- “I Yield to No Man an Iota of My Convictions”Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and the Limits of Reconciliation
Thirty-two years after the first Union invasion, the boys in blue—now aging veterans—again wound their way to Chattanooga. This time, instead of slow, laborious marches, they rode in palace cars along the restored railroads; instead of hardtack and bacon, they dined in first-class restaurants; and instead of camping in the mud and snow, they slept in Pullman berths.1 But this trip would be markedly different than that of November 1863 in another powerful way. In September 1895, Union veterans would meet with their former enemies on the fields of Chickamauga and Chattanooga not in battle but in peace. Together they would dedicate the first national military park in the name of all Americans.
For months, the park commission had exerted tremendous effort into ensuring that both Union and Confederate interests were equally represented in the processions and dedication services. As they hoped, the three-day festivities proved overwhelmingly reconciliationist in nature. The orators had, for the most part, emphasized the courage of soldiers who wore the blue and gray, stressing the fraternity and unity evident upon the field. Many had likewise remained silent on the divisive issues of the war’s causation and the tumultuous aftermath of Reconstruction focusing instead on the movements of armies in excruciating detail. But contrary to the park planners’ vision, even at an event carefully orchestrated to emphasize reconciliation, lingering animosities and a fierce attachment to the respective Union and Lost Causes could not be entirely suppressed.
Since the establishment of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, many historians have overlooked the persistence of sectional discord evident in both the planning and dedication of the battlefield. In recent years, scholars of Civil War memory have touted the park as evidence of the reconciliationist spirit that enveloped the nation in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The accepted narrative of reconciliation suggests an increasing momentum toward amicable relations beginning in the 1880s between Union and Confederate veterans through shared [End Page 394] northern and southern ideas about honor, bravery, and white supremacy.2 Central to this process, many scholars argue, was a willingness to overlook the issues that had precipitated the war and a silence about who was right (and by extension, who was wrong) in the conflict. By the 1890s, the Union Cause, with its emphasis on preserving the republic and ending slavery had been largely forgotten. To bind up the nation’s wounds, Union veterans had elected to ignore the role of slavery and emancipation. Simultaneously, the Lost Cause had triumphed by locking arms with sentiments that extolled the battlefield bravery and valor of all (white) soldiers. Reconciliation, these scholars contend, offered both a white-washed memory of the war and vision of sectional healing on Confederate terms.3
But even at the nation’s first national military park, this vision of sectional harmony premised on amnesia of the war’s causes and outcome was not absolute. U.S veterans adamantly not only espoused the righteousness of the Union cause, but they also readily held that the Confederate cause had been wrong and without moral worth. They likewise refused to ignore that slavery had both prompted and been abolished by the war. For them the task of saving the Union could not be separated from that of ending slavery.4 Union veterans had not capitulated to the Lost Cause; rather, the proverbial hand-shaking over the bloody chasm vindicated their cause of preserving the Union. Confederate veterans, too, refused to hold their tongue, to embrace the “blue-gray gush” if it meant denouncing their own cause. This was hardly the reconciliationist love-fest devoid of antagonism and bitter memories planned by park promoters and acclaimed by historians. Instead, the creation and dedication of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park revealed that reconciliationist sentiment might have gained popularity during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, but it was never so linear, without contention, or as dominant as historians have contended.
On September 19, 1863, William S. Rosecrans’s Union Army of the Cumberland...