American Civil War: Southern Heartland Tour Report - March 2017

Guided by Fred Hawthorne & tour report by Alan Rooney

The American Airlines flight from London arrived early at Charlotte, NC and American immigration processed us all swiftly and with plenty of time to spare we were able to board our short internal flight to Chattanooga. Touching down at the end of a bright, sunny but very cold day, we were greeted by our American Civil War guide, Fred Hawthorne and our tour manager, Alan Rooney.

Our luggage gathered, we set off to our hotel for the first three nights, the Chattanooga Choo Choo. An interesting hotel, in the original Chattanooga station, the cavernous domed foyer is what was the main station hall. In between the platforms, the central rail lines have been converted into gardens whilst those on the flanks still exist and host an old steam locomotive and many carriages which have been converted into hotel accommodation and restaurants. Our rooms however were in a purpose built accommodation block at the far end of the platforms. An interesting hotel that one might say boasted faded glory. But certainly worth the stay and a great base for touring Chickaumauga and the Chattanooga battlefields.

As time was running tight we had little time to familiarise ourselves with the bedrooms because The Cultural Experience was hosting a drinks reception during which Fred outlined the itinerary for the tour. Then it was off to a restaurant next door called ‘Stir’, where we enjoyed a variety of cuisine: tuna, salmon, steaks – whatever we fancied really. Tiredness catching up on us we retired to our rooms fairly early in preparation for the next day’s adventure.

Thursday 16th March: Chickamauga

Breakfast was served in the ‘Frothy Monkey’ cafeteria which offered a fine and varied menu, freshly prepared and brought to our table. At 8.45 we set off to the Chickamauga visitor centre where we enjoyed a 26 minute introductory film to the campaign and battle. The centre also houses a small museum with an electric map playing out the sequence of events and a good demonstration of the relative speeds of loading a muzzle loading musket and a Spencer repeating rifle, the latter playing a significant role in Wilder’s final stand on 20 March. Our first field stop was at Jay’s Mill where we discussed the initial encounter skirmishes early on the 19th March. We were introduced to the wooded nature of the battlefield and at an early stage began to appreciate the command and control difficulties that would ensue throughout the battle.

At Winfrey Field we understood how Bragg lost the initiative on the first day as the Confederate forces were forced to react to the Union movements, whilst at Brock Field, Fred related the incredible experience of Jacob Miller, shot in the forehead by bullet and buckshot, cheek-bone smashed, eye dangling from its socket, he not only survived the battle but lived to a ripe old age. Our final stop of the morning was at Viniard Field where on the 19th all Confederate attempts to get across the Lafayette road were bloodily beaten back.

Lunch was at the Golden Corral, a very American self-service buffet which offered as much as you could eat for the very reasonable sum of $8.79!
This afternoon we switched to the events of 20 March and along Battle Line Road we saw how close the opposing positions were during the night of 19/20 March and just how dense the woods were. At Brotherton Field we stood where Longstreet’s Confederates broke through the Union line. Here we also found the Brotherton cabin which the Brotherton women turned in to a makeshift dressing station for the wounded of both sides: it also served as the backdrop to one of our group photos. Once the Union line was broken their southern section relied heavily on the stand of Wilder’s brigade which, armed with the Spencer repeating rifle, allowed each man the firepower of six-to-one over his Confederate counter-parts. The veterans returned to build an observation tower which we climbed, all 136 steps, to gain a great view over most of the Chickamauga battlefield.

Thence to the final stand of Thomas’s Corp on Horseshoe Ridge. By pure chance Thomas withdrew his men from their positions westward where they found the natural defensive position of this ridge and the lower Snodgrass Hill. Here his men held out for 7 hours allowing the rest of the Union army to retreat to Chattanooga largely unhindered. And for this feat Thomas earned the sobriquet, ‘the rock of Chickamauga’.

This evening we walked across the road from our hotel to taste some New Orleans cuisine. The food was good, but unfortunately the service was slow and after a long day, many of us longed to retire to our rooms sooner than we could.

Friday 17th March: Battles for Chattanooga

At the Chattanooga National Cemetery we stood at the monument to and the graves of those who participated in the Great Locomotive Chase and heard the remarkable story which ended in the execution as spies of those Union participants. The highest point of the cemetery was the site of Grant’s headquarters and we obtained a wonderful panorama of the dominant Confederate high-ground positions which almost surrounded the city completely. It was near to here that we came across the grave of Desmond Doss, the hero of the recent film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.

Parking outside Point Park on Lookout Mountain we had time to browse the book and gift shops and listen to the ranger tell the story behind Joe Hooker’s commissioning of the massive ‘Battle of the Clouds’ painting which is on display here. The ‘Battle of Battles’ presentation lasted about 30 minutes and provided an excellent back-ground for understanding the rest of the day. Walking through Point Park, we stopped at Garrity’s Battery where we took the iconic group photo between the two cannon with the magnificent panorama of Chattanooga as a backdrop. From just above Umbrella Rock you fully appreciated the Union manoeuvres to break the Confederate blockade, the site of Brown’s Ferry being clear.

