Ballot results were trickling in on election night November 1936, as President Franklin Roosevelt looked for a second term. To fill time, the CBS network took America's radio listeners to Chattanooga's WDOD, where a local resident was interviewed for the national audience. He had quite a story to tell. He was the oldest American to vote that day. He had been born into slavery and buried the dead after the battle of Chickamauga.
Mark Anthony Thrash was born on Christmas Day in 1820, along with a twin brother also named Mark Anthony. They were the property of Dr. Christopher Thrash, a prosperous planter of Louisa County, Va.
Dr. Thrash called one child Mark and the other Anthony. The children's parents had been born in Africa, transported first to Jamaica, and then to Virginia. In about 1837, Mark would lead a party of slaves to Meriweather County, Ga., clear 500 acres his master had purchased from native Americans, and build a plantation house with associated buildings. He remembered feasts with the Indians, all day "spreads" that included wild game, berries, and fruits.
When the Civil War broke out, Mark, who had several children, was in his 40th year of servitude. One of his sons, as was common, accompanied Dr. Thrash's son to the Confederate Army. In 1863, concerned about their sons, Dr. Thrash dispatched Mark, along with his brother, Anthony, to find their boys. Hearing of fighting near Chattanooga, they moved north.
Mark Thrash and his brother arrived at Chickamauga three days after the battle. Being slaves, they were pressed into service to bury the dead. Bloating corpses and dead horses covered the battlefield, thousands of men lay wounded, the stench was unbearable. Mark remembered "you could walk a mile on dead bodies and never put a foot on the ground. We got busy burying the dead and in about 15 days conditions became more bearable." He never found the missing sons, and his brother Anthony appears to have drifted away.
Mark said he saw service as a servant with both the Confederate and Union armies during the war's remaining years.
Post-war he moved to Arkansas and described the war's aftermath, telling of surviving on acorns boiled in salted water, the salt having been obtained in the dirt of the smokehouse floor. By 1890 he was back in North Georgia and worked for the Central Railroad and the Park Hotel in Chickamauga. In 1892 he was living in a cabin on land that became part of Chickamauga Park. He resided in his battlefield log cabin for the next 51 years. In 1894, he became a park employee and spent much of the next 28 years erecting the monuments that fill the park, turning the landscape from the hell he saw in 1863 to the tranquil park we enjoy today.
Mark Thrash collected a government pension after his 28 years of park employment. Still living in his battlefield cabin, he became one of the park's biggest attractions. It was common to have dozens of visitors at his cabin each day. Always dressed in a white apron, he described it as a status symbol from his slave days. He wore a gray or blue coat, depending on the sentiments of the visitor, and regaled with the stories of his life.
One young visitor described him, "... when he talked you listened ... he was the most interesting man we had ever seen ... he smiled and talked in a manner that made you like him." His pride in Chickamauga Park was evident to all that visited. It was "his park."
"Uncle Mark," as he was fondly called, was married five times and had 29 children. Records do not indicate if he ever found his son or Dr. Thrash's son. His brother Anthony became a minister and missionary to Africa.
He continued to live on the battlefield until his death in 1943, just short of his 123rd birthday. His body lay in state for two days in his cabin and he was interred in District Hill Cemetery with full military honors.
He was the oldest living person in the nation when he died and the "last of the old originals of Chickamauga Park."
Dr. Anthony Hodges is president of the Friends of Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley at 423-886-2090.