GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
"THE RIVER OF DEATH"
NEAR CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE
See the excerpt from Troy Taylor's book, Spirits of the Civil War on the hauntings of the Chickamauga Battlefield Below!
Click Here for More Information about the Book!
The year of 1863 was a triumphant one for General Ulysses S. Grant. After the fall of Vicksburg, many believed that Grant could do no wrong. By the following season, he would be the commander of all of the Union forces and would achieve another great victory at Chattanooga, Tennessee in the autumn of that same year.
Chattanooga stood above the bend of the Tennessee river in the southeastern corner of the state. It was here where two important railroad lines met and was a place that many considered to be the gateway to the Confederacy. Just a short distance beyond were the Rebel war industries in Georgia and from Chattanooga, the Confederates launched expeditions into Tennessee and Kentucky. If the Union could capture the region, they could drive south into Georgia and divide the eastern Confederacy.
Throughout 1862, the Union had been trying to push the Confederates from Tennessee. For almost six months after Stones River, the northern and southern armies clashed and feinted at one another. Confederate cavalry commander John Hunt Morgan led a raid into Ohio, where he was captured, while the Union cavalry headed into Alabama, where they attempted to cut the Chattanooga-Atlanta Railroad. The Federals were captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest.
President Lincoln pushed Union General Rosecrans for more action but the commander refused, demanding more troops and a little more time. Finally, threatened with dismissal, Rosecrans executed a series of flanking maneuvers that pushed Confederate Commander Bragg back more than 80 miles, first past Tullahoma and then to Chattanooga. Rosecrans again pushed him back but then ran into trouble when Confederate reinforcements under General Longstreet arrived by train. The Rebels succeeded in luring the army out of Chattanooga and then attacked them along Chickamauga Creek.
The furious battle here claimed more than 35,000 casualties in all and lasted two days. Bragg hit the Union troops with brutal force and on the second day, Rosecrans accidentally ordered his men to close a gap in the Union line that did not exist. In doing this, he managed to open another hole and Longstreet plunged through it, routing two Federal corps and sending the entire Union army staggering back to Chattanooga.
The Confederates had won the day, but Bragg refused to follow-up on their advantage, infuriating the other officers. Longstreet was so angry that he demanded Bragg’s removal. A short time later, Jefferson Davis would actually travel to Bragg’s headquarters to settle a dispute among the officers. Bragg has dismissed three members of this staff for failing to obey orders and was blaming everyone for his decision not to follow through against the Federals. Nathan Bedford Forrest was so enraged by Bragg that he refused to serve under him. He departed the battlefield and left for Mississippi to set up an independent command. He warned Bragg that if he interfered with him, it would be “at the peril of your life.”
Davis finally asked each corps commander whether or not Bragg should be replaced. All said yes, but Davis disliked both of Bragg’s possible replacements, Gustave Beauregard and Joe Johnston, so he paid no attention to his commanders and left Bragg in charge.
Meanwhile, the Federal troops were holed up in Chattanooga. They were hungry and cut off from all but a thin line of supplies. They had demolished houses and had hacked down every tree and fence line they could find for fuel, and to make matters worse, the fall rains were beginning. They were in miserable shape and were badly in need of a morale boost.
In October, President Lincoln placed Grant in charge of all of the Federal troops between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. He quickly headed for Chattanooga and replaced Rosecrans with George Henry Thomas, a Unionist from Virginia who was well-liked by the men serving under him. He would go on to earn the nickname the "Rock of Chickamauga". Soon, food and supplies began arriving by way of a new line that Grant forged and the men were eating again.
The Confederate troop placement was still strong however. Bragg’s army occupied the six mile crest of Missionary Ridge, east of the city. They also had heavy guns on the 2,000 foot summit of Lookout Mountain which commanded a field of fire to the south and west.
Grant’s plan was to drive them off and the Battle of Chattanooga began on November 24. Sherman attacked Bragg on his left flank in a rather ineffectual thrust that merely opened the way for Hooker to storm Lookout Mountain. They succeeded in planting the Union flag atop the mountain in such dense fog that the fight was nicknamed the “Battle Above the Clouds”.
The following day, the troops under Thomas made an attack on the first line of Confederate trenches below Missionary Ridge, while Hooker attacked on the right. Despite the nearly impregnable Confederate placements (artillery on the crest of the hill; rifle pits on the slopes; and trenches at the base) Thomas’ men quickly swarmed over the trenches and then waited for orders.
Attacking with Thomas was General Phil Sheridan, who recklessly pulled a flask from his pocket and toasted the Confederate gunners on the ridge. “Here’s to you,” he shouted and rifles opened fire at him, showering he and his officers with dirt. Sheridan was furious. “That was ungenerous!” he shouted at them. “I’ll take your guns for that!”
