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Conflicting Memories on the “River of Death”

The Chickamauga Battlefield and the Spanish-American War, 1863–1933

Bradley S. Keefer

Publication Year: 2012

How veterans of two wars constructed contrasting meanings for one sacred landscapeOn September 19 and 20, 1863, the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee fought a horrific battle along Chickamauga Creek in northern Georgia. Although the outcome of this chaotic slugfest was a stunning Confederate victory, the campaign ended with a resounding Union triumph at Chattanooga. The ill-fated Army of Tennessee never won another major battle, while the Army of the Cumberland was ultimately separated from its beloved commander, George H. Thomas.

Beginning with an account of the fierce fighting in 1863, author Bradley Keefer examines how the veterans of both sides constructed memories of this battle during the three decades leading to the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. By preserving this most prominent battlefield, the former foes created a sacred, commemorative landscape that memorialized mutual valor, sacrifice, and sectional reconciliation.

Three years after the park’s 1895 dedication, the War Department made the Chickamauga battlefield the main training site for volunteer troops during the Spanish-American War and temporarily renamed it Camp George H. Thomas. Firsthand accounts by the camp’s soldiers initially reinforced the heroic connections between the Civil War and the war with Spain. However, rapidly deteriorating conditions at the camp contributed to a typhoid fever epidemic that killed over 700 men. The resulting scandal created a rift between the Civil War veterans, led by park founder Henry V. Boynton, and the disgruntled Spanish-American War soldiers who claimed that the park was unhealthy, the War Department negligent, and the deaths unnecessary.

The aging Civil War veterans worked tirelessly to restore the park to its former condition by obliterating the remnants of Camp George H. Thomas and obscuring its place in memory. For the veterans of the Spanish-American War, the ambiguous memories surrounding their ordeal at Camp George H. Thomas reflected their inability to make a significant dent in the nation’s collective consciousness. The neglect and victimization that many Spanish and Philippine war veterans felt they had endured at the camp continued well into the twentieth century as they and their accomplishments were gradually overshadowed by the legacy of the Civil War and the epic significance of the two World Wars.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiv

When I started this project ten years ago I was interested in getting to the bottom of one burning question: Why is Chickamauga not like Gettysburg? Offhand, the answer seemed simple. Gettysburg is one of the most well-known, and certainly one of the more important, events in American history; ...

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Introduction: The Battlefields are the Memories

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pp. 1-10

This is a book about a battle, three armies, two wars, and one battlefield. It is a story of heroism and despair, victory and defeat, reconciliation and rejection. It spans nearly seventy years and includes four U.S. presidents, several secretaries of war, a host of generals, and thousands of regular Americans from all walks of life ...

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1. "The Consequences Will Be Momentous"

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pp. 11-24

In the fall of 1863, two huge armies engaged in a bloody, titanic struggle near a meandering creek in northern Georgia known to some by its Cherokee name as the “River of Death.” For the Union and Confederate soldiers who experienced this pivotal Civil War battle, the “River of Death” accurately described the mayhem ...

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2. "The Fate of the Army Depended on This Charge"

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pp. 25-49

If the reputation and identity of armies was based on their combat experiences, then both the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee should have gone into the summer of 1863 fully confident in themselves. Both had been in serious battles the previous year, but neither had achieved decisive results. ...

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3. "œThe Grandest [Cause] That Ever Rose, the Purest That Ever Fell"

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pp. 50-63

It would take several decades after the cessation of hostilities before the veterans of the battles around Chattanooga could fully construct memories of the war and define its meaning. However, the construction of memories that began in the woods, fields, and hills surrounding the “River of Death” continued even as the fighting raged for another eighteen months. ...

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4. "Stamp Out Venerable Falsehoods"

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pp. 64-84

The process of memory construction in the decades after the end of the Civil War was often uneven and inconsistent due to the differences between northern and southern perspectives and unresolved social and political issues. The focus on death and the common soldier helped generate the first waves of commemoration ...

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5. "Offering Your Lives . . . in Vindication of Your Manhood"

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pp. 85-106

The veterans of the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of Tennessee faced daunting challenges in the preservation of their organizational identities and the construction of postwar memories. Having been the victim of reorganization and the dispersal of its key units, the Army of the Cumberland barely existed as a single entity at the end of the war. ...

