Mines: Chattanooga National Cemetery’s Place in Local History

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As we reflect on a 4th of July punctuated with American flags, times of re-reading the promise words of the Declaration of Independence and our commitment to making those promises a reality for all citizens, and of remembering the times past. in celebrating safely with family and friends, many of us also stop to consider the cost of freedom. In Chattanooga and Hamilton County, perhaps no historic property reminds us more vividly of the promise of freedom, equality and justice than the Chattanooga National Cemetery.

While the Department of Veterans Affairs manages 143 national cemeteries, most Hamilton County residents share the belief that our Chattanooga National Cemetery is not only one of the most beautiful and sacred sites, but that its story makes it one of the most memorable.

Most local residents know the name of Major General George H. Thomas. Few stories of the Union’s victories in the Battles of Chattanooga can be told without reference to Thomas and his leaders. The victory at Chattanooga, following heavy fighting from November 23-27, 1863, ensured a Union push into the heart of Georgia and South Carolina. What few remember is that Thomas was forced to choose a burial site for the victims, seizing 75 acres which would later be purchased from three local residents, Joseph Ruchs, Robert Hooke and JR Slayton. The site chosen featured a rounded hill that had served as General Ulysses Grant’s headquarters during the early hours of the Battle of Lookout Mountain. The fact that the Chattanooga National Cemetery was officially “born” on Christmas Day 1863, when Thomas signed General Order No. 296 creating the cemetery, adds a unique twist to the story.

The rocky terrain that distinguishes the site today was evident as the cemetery developed. Chaplain Thomas Van Horn noted in an 1866 report to the U.S. Army that nearly a third of the site could not be used for burials due to the rock outcrops, but that he had created a design that would use the beauty of the rock formations to accentuate the cemetery. His report said he had already incorporated flowering shrubs and trees as well as evergreens that would provide year-round beauty.

The official name, Chattanooga National Cemetery, was chosen in 1867 and re-internments from other sites began. By 1870, the dead not only from the battles of Chattanooga and local military hospitals had been moved, but others from Charleston, Athens, Bridgeport and Stevenson, as well as those who died on Sherman’s march to Atlanta and others who perished while crossing the Tennessee River at Decatur were moved to the new cemetery. These graves included nearly 1,800 “unknown soldiers” who died at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Since that solemn beginning, the Chattanooga National Cemetery has grown steadily in the 157 years since the first burials, including additional acreage that has brought the site to approximately 121 acres. More than 44,000 veterans are buried at the site, including a veteran of the War of Independence. It is also the only national cemetery with graves of prisoners of war from WWI and WWII.

A planned visit to Chattanooga National Cemetery, entered from Holtzclaw Avenue, should include these additional points:

* While most will know Medal of Honor recipients Andrews Raiders (four), Desmond Doss and Ray Duke are buried there, many may not be aware that Pvt. William F. Zion, USMC, Medal of Honor for his valiant service during the Boxer Rebellion, is also buried at Chattanooga National Cemetery.

* The Circle of Honor, at the highest point of the cemetery, features memorials specific to veterans.

* The Armed Forces Pavilion by the lake serves as a gathering point for commemorative events including Veterans Day, Remembrance Day, Vietnam Veterans Appreciation Day, and the annual Wreaths Ceremony at through Chattanooga. Interestingly, while residents often assume that Christmas wreaths are provided by the US government, individual donations pay for the wreaths with the goal of eventually providing a wreath for each grave. [https://www.chattanoogawaa.com/]

* The monument of the 4th Army Corps of 1868, a granite obelisk honoring fallen members of the regiment, is a solemn reminder of the camaraderie shared by veterans.

* The original entrance, an elaborate stone archway, adds a sense of bygone glory to the rolling hills and thousands of white tombstones.

A visit to Chattanooga National Cemetery reminds us of the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Those who have long enjoyed privileges like we forget that men have died to earn them.”

Linda Moss Mines, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Historian, is Secretary of the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council and Regent, Chief John Ross Chapter.


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