Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

It’s All About Terrain

One of the great moments for historians (amateur and, I can only assume, professional alike) is when they visit the landscape of a famous event and say “oh my God, I understand it all now!” For me, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is one such place.

Federal Camp by Tennessee RiverPeople tend to forget that old battles, battles before mechanized cavalry, helicopters, spy satellites, and unmanned drones, were all about terrain. Old strategies involved taking the high ground, controlling mountain passes, utilizing waterways for transportation and defense, and sneaking to the enemy’s position in the gloom of the morning fog. Entire wars from ancient Thermopylae to Pacific Ocean island hopping in World War II involved strategic uses of terrain to overwhelm and defeat an enemy.

In the American Civil War, Chattanooga was undoubtedly a terrain prize. It was the gateway to the Deep South manufacturing centers in Georgia. The Tennessee River was important to the transportation of goods and men, and acted as a natural defensive barrier against Union incursions. The lowlands around the river, and the natural passes through the Appalachians nearby, made it an easy place for railroad construction. Like the circulatory system of the human body, the Confederacy’s railroads were vital to its survival and its greatest vulnerability for defeat. Chattanooga developed into a great railway crossroad, and was the femoral artery of the Confederacy.

Chattanooga Battle Map

Surrounding this artery were the most famous ridgelines of the Civil War: Missionary Ridge to the east; and Lookout Mountain to the west, overlooking the Tennessee River. If anyone intended to take, and keep, the Chattanooga transportation hub, they needed to take, and keep these ridgelines. High ground is holy ground in armed conflict: gravity becomes your greatest asset. Your enemy needs to climb up to challenge you, an exhausting task by itself. In the days of the Civil War, with heavy rifles and, even worse, cannons and artillery, that task is nearly impossible. So a defender, perched high above, has an unbelievable advantage and an opportunity to rain hot death upon the enemy. Of course, having the high ground automatically makes you a target, and can button you in. Surrounding the base of the mountain traps the defenders, making them ripe for a slow death by siege. The holder of the high ground has increased chances for both life and death.

Train Depot and Lookout MountainI’m not going to recount the entirety of the battles surrounding Chickamauga and Chattanooga, there are resources out there that would do a far better job than I ever could. I will say these battles definitely revolved around the lay of the land, and actually being there brings that “eureka” moment. You can read in a book that Union soldiers raced up the slope of Lookout Mountain to chase out the Confederates, but actually going there, and seeing that side of Lookout Mountain is more of a cliff than a slope, really drives the point home that these soldiers were strong, and tough, and committed, and quite amazing. The feats these men (on both sides of the conflict) are truly mind boggling.

I enjoyed my visit to C&C. The area hasn’t been overdeveloped (although there are tony homes on top of Lookout Mountain – why do the rich, who would have bought their way out of service during the Civil War, now command America’s ridgelines? I sense a master’s thesis in there somewhere…). The ridges, of course, do have some terrific views of the countryside. The Chickamauga Battlefield Visitor’s Center has the best collection of American military rifles I have ever seen (definitely a must-see for gun enthusiasts). And it’s one of the few Civil War sites where an amateur historian can go and say “wow, now I really get it”, just by being there.

Span Over Tennessee River

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited C&C. Public domain historic photos from the National Archives, map from the Library of Congress.]


Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park

Civil War photographs from the National Archives

Civil War maps from the Library of Congress

Description of the Battle of Chattanooga

Google map to C&C NMP (zoom in & switch to terrain view to get the point)

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Torture and Corruption 

Two sites in the National Park System have actually brought tears to my eyes. They represent events of such travesty and abhorrence; tears are a more-than-reasonable reaction. One of these sites is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a topic for another post. The other is the Civil War prison, Andersonville, and its accompanying National Prisoner of War Museum.

