- Conflicting Memories on the “River of Death”: The Chickamauga Battlefield and the Spanish-American War, 1863–1933 by Bradley S. Keefer
Civil War battles and battlefields have become popular subjects for historians interested in how the veterans and subsequent generations of Americans remembered and commemorated their civil war. Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Bull Run, Milliken’s Bend, and the Crater are just a few of the sites that have received attention. Bradley Keefer’s study of the history and memory of the battles along the Chickamauga Creek in 1863 is not the first, but it is the most comprehensive, even if it is not always convincing. [End Page 186]
The author’s analysis of the 1863 Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaign will satisfy most readers interested in the soldier’s experience as well as the broader tactical and strategic decisions that shaped the battle’s outcome. Despite an eventual Union victory along Missionary Ridge, both armies were left with commanders with damaged reputations and others who rose to the challenge. Keefer pays particular attention to the bloody fighting on September 19 and 20, including the fighting at “Snodgrass Hill,” and to officers such as General George H. Thomas, “The Rock of Chickamauga”; and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Boynton of the Thirty-Fifth Ohio, who would play such an important role in shaping postwar memory and sorting out who would receive praise and blame for their performances. Boynton and fellow veterans of the Army of the Cumberland took the lead in shaping the early memory of the battle, organizing reunions of Confederate and Union veterans and the eventual dedication of a new national military park in 1895.
Readers familiar with the recent historiography of Civil War memory will likely question Keefer’s analysis of the postwar period leading to the dedication of the park. No one will deny that organizers, including Boynton, hoped to dedicate a park around the themes of reunion and reconciliation. Evidence to this effect fits neatly into the interpretive framework of David Blight’s Race and Reunion (2001), but in recent years historians have questioned the extent to which reconciliation was accepted and divisive topics such as slavery and emancipation were intentionally ignored. Keefer acknowledges the work of John Neff, but the timing of the publication of this book likely made it difficult to take into consideration more recent scholarship from Caroline Janney, Barbara Gannon, M. Keith Harris, and others.
The 1895 dedication ceremony at Chickamauga witnessed a great deal of bitterness among the veterans even as organizers worked to maintain a veneer of mutual respect. Former Confederates such as Alexander P. Stewart objected to a proposed inscription on the Second Minnesota Volunteer Infantry’s monument (“The Union, it must and shall be preserved”) as “a violation of both the letter and spirit” of accepted regulations cautioning against any references to the cause of the war. Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois reminded his audience that “the principle these men fought for meant the perpetuation of human slavery.” Alabama governor William C. Oates could not resist blaming the North’s Puritans for “drench[ing] the land in blood” as a result of their “aggressive fanaticism.” Even Boynton himself had not lost sight of why they fought: “I yield to no man an iota of my convictions.”1 Reliance on Blight alone offers little [End Page 187] opportunity to make sense of such sentiments at the end of the nineteenth century.
Shortly after the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, the Chickamauga battlefield witnessed another large influx of soldiers, this time in preparation for overseas deployment. While the author illustrates the details of life in camp, including the boredom of drill and the outbreak of diseases resulting from close quarters and inadequate sanitation, it is not always clear how these details connect to memory of the Civil War. The men may have spent time hunting for relics and exploring monuments, but it is not at all clear that those stationed on the...