Cathy Cook is superintendent of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more information, call Chattanooga Area Historical Association editor L.C. Jolley at 423-886-2090.
“Alta Vista” sits perched on the side of Lookout Mountain, its white form a Chattanooga landmark easily seen as you look southwest from the city against the green backdrop of the mountain. The original home was built in 1856 by industrialist Robert Cravens.
The location provided cooler summertime temperatures and more abundant breezes, a retreat from the sweltering heat below. The homestead provided a refuge for the Cravens family and a series of unexpected guests during the early days of the Civil War.
Robert Cravens was sympathetic to the Union but, “When he had to take sides he went with his people.” His son Jesse joined Captain Ragsdale’s Lookout Rangers in June 1861, taking with him one of the most valuable pieces of equipment, a horse. He was mustered into service in August as part of Branner’s 4th Battalion.
By November of that year, Jesse had returned to Chattanooga “sick” and may have recuperated at Alta Vista. Jesse returned to active duty, but in December 1864 was noted as “absent without leave”.
While Robert never donned a Confederate uniform, he assisted the war effort through his varied business interests. When Tennessee seceded from the Union he was contracted “to furnish saltpeter and wood for making Confederate powder.”
During one of his business trips to Chattanooga he encountered an old Irish stone mason, Dan Hogan. Dan was pro-Union and never failed to express himself no matter what the company. Confederate soldiers had left Dan beaten about the head and face because of this Union proclamations. Robert told him to go to Alta Vista and “if he would keep his mouth shut until mealtime and then only open it to receive food, he would take care of him.”
Dan was given the task of building a stone dairy, which took him over a year to complete. That stone dairy proved to be a safe haven for the Cravens family as the siege on Chattanooga began in September 1863.
Chattanooga overflowed with retreating Union soldiers after the Sept. 18-20 Confederate victory at Chickamauga. Confederate soldiers blockaded the city in an attempt to cut off supplies, and starve the Union into surrender. Troops ringed the city and occupied Lookout Mountain with a defense line practically passing through Alta Vista.
The Cravens residence became headquarters for Gen. Edward Walthall and officers came and went constantly. The family not only had to endure this occupation but during the siege, the white house on the hill became a prime target for Union artillerymen stationed on Moccasin Bend. Posting a watch on the front porch facing the city, when smoke from the battery was observed, “an alarm was given in time for the family to run to the stone dairy before the shell arrived.”
Just how often and how many members of the family retreated to the dairy is not known. It is documented that the house itself was shelled 16 times.
While the family endured the dangers of the siege, Robert moved them and their possessions to Woods Station, Georgia (near Ringgold) before the November 1863 battle. By the afternoon of Nov. 24, the “White House” was in Union hands. The Cravens returned to the house at the end of war to find their “handsome cottage” in ruins.
The family rebuilt the house and repaired the other outbuildings including the stone dairy that had sheltered them during the siege. The family occupied the residence until the home and surrounding land were sold on Sept. 4, 1896, to the United States government to become part of the Lookout Mountain Battlefield of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
And what of old Dan Hogan?
Robert Cravens ran into him on the streets of Chattanooga after the war. He mentioned to Dan that he had never settled up with him on his wages. Dan responded, “You took me, and you gave me a home to keep your soldiers from killing me, and while there I built you a fort to keep my soldiers when they came from killing you and your family, so if you are willing I will suggest that we call it even.”
The reconstructed Cravens house is open for tours Memorial Day through Labor Day on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The stone dairy stands to the east of the house, its role in providing a refuge for the Cravens family during the Civil War easily overlooked.