Exactly 150 years ago today, Chattanooga was a pivotal place of history. It was smack in the middle of a three-day Civil War battle that by the end of its final day — tomorrow — would make the city the Union Army’s “Gateway to the Lower South,” signaling the end for the Confederacy.
At the end of the first day, Union troops were building breastworks on the ridge side of Orchard Knob after forcing the Confederates who had been there to withdraw to the base of Missionary Ridge. As the Union soldiers worked, the rebels barraged them from several ridge batteries until darkness. Historian James W. Livingood writes: “The Yankees spent the night on their arms without shelter in a cold, rainy weather change.”
A letter from Union soldier Lyman S. Widney to his parents — recounted by Livingood — described the victory.
“The dusky form of the mountain, encircling our position for 3 miles seemed in the dim twilight, like some dense thunder cloud looming against the heavens and shooting forth unceasing flames of lightning, while its thunder made the earth tremble beneath our feet. …”
Across the Chattanooga Valley to the other framing ridge of Lookout Mountain, another battle the next day offered another ethereal Chattanooga scene as rain and fog lifted away from the Battle Above of the Clouds.
In a letter to his wife, Lt. Col. Daniel F. Griffin of the 38th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, told of his night on mountain when the guns finally quieted at about 2 a.m.
“Meanwhile the clouds had disappeared, the moon shone full, and to our view was exhibited the most beautiful night scene I ever beheld; beneath us the mountainside spotted with (camp) fires, while the river like a silver band, seemed to encircle the base of the mountain, … Suddenly there came a darkening over the extended panorama, and looking up we beheld the dark disc of the earth’s shadow passing slowly o’er the face of the moon; even as our advancing Armies were blotting out the lights of the Confederacy.”
As that eclipse passed over soldiers here a century and a half ago, so a new eclipse of chance challenges Chattanooga now: the city must finally — once and for all — shed the shadows of slavery, reconstruction and the inherited system of have and have-not classism and racism that often still impedes this region
Last week, the Sunday Times Free Press front page was filled with 32 mug shots of black men who — after being indicted and arrested in connection with more than 300 crimes — were called the “worst of the worst” criminals. It stretches the imagination to think there were no white people in that lineup.
Authorities said the goal was to “break crack’s back.” OK. What about meth? How about domestic abuse? And this call to arms extends to our own news pages, too. It’s up to us to challenge the news, not just report it.
The Civil War was won — in no small measure — in Chattanooga 150 years ago: On the final day of battle, Union soldiers literally climbed Missionary Ridge into the faces of Rebels holding gun positions.
“At times they pulled themselves over the steeper spots by hanging onto bushes and small trees. Stumps, rocks or gullies became little dens of shelter to gain one’s breath or reload his gun,” Livingood writes in “The Chattanooga Country: Gateway to History.”
But here, today, we’re still fighting the race and class war — southern style with passive agression. It’s time to win this one, too. We’ve made progress. Plenty of it. But not enough — yet.
Without question, the greatest victory of the American Civil War was freedom. What’s left to win — especially with all of today’s partisan bullying, assaults on voting rights and pecking away at women’s rights — is freedom to keep that freedom.
Let’s get busy building it here first. Let’s be a gateway again.