the Little River, a landmark in 1863.  McCook’s descent at Henderson’s Gap is no longer accessible to cars, but the road intersection a few miles south of Menlo approximates Alpine’s location.  On the way north after returning to Valley Head, many Federals camped at Long’s Spring, still located beside the highway a few miles north of Winston’s.

The route of the Fourteenth Corps over Sand Mountain can be approximated on county roads from Moore’s Spring on the west side to Brown’s Spring near Trenton, Georgia.  In one or two places it is still possible to achieve the same spectacular views Federal soldiers had of the Bridgeport crossing far below.  As for the route over Lookout Mountain, Thomas’s command used Johnson’s Crook while the modern highway ascends from Trenton.  There is an unpaved road up the mountain from Johnson’s Crook, but it seems not to have followed the Federal pathway of 1863 exactly and is not recommended for casual use.  Still, the modern highway from Trenton reaches the eastern descent of Lookout Mountain in the vicinity of Stephens’s Gap.  No acceptable road uses Stephens’s Gap today.  The modern highway descending the mountain reaches the floor of McLemore’s Cove in the vicinity of Cooper’s Gap, also used by the Federals.

Crittenden’s Twenty-First Corps followed Running Water Creek from the Tennessee River to Lookout Valley through a narrow passageway between Raccoon and Sand Mountains.  It is today traversed by a paved road passing through the village of Whiteside and under the modern railroad bridge over the canyon.  The current bridge is in a slightly different location, but its massive nature replicates the earlier span with different materials.  From Whiteside, you can either follow the road into Lookout Valley or ascend Murphy’s Hollow as two of Crittenden’s divisions did.  Don’t take Scratch Ankle Road, however; it is a dead end.  In Lookout Valley, roads older than Interstate 24 will take you to Wauhatchie and up the shoulder of Lookout Mountain just as in 1863 until you descend into Chattanooga Valley.

The main thing to be learned from traversing these roads is to develop an understanding of the enormous physical effort expended by the Army of the Cumberland in crossing the Tennessee River, Sand Mountain, and Lookout Mountain on their way to Chickamauga.  No matter how fertile one’s imagination may be, it is almost impossible to get a true appreciation of the terrain challenges faced by Rosecrans’s army without actually seeing them in person.  Stand at Battle Creek and imagine crossing the Tennessee River without boats.  Stand on top of Sand Mountain and look westward to the Bridgeport railroad bridge far below.  Stand at the foot of Lookout Mountain at Stephens’s Gap and see what a trap two of Thomas’s divisions had entered unknowingly.  Words can describe, and photographs can approximate, but nothing can replace actually seeing the relevant sites.  Historians who write military history must if at all possible see the ground so as to inform their judgments and analysis.  Fortunately, the terrain associated with the Chickamauga Campaign can be seen without too much difficulty, and has the added benefit of being in one of the most scenic parts of the eastern United States.  I know my understanding of the campaign has been informed by my having traversed it so many times, and I hope yours will also.


William Glenn Robertson is the former director of the U.S Army Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  You can read his earlier UNC Press blog post here.