Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
Spring Notes From Tennessee
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo


THE street cars that run through the open valley country from Chattanooga to Missionary Ridge, pass between two places of peculiar interest to Northern visitors, — Orchard Knob on the left, and the national cemetery on the right. Of these, the Knob remains in all the desolation of war-time; unfenced, and without so much as a tablet to inform the stranger where he is and what was done here; a low, round-topped hill, dry, stony, thin-soiled, with outcropping ledges and a sprinkling of stunted cedars and pines. Some remains of rifle-pits are its only monument, unless we reckon as such a cedar rather larger than its fellows, which must have been of some size thirty years ago, and now bears the marks of abundant hard usage.

The hill was taken by the Federal troops on the 23d of November, 1863, by way of “overture to the battle of Chattanooga,” Grant, Thomas, Hooker, Granger, Howard, and others overlooking the engagement from the ramparts of Fort Wood. The next day, as all the world knows, Hooker’s men carried Lookout Mountain, while the multitude below, hearing the commotion, wondered what could be going on above them, till suddenly the clouds lifted, and behold, the Confederates were in full flight. Then, says an eyewitness, there “went up a mighty cheer from the thirty thousand in the valley, that was heard above the battle by their comrades on the mountain.” On the day following, for events followed each other fast in that spectacular campaign, Grant and Thomas had established themselves on Orchard Knob, and late in the afternoon the Union army, exceeding its orders, stormed Missionary Ridge, put the army of Bragg to sudden rout, and completed one of the really decisive victories of the war.

For a man who wishes to feel the memory of that stirring time there is no better place than Orchard Knob, where Grant stood and anxiously watched the course of the battle, a battle of which he declared that it was won “under the most trying circumstances presented during the war.” For my own part, I can see the man himself as I read the words of one who was there with him. The stormers of Missionary Ridge, as I have said, after making the demonstration they had been ordered to make, kept on up the slope, thinking “the time had come to finish the battle of Chickamauga.” “As soon as this movement was seen from Orchard Knob,” writes General Fullerton, “Grant turned quickly to Thomas, who stood by his side, and I heard him say angrily, ‘Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?’ Thomas replied in his usual slow, quiet manner, ‘I don’t know; I did not.’ Then, addressing General Gordon Granger, he said, ‘Did you order them up, Granger?’ ‘No,’ said Granger; ‘they started up without orders. When those fellows get started all hell can’t stop them.’” In the heat of battle a soldier may be pardoned, I suppose, if his speech smells of sulphur; and after the event an army is hardly to be censured for beating the enemy a day ahead of time. I speak as a civilian. Military men, no doubt, find insubordination, even on the right side, a less pardonable offense; a fact which may explain why General Grant, in his history of the battle, written many years afterward, makes no mention of this its most dramatic incident, so that the reader of his narrative would never divine but that everything had been done according to the plans and orders of the general in command.

Orders or no orders, the fight was won. That was more than thirty years ago. It was now a pleasant May afternoon, the afternoon of Mayday itself. The date, indeed, was the immediate occasion of my presence. I had started from Chattanooga with the intention of going once more to Missionary Ridge, which just now offered peculiar attractions to a stranger of ornithological proclivities. But the car was full of laughing, smartly dressed colored people; they were bound for the same place, it appeared, on their annual picnic; and, being in a quiet mood, I took the hint and dropped out by the way.

There was much to feel but little to see at Orchard Knob; and yet I recall two plants that I found there for the first time; a low gromwell (Lithospermum canescens), with clustered bright yellow flowers, and an odd and homely greenish milkweed (Asclepias obovata). The yarrow-leaved ragwort was there also, and the tall blue baptisia; but as well as I can recollect, not one dainty and modest nosegay-blossom; not even the houstonia, which seemed to grow everywhere, though after a strangely sparse and depauperate fashion. As I said to begin with, the Knob is a desolate place. It made me think of the Scriptural phrase about “the besom of destruction.” I can imagine that mourners of the “Lost Cause,” if such there still be, might see upon it the signs of a place accursed.

Far otherwise is it with the national cemetery. That is a spot of which the nation takes care. Here are shaven lawns, which, nevertheless, you are permitted to walk over; and shrubbery and trees, both in grateful profusion, but not planted so thickly as to make the inclosure either a wood or a garden; and where the ledge crops out, it is pleasingly and naturally draped with vines of the Virginia creeper. One thing I noticed upon the instant; there were no English sparrows inside the wall. The city is overrun with them beyond anything I have seen elsewhere; within two hundred feet of the cemetery gate, as I passed out, there were at least two hundred sparrows; but inside, on three visits, I saw not one! How this exemption had been brought about, I did not learn; but it makes of the cemetery a sort of heavenly place. I felt the silence as the sweetest of music (it was a Sunday afternoon), and thought instantly of Comus and his “prisoned soul” lapped in Elysium. If I knew whom to thank, I would name him.

A mocking-bird, aloft upon the topmost twig of a tall willow near the entrance, was pouring forth a characteristic medley, in the midst of which he suddenly called wick-a-wick, wick-a-wick, in the flicker’s very happiest style. “So flickers must now and then come to Chattanooga,” I said to myself, for up to that time I had seen none. It was a pleasure to hear this great songster of the South singing above these thousands of Northern graves. It seemed right; for time and the event will prove, if, indeed, they have not proved already, that the South, even more than the North, has reason to be glad of the victory which these deaths went far to win.

