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Tennessee reveres its Civil War sites

Photo courtesy Chattanooga CVB

With its critical location during the Civil War, Tennessee ranks second in number of Civil War sites, only behind Virginia. Confederate forces tried unsuccessfully to invade Kentucky through Tennessee, and later, Union troops crossed the state to reach the Deep South. The state’s railroads and rivers served as critical modes of transportation during the war.

Tennessee possesses four national Civil War battlefield parks: Stones River National Battlefield, Fort Donelson National Battlefield, Shiloh National Military Park, and Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. In addition, the home of President Andrew Johnson can be found at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

Civil War Trail
Plans to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War have been underway for the past several years in Tennessee.

Courtesy National Park Service

Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed a sesquicentennial commission, and Tennessee’s participation in the five-state Civil War Trail — which also encompasses Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina — has allowed a number of the state’s Civil War sites to be interpreted and marked for the first time. The 150 markers on the trail feature maps, historical information and photos enclosed in a case at each site.

“This Civil War Trails program will enable hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans and visitors from around the world to experience and appreciate Tennessee’s rich Civil War heritage as well as preserve the integrity of these historic sites for future generations,” said Susan Whitaker, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.

Tennessee is also creating a six-part documentary series that will air on television channels statewide throughout the five-year celebration, starting Nov. 12-13.

Compelling tales and sagas can be found all along the state’s Civil War Trail.

“We’ve uncovered some really great stories,” said Cindy Dupree, director of communications for the Department of Tourist Development. “For example, Niota, known as Mossy Creek during the war, has one of the era’s only train depots still intact. It was built in 1854, used by federal forces during the fighting and is now Tennessee’s oldest railroad depot.”

In Dover, Union soldiers set fire to the town and church in 1863. As the church was burning, a Union soldier saw the Bible on the altar and rescued it. He took it home to Pennsylvania, and in 1928, the soldier’s family returned the Bible to that church, where it is currently displayed.

Originally named Dover Methodist Church, the church changed its name in 1897 to Fort Donelson Memorial Methodist Church to honor the Confederate and Union soldiers who lost their lives during the battles of Fort Donelson and Dover.

Sesquicentennial plans

Anniversary activities will gear up in the fall of 2011 at Fort Donelson. The pivotal loss at Fort Donelson by the Confederates allowed Union gunboats unobstructed access from the Cumberland and Ohio rivers through Nashville. As a direct consequence, Nashville was the first Confederate state capital to be overtaken.

Courtesy Tennessee Dept. of Tourism

“By July 4th of this year, a special exhibit at the visitors center will highlight the legacy of the Civil War’s commemoration,” said Mike Manning, chief ranger at the Fort Donelson National Battlefield. “It will show the commemoration’s beginnings with the veterans’ reunions, the development of the national cemeteries and the eventual formation of the national military parks.”

In February 2012, during the anniversary weekend of the 1862 battle, Fort Donelson will host living-history events and a special speakers series. Already scheduled are Ed Bearss, former chief historian of the National Park Service; Benjamin Cooling, a preeminent historian who specializes in Fort Donelson and Tennessee battles; and Kendall Gott, a military historian who specializes in the river campaigns of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

In 2012, Shiloh National Military Park plans a 12,000-man, off-site re-enactment to commemorate the April 1862 battle. Next year, near the anniversary date, filming, with 400 re-enactors, including artillery and cavalry, will create an updated visitors-center movie slated to premiere April 6-7, 2012.

“The current movie, ‘Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle,’ was done in the late 1950s,” said Woody Harrell, superintendent of the park. “We can safely say that movie has been the longest-running film in Tennessee’s history and one of the first park service films to use live actors.”

Courtesy Tennessee Dept. of Tourism

Each anniversary on the battlefield, re-enactors perform demonstrations and tactics. Ranger-led programs take place at the exact time of the historic events. At 4:30 a.m. on April 6, two ranger programs herald Shiloh’s unfolding drama, when a Union patrol bumped into the entire Confederate army.

“It’s an opportunity to be on the exact spot at the exact time of day on the anniversary and look at the light conditions and visualize what happened there,” said Harrell. “For the next three days, we continue those programs to commemorate the battle and its aftermath, which led to the Siege of Corinth.”

At Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which straddles the Tennessee and Georgia state lines and preserves the battleground for control of the Chattanooga region, 2013 will be the major sesquicentennial year. At that time, the park will schedule a series of programs beyond the regular events.

“Right now there’s no concrete schedule, but we’re doing programs that relate to some of the other campaigns and events that influenced what would eventually unfold at Chickamauga,” said James H. Ogden, a historian at the military park. “The battles didn’t occur in isolation to one another, and some of the same people that fought here in 1863 also fought at Fort Donelson, Shiloh and other battles.”

On the edge of town, the Carnton Plantation tells of the bloody Battle of Franklin, immortalized in the New York Times best-seller “Widow of the South.” The mansion housed wounded Union and Confederate soldiers, as evidenced by the bloodstained wooden floors. The surrounding acreage contains one of the largest private military cemeteries in the country; 1,500 soldiers from both sides are interned there.

Courtesy Tennessee Dept. of Tourism

The recently restored Lotz House is located in the heart of downtown across from the Carter House, the battle’s epicenter. The Lotz family spent the night of the battle in the Carter House’s basement. Historians describe the fighting that occurred in the Lotzes’ front yard as some of the most severe hand-to-hand fighting of the Civil War.

“It’s very special to have the three houses restored that played critical roles in the Battle of Franklin,” said Deborah Warnick, director of cultural and heritage tourism for the Williamson County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Carter House is the most bullet-riddled building still standing of the Civil War, and visitors get a very authentic experience.”and started the annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion in September with approximately 150 musicians on 20 stages. Bluegrass, Celtic, Southern rock, as well as country music, fill the three-day lineup.

During warmer months, Bristol’s downtown hosts local and regional bands on Tuesday and Thursday nights, free to the public. Eight Friday nights, May through September, Border Bash previews bands that will be featured at the Rhythm and Roots Reunion.

“They close down State Street, which runs through the historic section of downtown, and put the stage right on the street,” said Kimberly Leonard, marketing and sales director for the Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Most people bring their own chairs, or walk around and enjoy the restaurants and shops.”

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Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.