Interpreting the Scenic City: Fables and Fundamentals at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

by Bryan & Heather

In the last week of 2022, Bryan and Heather embarked on a whirlwind trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee. This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on the history they encountered there, and the ways in which it was related to the public. The first can be found here.

Ever since moving to Birmingham, Alabama, a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee has been on Bryan’s must-do list. While he has been able to visit most of the major battlefields of the American Civil War’s Eastern theater, he has only begun to make his way through the Western theater in recent years, and living only a couple of hours away from both Chattanooga and Chickamauga, two of the climactic battles of late 1864, was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was a visit to these battlefields (both contained within the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park) that was the driving force behind our 2022 visit to Tennessee, and as travel plans worked out, it was Chickamauga that was our very first attraction as we made our way up from the south.

Even before entering the Chickamauga visitors’ center (the main center for the park; a small additional annex exists on Lookout Mountain to orient visitors to the battles for Chattanooga), we were impressed with what we saw. An imposing line of artillery, all with accompanying plaques, introduced newcomers to Civil War history to all the different types of ordnance along with their function and prevalence in each army. Off to the side, a massive sign oriented visitors to not only the types of signage they’d see on the battlefield but the military terminology used throughout the park, including and especially the size and organization of Civil War units from company to corps level. Just inside the doors, we were greeted by displays of the experiences of soldiers and civilians written in their own words, some available to be read aloud through button-activated voice boxes. As we waited for the next showing of the park film, we idly browsed the book store–and found it to be easily the best we’d seen at a park in years, filled not only with souvenirs but a wealth of high quality academic monographs alongside more popular, but no less good, histories.

As we took our seats for the film, then, we had every reason to think we had found a new favorite, a hidden interpretive gem here along the line between the upper and deep South. The movie’s first lines only reinforced our hopes, talking about the great fissures caused by slavery, with their origins decades before the 1860s. But then, tragedy. Secession and the opening of the war were nearly ignored; slavery ceased to be a topic of even passing interest; and some of the campiest reenacting-acting we’ve seen began to illustrate a story more concerned with the shared horrors and tragedies of war (a message that would be difficult to convey without eliding what that war actually fought over). As we left the theater and progressed through the museum, our dismay only grew. Issues of slavery and race were not ignored, per se, but it was clear that, as the first officially established national military park and the scene of some of the most high-profile reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans after the war, Chickamauga’s interpretive mandate was to reinforce the healing of the nation’s wounds–and not ask too many difficult questions about the legacies of the nature of that healing. Here, in a modern NPS visitors center, it was as if we were watching a reenactment of David Blight’s seminal history Race and Reunion: the necessary racial questions of the American Civil War, sacrificed on the altar of sectional reconciliation.

After going from such highs to such lows at the visitors’ center, the rest of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga battlefields proved to be somewhere in between the two. The former was happily well preserved, and while that meant we easily understood how tangled sightlines and errors of communication could have played such a role on both sides in 1864, it also meant it could be difficult to grasp the battle’s full panorama. The opposite problem persisted in Chattanooga where, like many urban or urban-adjacent sites, we found ourselves conducting more of a scavenger hunt for scattered enclaves and monuments than a full battlefield drive. Ascending Lookout Mountain to view the entire city laid out below us was a real treat, however (though perhaps not worth the price of admission we would have paid had we not had an annual NPS pass). For those hunting for even more information, both battlefields also boasted some of the most detailed casualty markers we’ve ever seen, breaking things down into killed, wounded, and missing for both armies for each engagement.

There are two kinds of average: a group of values clustered close to each other, and two wildly different values that meet in the middle. Our experience at Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP was more of the latter. Parks around the country can take lessons from Chickamauga’s outstandingly accessible interpretive signage, yet at the same time those same parks could offer a wealth of improvement for Chickamauga’s larger interpretive methods. It was certainly one of our more unique visits, and while we certainly don’t regret our trip, we would classify this park as one where preparation and outside reading are recommended before experiencing in person.

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