A tablet on one of the cannons which stand upright on the highest knoll informs visitors that the cemetery was “established” in 1863. The number of burials is given as 12,876, of which nearly five thousand are of bodies unidentified. A great proportion of the stones bear nothing but a number. On others is a name, or part of a name, with the name of the State underneath. One I noticed that was inscribed: —

N. Y.

An attendant of whom I inquired if any New England men were here, answered that there were a few members of the Thirty-third Massachusetts. I hope the New Englanders resident in Chattanooga do not forget them on Memorial Day.

Twice in the year, at least, the place has many Northern visitors. They arrive on wings, mostly by night, and such of them as came under my eye acted as if they appreciated the quiet of the inclosure, a quiet which their own presence made but the more appreciable. Scattered over the lawns were silent groups of white-throated sparrows, — on their way to New Hampshire, perhaps, or it might be to upper Michigan; and not far from the entrance, and almost directly under the mocking-bird, were two or three white-crowned sparrows, the only ones found in Tennessee. On an earlier visit (April 29) I saw here my only Tennessee robins — five birds; and most welcome they were. Months afterward, a resident of Missionary Ridge wrote to me that a pair had nested in the cemetery that year, though to his great regret he did not know of it till too late. He had never seen a robin’s nest, he added, and was acquainted with the bird only as a migrant. Such are some of the deprivations of life in eastern Tennessee. May and June without robins or song sparrows!

On the last of my three visits, a small flock of black-poll warblers were in the trees, and two of them gave me a pleasant little surprise by dropping to the ground, and feeding for a long time upon the lawn. That was something new for black-polls, so far as my observation had gone, and an encouraging thing to look at: another sign, where all signs are welcome, that the life of birds is less strictly instinctive less a matter of inherited habit, and more a matter of personal intelligence — than has commonly been assumed. In general, no doubt, like human beings, they do what their fathers did, what they themselves have done heretofore. So much is to be expected, since their faculties and desires remain the same, and they have the same world to live in; but when exceptional circumstances arise, their conduct becomes exceptional. In other words, they do as a few of the quicker-witted among men do — suit their conduct to altered conditions. A month ago I should have said, after years of acquaintance, that no birds could be more strictly arboreal than golden-crowned kinglets. But recently, I happened upon a little group of them that for a week or more fed persistently on the ground in a certain piece of wood. Then and there, for some reason, food was plentiful on the snow and among the dead leaves; and the kinglets had no scruples about following where duty called them.

At the same time a friend of mine, a young farmer, was at his winter’s work in the woods; and being alone, and a lover of birds, he had taken a fancy to experiment with a few chickadees, to see how tame a little encouragement would make them. A flock of five came about him day after day, at luncheon-time, and by dint of sitting motionless he soon had two of them on terms of something like intimacy; so that they would alight on his hand and help themselves to a feast. He was not long in discovering, and reporting to me, that they carried much of the food to the trees round about, and packed it into crannies of the bark.

Are you sure of that?” I asked.

Oh, yes,” he answered; “I saw them do it, and then I went to the trees and found the crumbs.”

Did any one ever suspect the chickadee of such providence? If so, I never heard of it; and it is more likely, I think, that the birds had never before done anything of the sort; but now, finding suddenly a supply far in excess of the demand (one day they ate and carried away half a doughnut), they had sense enough to improve the opportunity. What they had done, or had not done, in times past, was nothing to the point, since they were creatures not of memory alone, but of intelligence and a measure of reason.

Beside the unmistakable migrants, — white-throats, white-crowns, and black-polls, — there were numbers of more southern birds in the national cemetery. Among them I noticed a yellow-billed cuckoo, crow blackbirds, orchard orioles, summer tanagers, catbirds, a thrasher, a bluebird, wood pewees, chippers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, yellow war-biers, wood thrushes, and chats. All these looked sufficiently at home except the chats; and it helps to mark the exceeding abundance of these last in the Chattanooga region that they should show themselves without reserve in a spot so frequented and so wanting in close cover. One of the orioles sang in the manner of a fox sparrow, while one that sang daily under my window, on Cameron Hill, never once suggested that bird, but often the purple finch. The two facts offer a good idea of this fine songster’s quality and versatility. The organ tones of the yellow-throated vireo and the minor whistle of the wood pewee were sweetly in harmony with the spirit of the place, a spirit hard fully and exactly to express, a mingling of regret and exultation. What mattered it that all these men had perished, as it seemed, before their time? — that so many of them were lying in nameless graves? We shall all die; few of us so worthily; and when we are gone, of what use will be a name upon a stone, a name which, after a few years at the most, no passer-by will be concerned to read? Happy is he who dies to some purpose. It would have been good, I thought, to see over the cemetery gate the brave old Latin sentence, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

The human visitors, of whom one day there might have been a hundred, were largely people of color. All were quiet and orderly, in couples and family groups. Most of them, I remarked, went to look at the only striking monument in the grounds, a locomotive and tender (the “General”) on a pedestal of marble — “Ohio’s Tribute to the Andrews Raiders, 1862.” On three faces of the pedestal are lists of the “exchanged,” the “executed,” and the “escaped.”

One thing, one only, grated upon my feelings. In a corner of the inclosure is the Superintendent’s house, with a stable and out-buildings; and at the gate the visitor is suddenly struck in the face with this notice in flaring capitals: KEEP OUT! THIS MEANS YOU! That is brutality beyond excuse. But perhaps it answers its purpose. For my own part, I got out of the neighborhood as quickly as possible. I liked better the society of the graves; at such a price a dead soldier was better than a live superintendent; and to take the unpleasant taste out of my mouth I stopped to read again a stanza on one of the metal tablets set at intervals along the driveway:

On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
The bivouac of the dead.”

Far be the day when these Southern fields of Northern graves shall fall into forgetfulness and neglect.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.