Sheridan’s boast was all of the incentive the men needed and they began charging up the hill toward the Confederate artillery. Worried, Grant was said to have asked an officer just who had ordered the men up the hill. “No one,” his aide was said to have answered. “They started up without orders. When those fellows get started, all hell can’t stop them!”
And apparently he was right. The Federals were determined to avenge themselves for their recent defeat and as they scrambled up the ridge, they shouted “Chickamauga!” at the top of their lungs. They soon overran the rifle pits and kept going, whopping and hollering as they went. Sections of the slope were so steep that the men had to sometimes crawl, using tree branches and bayonets to haul themselves up.
The Confederates on the top began to break and run and those who remained became more desperate as the Federals grew closer, screaming the word “Chickamauga” as they came. The Rebels fired and fired again and began rolling shells with lighted fuses down the slope, but nothing slowed the force of the charge. In moments, the Confederate gunners and defenders began to run. Bragg tried to rally them, but it was no use. Not surprisingly, he would blame everyone but himself for the defeat, saying that their position “was one which ought to have been held by a line of skirmishers.”
True or not, 4,000 Confederate prisoners were taken on Missionary Ridge and sent north to the prison camps. The Federals had won the day and gained their revenge for the defeat at nearby Chickamauga.
While these two battles will be forever connected, it is actually the field where the Battle of Chickamauga was fought that is said to be haunted.
Many years before the Civil War, before the white man brought his armies to die here, the Native Americans of the region had already done their share of dying in this place. The Cherokee Indians had christened the stream “Chickamauga” or the “River of Death”. The white armies who came here would cause this river to run red with blood.
In September 1863, the terrible battle raged in which Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, reinforced by Longstreet, dealt a stunning blow to Rosecran’s Army of the Cumberland. This battle would turn out to be one of the last major Confederate victories of the war.
The fighting was especially dangerous here because of the rough terrain and the heavily wooded areas. Men became lost in the forest and separated from their units. Messages sent by commanders to their troops vanished without a trace and much of the fighting was chaotic and deteriorated into hand-to-hand combat. When the battle was over, the casualties numbered over 35,000.
After darkness fell on the last day of the battle, within hours of the last shots being fired, women were seen searching the battlefield by lantern light. It has been reported that this eerie lights, along with the voices and cries of the women, are still present on the field today.
Thirty years after the war, a camp was established on the old battlefield to train men for the Spanish-American War. The camp was named after Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga”. During the brief time the camp was in operation, disease ran rampant here and men died by the score.... ending with more deaths than the American forces suffered during all of the fighting in Cuba.
And the long record of death did not end there either. The sprawling park has been the continuing scene of death by murder and suicide. It has been reported that at least one death each year occurs in the huge park, which is accessible at night by many public roads. Thanks to this fact, the park is also used a dumping ground for victims who are murdered elsewhere.
One notable murder attempt in the recent past involved a woman and her boyfriend who plotted the death of the woman’s husband. The murder did not go as planned and the husband escaped, badly injured. He was chased screaming through the park and was discovered by rangers with the killers still in pursuit, both of them carrying knives.
But is not these strange and bizarre happenings, nor even the hauntings, which bring thousands of tourists to Chickamauga each year, it is the history. Of course, there are those tourists (like myself for instance) who are always in search of both.... history and ghosts.
Those who come to Chickamauga are not disappointed.
The park is one of the oldest and the largest of the battlefield parks. It is peaceful and tranquil in the daylight hours, but after the sun goes down, strange things are reported to happen...
The battlefield has long been associated with the macabre. Many of the corpses of the Union soldiers lay where they fell in battle for more than two months before they were buried... and they were buried everywhere in the park. One report claimed they were often buried in rows, from head to foot, and one grave would hold up to three or four bodies. There are no stones to mark these graves and it is said that even today, a park maintenance crew will occasionally uncover bodies were none were previously thought to be located.
There are said to be many ghosts and spirits roaming the woods and fields of Chickamauga. Rangers and visitors report many odd noises on the grounds, including sounds of men moaning and crying; shouts and screams when no one is present; and the sounds of horses galloping... where no horses ever appear. Some visitors, and even crew members, tell of feeling as though they are being watched in the woods at night. Others report seeing the underbrush move inexplicably, as though a squad of invisible soldiers are passing by. One of the rangers was even told by a “well-known minister” that he had witnessed a man on horseback ride past him at Chickamauga.... although the rider had no head.
One popular legend of the battlefield is that of the ghostly lady in white. She has been seen many times, by a wide variety of different people, roaming about the park. The legends say that she was the wife or lover of a soldier who was slain in the battle and that she is now searching for his spirit. Even after all of these years, she has reportedly never found him.