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6. "œNo Place for Lovers to Bide Tryst"

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pp. 107-127

There can be little doubt that Henry Boynton was the right man in the right place at the perfect time for the creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. He possessed the incentive, the connections, the hard-headed determination, and the driving self-interest to take a good idea and turn it into a 7,000-acre reality in the span of seven years. ...

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7. "œA Maker of Glorious History"`

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pp. 128-136

The creation and dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park represented a significant accomplishment for the veterans, the Chattanooga community, the War Department, and the nation as a whole. For the soldiers on both sides who had fought in the fields and hills around Chattanooga, ...

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8. "œTo Cement Forever the Bondsof Sectional Reunion"

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pp. 137-152

The causes of America’s War with Spain can be divided into several major categories. The diplomatic reasons generally have to do with Spain’s presence in the western hemisphere in direct violation of the Monroe Doctrine. Its apparently despotic rule over Cuba a mere ninety miles from the United States ...

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9. "It Is Terrible That Man Is Such a Brute"

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pp. 153-176

The patriotism, reunion spirit, and martial enthusiasm that accompanied the outbreak of war in April 1898 corresponded with the interests and memories of the nation’s aging Civil War veterans. The popular public image of a reunited nation rescuing oppressed people by facing down a foreign foe was enhanced by the promotion of former Confederates ...

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10. "What They Will Do with Us Now Is a Mystery"

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pp. 177-187

As June rolled into July 1898, the situation at Camp George H. Thomas could still be viewed by the War Department as a success. In less than three months, it had transported, housed, equipped, fed, and trained over 75,000 regular and volunteer soldiers from all three branches of the army. ...

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11. "œGround Unfit for Men to Live On"

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pp. 188-213

Death is an inevitable consequence of war and the key element in the construction of war memories. Unlike the Civil War, where the combined casualties from wounds, combat, and disease accumulated over a four-year period, the War with Spain produced a disproportionate number of fatalities due to sickness in a very short stretch of time. ...

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12. "œOne Huge Pest House"

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pp. 214-231

By September 1898 the only troops left at Camp Thomas were the two regiments of “immunes” that had originally trained in Knoxville and a handful of typhoid patients at Sternberg Hospital. The rest of the volunteers who filled the grounds of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park between May and August ...

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13. "A Lunacy Worthy of France"

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pp. 232-248

The public and political fallout from the army’s health issues, the beef scandal, anti-imperialist opposition to the treaty ending the war with Spain, and the lingering bloodshed of the Philippine insurrection made the construction of memories much more complicated in the years immediately following the War with Spain. ...

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14. "œWhere American Valor Met American Valor"

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pp. 249-270

Henry Boynton’s defense of the park and the criticisms he leveled at General Miles and the soldiers who complained about their service in the War with Spain were the latest in a long series of efforts by the Army of the Cumberland’s veterans to uphold the honor and memory of their Civil War service. ...

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15. "œThrough the Most Trying Ordeals"

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pp. 271-282

By 1906, Henry Boynton and his fellow Civil War veterans had successfully forged a functional relationship between the commemorative and practical uses of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. In doing so, they perpetuated memories of the 1898 occupation of the park that matched the official version of the War with Spain, ...

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Epilogue: œClose of the Battle” 7:30 p.m.

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pp. 283-286

I made my most recent visit to the Chickamauga battlefield on a sweltering day in June 2010. As on my previous excursions, I spent the first few hours tromping around the first-day field, trying to make sense of the chaotic fighting that had raged in the woods and thickets along the “River of Death.” ...

Appendix A: Order of the Battle: Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga

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pp. 287-294

Appendix B: U.S. Troops at Camp George H. Thomas: Major General John R. Brook

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pp. 295-299

Appendix C: Selected Legislation Pertaining to the Establishment and Maintenance of the Park

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pp. 300-306


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pp. 307-368


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pp. 369-396


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pp. 397-406

E-ISBN-13: 9781612776293
E-ISBN-10: 1612776299
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606351260

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park (Ga. and Tenn.) -- History.
  • Chickamauga, Battle of, Ga., 1863.
  • Chattanooga, Battle of, Chattanooga, Tenn., 1863.
  • Battlefields -- Conservation and restoration -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Historic preservation -- United States -- Case studies.
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