by Phil Spaugy
THANKSGIVING AT CHATTANOOGA 1863
Through the eyes of Benjamin F. Taylor, Correspondent for the Chicago Evening Journal.
The day after the battle was Thanksgiving, and we had services in Chattanooga sad, solemn, grand. The church-bells hung dumb in their towers, indeed, and you shall know why in its time, but for all that, there were chimes so grand that men uncovered their heads as they heard them.
At twelve o’clock the great guns at Fort Wood began to toll. Civilians said, ” Can they be at it again ?” and soldiers said, “The guns are not shotted, and the sound is too regular for work.” I hastened out to the Fort, and the guns chimed on. A dim impression I had received before brightened as I stood upon the parapet and looked over the scene. What it was like flashed upon me in a moment : the valley was a grand cathedral, Fort Wood the pulpit of the mighty minster, and far down the descending aisle in front rose Orchard Knob the altar. The dead were lying there, far out to the eastern wall, and GOD’S chandelier hung high in the dome. They were the accents of praise I was hearing ; thirty-four syllables of thanksgiving the guns were saying : “Oh, give thanks unto the LORD, for He is good ; for His mercy endureth forever !” And the hills took up the anthem and struck sublimely in ; from the Ridge it came back, “give thanks unto the LORD,” and Waldron’s height uttered it, “for His mercy endureth,” and Lookout Valley sang aloud, “forever, forever,” and all the mountains cried, “Amen ! “
And the churches of Chattanooga had congregations. Those who composed them had come silent and suffer ing and of steady heart ; had come upon stretchers ; come in men’s arms, like infants to the christening; ambulances had been drawing up to the church-doors all night with their burdens, and within those walls it looked one great altar of sacrifice. The nearest of these edifices is hardly a dozen paces from my quarters, and I go out and sit upon its step in the sun. It is the same building wherein the gifted Murdoch, only a few days before, had given his splendid render- Ings of drama and lyric. I do not hear the music of his voice, neither do I hear a moan. The doors are noiselessly opening and closing, and I see pale faces bloody garments. Right hands lie in the porch that have offended and been cut off; castaway feet are there, too, but there is nothing about sinning in the Sermon on the Mount ! It is not the house of wailing on whose threshold I am waiting; it is the house of patience. Five still figures, covered by five brown blankets, are ranged on the floor beside me. Their feet are manacled with bits of slender twine, but a spider’s thread could hold them. I lift a corner of the blankets and look at the quiet faces. By the gray coat I see that one is a dead rebel. Do men look nearer alike when dead than when alive? Else how could it have chanced that one of these sleepers in Federal blue should resemble him nearly enough for both to have been ” twinned at a birth ?” They are not wounded in the face, and so there is nothing to shock you ; they fell in their full strength. Tread lightly, lest they be not dead, but sleeping. The silence within oppresses me ; it seems as if an accent of pain from some sufferer in that solemn church would be a welcome sound, and I think of a brave bird wounded unto death, that I have held in my hand, its keen eye undimmed and full upon me, throbbing with the pain and the dying, and yet so silent !
Three or four little Africans by some accident born unbleached are playing “hop-scotch” on the sunny slope at the corner of the church, gurgling like japanned water-spouts with laughter, and exploding now and then into an unmitigated “yah, yah.” A couple of soldiers are going by, while several white-wood coffins are being borne up to the porch. They stop, give a glance, and one says to the other, ” I say, Jack, our boys killed on Mission Ridge, yesterday, are thundering lucky, don’t you think so?” “Why?” said his comrade. “Because they can all have wooden overcoats !” It was no heartless jest, as you might fancy, but an old campaigner’s way of putting things. Alas, for the battle fields to whose heroes the luxury of a coffin must be denied, and yet they sleep as sweetly close folded in the earth.
I go around the church; a soldier has his foot upon a spade, digging a hole. I ask him its purpose. He never looks up, but keeps crowding the rusty blade craunchingly into the red earth, and tosses the answer to me sullenly over his left shoulder: “buryin’ legs !” I look down and see uncertain shapes beneath a blanket lying on the ground, go to the right about, and walk gently away. The ragged cut he gave me was even more painful than the Timbuctooan explosives, but when I think of it, it is only the blunt edge of use with which he did it. He would have played sexton to his own limbs as coolly. You wander down into Main street ; hospitals there. You go up the hill by the Market House ; hospitals there. You see thirty unarmed men drawn up on the sidewalk, a Lieutenant commanding. Four soldiers are bringing weapons strange to them across the street ; their arms are full of shovels : you see the builders of the doomsday houses; it is the Shovel Brigade. An order is given, and away they move, up the hill, out of town, to the eastward. They are not sad men, as the lamenting Rachels would believe, but cheerful, if not smiling. Shall we follow them to the place of graves ? There it is, the slope turned towards the setting sun r that even now is ” romising a glorious morrow ;” a strange piece of check-work ; a spot already honey combed with graves. And the Shovel Brigade begins to widen the breadth of the solemn tillage ; doing for dead comrades what, for anything they know or think, somebody may do for them the next day or the next. There were seven hundred and forty-two graves in that one place, on Thanksgiving night. Going slowly homeward we meet them coming. And what is them? The plaintive cry of fifes it is almost a woman’s wail and the moan of muffled drums come up from the laps of the little valleys of Chattanooga. It is the lament of Ramah here in Tennessee ! I have heard the splendid bands in great cities, and the sighing of organs over the dead, but that music among the mountains I cannot describe. There are tears in the tones, and will be till my dying day. An ambulance bearing the dead, and then a dozen comrades following after, two by two, another ambulance and more comrades ; but no flags, no pomp, only those fifes, like the voice of girls that sing “China” The ambulances are lightened. Dirge and “Dead March” are dropped into the graves, and back they go to a quickstep, here, there, everywhere ; the fifes warble like birds in spring; life and cheer tread close on death and gloom. And so it went, Thursday and Friday and Saturday.
And such was Thanksgiving at Chattanooga.
Source: Taylor, Benjamin F., Mission Ridge and Lookout Mountain with Pictures of Life in Camp and Field: D. Appleton and Company, 1872.
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