National Prisoner of War Museum Placard

What does war do to humanity? Textbooks love to spout out casualties: how many died, how many wounded, how many missing, how many captured. How many sorties, how many megatons of TNT, how many cities bombed, how much damage done. The list goes on: how many refugees, how many homeless, how many orphans, how much disease, how much starvation, how many exterminated due to simply being of the wrong race in the wrong place at the wrong time. Numbers: simple, cold, heartless, textbook numbers.

None of these statistics can actually tell us what war does to humanity. That’s what places like the Andersonville are for.

Andersonville was a huge Confederate prison, not much bigger than your average Big 10 Conference college football stadium, except instead of 10,000 drunken fans, it held over 30,000 Union prisoners-of-war in absolutely fetid conditions. The sleeping arrangements, food quality, water purity, and sanitation were so horrid, 13,000 men died in a span of 14 months. At its peak, it was shoveling 100 corpses a day into the red Georgia clay.

Anderson Birdseye View — Courtesy of Wikipedia

If you think it was the Confederacy that left these men to die under such deplorable conditions, you’re right, but the Union did it, too. Camp Douglas in Chicago was as bad as Andersonville, it’s just that, as the victor, it was easier for the Union to ignore. Andersonville was run by the enemy, who must be held accountable. Our crimes, well, they’re justified because we won. Hurrah.

The civilized world should not ever tolerate inhumane treatment of any man, enemy or friend. Of course, a wartime society is anything but civilized. There’s something about war that turns people into something other than “human”. People look at all the atrocities from wars past and present, and say “oh, look what happened to those poor victims?”, and they are right to do so. But take a look at it from another angle. What happened to those poor perpetrators? What would drive a man, any man, to the point where he would starve another man, or poke a prisoner with sharp sticks, or Napalm children, or gang-rape young girls, or burn old women alive, or firebomb a city to ashes?

Freed WWII Prisoners — courtesy of Naval Historical Center

Man’s inhumanity to man: the real Neverending Story. But here’s the story that no one tells too often: all of these perpetrators of brutality, they were all created, too. It took thousands of soldiers to run Andersonville and the other Civil War POW camps. It took thousands of Nazis to exterminate millions of Jews. It took thousands of soldiers to execute the Bataan Death March. It took thousands of Hutus to slaughter the Tutsis. No sane man could believe that this many evil men are born every day, and that they also just happen to be born in pre-WWII Germany or mid-20th Century central Africa. No, these men, these masters of cruelty, are made.

Anti-Japanese Propaganda — courtesy of WikipediaHow is evil created? The answer: on purpose. Through dogma, or jingoism, or biased textbooks. By stating that the enemy are lesser creatures, creatures who would kill you given the chance, creatures less deserving of God’s grace, creatures who must be removed for the good of all. And then, by repeating that message over and over and over again, until the sheep-like masses buy into it, and agree. It’s hard to kill a fellow human being, but it’s easy to hate, torment, torture, and kill lesser creatures. So all you have to do is convince your people that “the enemy” are lesser than they, and your people will do your dirty work for you. Then you can go back to your secret retreat in the mountains and feast on banquets, or snog your high-priced whores, or choke on your pretzels, for you have created your own force of evil, ready to sacrifice their own humanity to the misfortune of the enemy.

This is why war must be avoided for all but the most vital and necessary of causes. As soon as you declare war against another, you are sacrificing the very souls of your own people. To wage war, your people must become monsters, and lose their humanity. War must not be used as a means to an end unless there is absolutely no other means: it is a weapon that leaves casualties for both the vanquished and for the victor. For one, it’s death. For the other, it’s inhumanity.

I think every American, regardless of political persuasion, should visit Andersonville. The lesson it has to teach is invaluable. It’s a lesson on what happens when society loses its humanity. If we all learn the lesson then maybe, just maybe, we can regain and keep ours for a long, long time.

Public domain photo

Sadly, my visit to Andersonville preceded my ownership of a digital camera. So no photo links this time.


I would be horribly remiss if I didn’t post a link to Amnesty International after this post.

Andersonville National Historic Site

Google map to Andersonville

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