Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How we remember

Major General Patrick Cleburne

Chickamauga was a costly Confederate victory. The total of 16,000 Union casualties was second only to the Battle of Gettysburg that summer, but the Confederate Army lost even more--18,000. No matter. After significant defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, for a while at least, the Rebel army could hold their heads high after Chickamauga, the huge battle (the Rebel line stretched out for 15 miles) just south of Chattanooga. 

But then came Lookout Mountain, a big win "above the clouds" for the Feds, and Missionary Ridge, where an odd unplanned assault that probably shouldn't have happened, miraculously evolved into the rout it became. Soon enough, Sherman would begin his fiery march through the heart of Dixie. 

Regretfully, I'm sure, Confederate General Braxton Bragg assigned Major General Patrick Cleburne (an immigrant, by the way) to basically stall what he knew would be an imminent Federal advance that would likely follow the railroad through the Ringgold Gap, a narrow span of bottom land between White Oak Mountain and Taylor's Ridge. Cleburne's assignment was really nothing more--allow Bragg to get his legs beneath him after the stinging losses he and the Rebels had just suffered.

Patrick Cleburne was no fool. He scouted the area himself late at night, then deployed his 4000 troops or so as stealthily as possible, tucking them in around every nook and cranny to await the Union advance. Think of it this way: the line of Union forces is marching four abreast. It's November, and it's cold, and it's sickeningly muddy. What's more, everyone--Feds and Rebs--have been through hell in the last month already, losses have been awful, almost lethal. Sherman's "March to the Sea" didn't start with great ceremony, but already there at Ringgold Gap they ran into significant fireworks.

The numbers are telling. Cleburne's four thousand bravely held off the Union's fifteen. It was, for the moment, a clear Rebel victory, even if the Union advance, not to mention the direction of the war, was only temporarily sidelined.

Today if you want to do some shopping in the town of Ringgold, Georgia, you head on down to Cleburne Mall because the Irish commander is a war hero. His statue graces a commemorative park along Hwy. 72, the very route the Union Army took when it ran into withering fire from Cleburne's deftly placed troops and batteries. Hard as it is to believe Cleburne had been in this country for less than 20 years when he won a victory along the tracks here. But in Ringgold, as you can imagine, he's a hero. 

On April 27, 2011, a rare EF-4 tornado formed over Catoosa County, Georgia and stayed on the ground for fifty miles, ripping through the town of Ringgold, Georgia, where seven people died. It did immense damage and laid waste an old cemetery right there along Hwy. 72, where ancient stones tumbled and fences around gravesites got themselves hideously twisted. 

Someone mows the lawn in that cemetery today. It's not a weed patch, not totally unkept. Still, the place could use some TLC. Stones are down and scattered, but there's a memorial there that's unmistakable from the road out front, and it's intent is pure and sure. Look for yourself.

 The flags are brand new, still crisp enough not to have torn or shredded in the wind. They're here and they're elsewhere on graves throughout. 

I'm not interested in casting aspersions, but it's clear that what matters more to the residents is the identification of these graves with the noble cause of the Confederacy than who it is may be who lies beneath the stones. I've been on dozens of cemeteries in this country as well as Europe, seen hundreds--maybe thousands--of American flags on grave sites, including the flag on my dad's. But I'd never seen the Rebel flag on a grave before, never seen a stone marked "CSA."

Okay, I admit it. It was a bit startling, given the outcry over the stars and bars in South Carolina and the fact that Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill taking it down from the State House after the murders in church at Charleston. Those fresh clean flags seemed to this yankee to be an outright statement of rebellion.

But there's still blood in the soil of the place where Gen. Patrick Cleburne's brilliant maneuvering meant 4000 Rebels successfully stalled 15,000 Union troops so Braxton Bragg could reassemble his routed army and live to fight another day. There were some 900 casualties at Ringgold Gap. Let the people tell their story, I told myself. Let 'em remember. No one should forget.

It's a forlorn place really, that little tornado-ravaged cemetery of ancient stones. The flags, on the other hand, are fresh and bright. Obviously, they mean something important to someone. Maybe more than they should.

After all, what Claborne did, no matter how brilliant or heroic, is only stall the inevitable direction of a much bigger story. 

In that old cemetery I didn't become more of a rebel, maybe just a bit less of a Yankee.

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