But despite all of the tales and stories of strange activity, there is one legend of Chickamauga who remains the most famous of all, “Old Green Eyes”. This mysterious entity was given this colorful nickname by park visitors and rangers who have encountered him over the years. Who is he? Well, that’s a good question, because there happens to be two very different legends to explain his presence in the park.
The first story (which frankly doesn’t seem to match the creature’s appearance or behavior) claims that “Old Green Eyes” was a Confederate soldier who had his head blown off his body during the battle. When he was buried, all that could be found of him was his head as his body had been destroyed. The stories say that his spirit now roams the battlefield at night, moaning and searching for his missing body.
Visitors and staff members claim to have seen green, glowing eyes coming toward them in the darkness and have heard the sounds of a soldier moaning in despair. In the early 1970’s, two different and unrelated people had accidents near the same place in the park, wrecking their cars after reportedly seeing these glowing eyes.
The other legend of “Old Green Eyes” is apparently a much older one... and much more unnerving too. In this case, reliable witnesses have reported the creature to be, not a slain soldier, but a beast which barely even resembles a person. The story also states that “Old Green Eyes” was present at Chickamauga long before the Civil War. Some accounts also claim that the monster was seen moving among the dead at a place called Snodgrass Hill, after the battle was over.
The reports say that the creature is human-like, although he has glowing green eyes, waist-length, light-colored hair and huge, misshapen jaws from which fangs protrude. Obviously, he is not a pretty sight, nor a creature that you would want to meet in a secluded location in the dark.
Which is exactly where some people claim to have encountered him!
One of the most notable encounters occurred to a park ranger named Edward Tinney, who described his brush with the creature to author Richard Winer in a 1981 interview. He was walking through the park one night when he was struck by a strange chill, one unlike anything he had ever felt before. A moment later, he saw the creature appear out of the darkness. “When it passed me,” he said, “I could see his hair was long like a woman’s. The eyes -I’ll never forget those eyes- they were glaring, almost greenish-orange in color, flashing like some sort of wild animal. The teeth were long and pointed like fangs. It was wearing a dark cape that seemed to be flapping in the wind, but there was no wind. I didn’t know whether to run or scream or what. Then the headlights of an approaching car came blazing through the fog, and the thing disappeared right in front of me.”
He assured the writer that the creature was real. “I’ve seen Green Eyes,” Tinney said. “You know he’s watching. We all know he’s watching us. It’s enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.... and I’m not a superstitious man.”
Finally, we should take a brief look at one of the strangest incidents to take place in the park, although it is unknown whether it is linked to the supernatural or not. The incident occurred at Wilder Tower. This monument marks the center of the Union lines where the Confederates finally broke through and routed the Federal forces.
The tower is a stone structure that stands 85 feet high. It was built in 1903 by men who served under Colonel John T. Wilder at Chickamauga. The colonel’s mounted infantry, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, managed to hold off the attacking Confederate troops long enough for the Union men to make a somewhat orderly retreat.
When Wilder had been commissioned, the Union army was so poorly equipped that his men were given mules to ride and hatchets for weapons. He used every political favor that he could to get horses for his troops and he used his own money to purchase rifles. Wilder bought each of his men a Spencer Rifle that was equipped to hold seven shots. He purchased 2100 of them for $13 each. Thanks to these weapons, Wilder’s men were able to hold off more than 14,000 Confederates during the retreat.
The tower was erected in Wilder’s memory by survivors of the mounted infantry. Souvenirs of the war were sealed into the cornerstone of the structure, which was scheduled to be opened again in 1976. The stone would then be opened to celebrate the Bicentennial. Strangely, although the stone showed no signs of being disturbed in any way.... the contents placed inside in 1903 had vanished.
The strange incident at the tower took place in 1970 when a young man decided to climb the tower after dark. Since the park is open at night, the tower is kept locked in order to keep people from going out onto the observation deck at the top. But this didn’t stop the man, as he instead climbed the lightning rod which was fixed the back of the tower. He then slipped into a gun slot which was placed about 14 feet off the ground. He went inside and ran up the steps to the top, where he called to his friends, who were about 50 feet away drinking beer.
Suddenly, the young people outside heard a scream from inside of the tower. Panicked the boy ran down the winding staircase and quickly jumped out of the small window from which he had entered the tower.... or so he thought. Instead, he fell about 25 feet onto solid concrete and although he survived, was paralyzed for the rest of his life.
He was never able to explain what had happened at Wilder Tower.
The Chickamauga-Chattanooga Military Park can be found near Chattanooga, Tennessee off of either Interstate 75 or Interstate 24. Route 27 through Fort Ogelthorpe runs directly through the park.
Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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