There are some quite remarkable views from up here that will remain with many of us for a long time. Driving back down we stopped off at Craven’s Plateau to discuss Hooker’s assault that resulted in the fall of the Mountain to his Union forces.

After the briefest of lunch stops we proceeded to Orchard Knob to hear of the remarkable ‘ruse de guerre’ that allowed Union troops to take the place with few casualties and forcing the Confederates to withdraw to the line of Missionary Ridge. At the Sherman Reservation which was known in 1863 as Tunnel Hill we saw where Sherman’s troops first mistakenly took the undefended ‘Billygoat Hill’ before turning on Tunnel Hill where they met stiff resistance, which when overcome, had not placed them on the north end of Missionary Ridge at all, but a hill to the north of it. We drove along the Ridge stopping at a number of the ‘reservations’ where the marker boards tell in great detail the heroic achievements of virtually every unit on both sides.

Our last stop was at Braxton Bragg’s headquarters which stood very close to the where Lt Arthur McArthur led the Union assault and gained the crest of Missionary Ridge and planted his regiment’s Union flag on the summit signalling the fall of the entire Confederate position.

Rather than return to the hotel we stopped for an early dinner at Ichiban’s Japanese restaurant, where the extrovert chefs demonstrated their skills as they prepared our meal before our eyes. It was here that we came across a strange local law (we weren’t sure whether it was a restriction of Tennessee state or Chattanooga city law) whereby we couldn’t order a drink without showing age identification. Now you might call that a compliment given that many of our group are retired, but unfortunately two of our party did not have such identification so they refused to serve them alcohol. I am pleased to say that we figured a way to beat this petty bureaucracy and all left the restaurant well-fed and happy.

Saturday 18th March: March to Atlanta

We checked out of the Chattanooga Choo Choo this morning and commenced the route of Sherman’s Atlanta campaign, our first stop being at Ringgold Gap, the first attempt by Johnston to hold up the Union forces. There followed series of stops, each marked by a Georgia State ‘pavilion’, essentially a small area of land set aside containing a number of plaques explaining the sequence of events. At Tunnel Hill we walked up to the tunnel through which the great locomotive chase took place; Mill Creek Gap betwixt Rocky Face Ridge; Dalton, the important rail depot with its unique statue of General Joseph Johnston; Resaca, the first major engagement of the campaign; New Hope Church where Hooker’s assault was repulsed; the defensive line at Pickets Mill where the Confederates gave the Union soldiers a very bloody nose and where traces of the former’s defences were visible.

Our final stop was at Kennesaw’s Southern Museum of the Civil War, with its prize exhibit, ‘The General’ locomotive. Then it was on to Atlanta battling through the traffic to arrive in good time at the The Georgian Terrace hotel, our base for the next three nights and where we enjoyed a lovely a la carte dinner in its restaurant.

Sunday 19th March: Kennesaw and Atlanta

Much to our chagrin, we discovered that the Georgia state marathon was being held this morning and that many of the major roads in the centre of Atlanta would be closed as a consequence. Alan and Fred quickly developed a plan B the night before and arranged for Robert, our coach driver, to wait for us at a metro station 2 stops up the line from our hotel. Thus followed an adventure in figuring out how Atlanta’s MARTA transportation ticketing system worked.

Successfully overcome, we boarded our train and we were soon at our destination where Robert and the coach were waiting to whisk us up to Kennesaw Battlefield Park, where we explored its excellent museum, browsed its well-stocked bookshop and watched a very informative film about the Atlanta Campaign and in particular the Kennesaw Mountain battles. We took the shuttle ride to the top of the ‘mountain’. As it was a bright sunny day, the vistas from the summit were spectacular and we were able to see Stone Mountain, the Atlanta skyline and Johnston’s defensive line to the north.

The mountain itself is a very commanding position, but as it is actually a large granite outcrop, it can be outflanked. Nevertheless Sherman initially chose to make a series of frontal assaults and so we made our way to the first of these at Pigeon Hill. The whole of the Kennesaw Mountain area is a National Park laced with a series of walking, running and riding trails and on a Sunday morning there were many from Atlanta benefiting from such facilities: it seemed that we were the only ones interested in the park’s historical legacy. On Cheatham Hill we explored the ‘Dead Angle’, a large strong redoubt which protruded at a salient angle along the line of prepared Confederate defences. There was much extant earthworks and it was easy to imagine how this was a deadly place for assaulting Union troops.

Making but a brief stop for provisions we then commenced our tour of the sites associated with the battles for Atlanta. Of course Atlanta was destroyed during the civil war, but from its ashes modern Atlanta has become a sprawling city with its suburbs now well beyond the encircling limits of Sherman’s army on 1864. Nevertheless each site has its own ‘pavilion’ from which it is possible to gain an appreciation of what took place in the summer of 1864.

And so our first stop was at Peachtree Creek where Hood tried to surprise Thomas’s Union army and drive them back into the River Chattahoochee. The execution of a good plan failed, the Confederates losing more than their Federal foe – this war of attrition was a feature of the battles of Atlanta and one that the Confederates could not afford. We visited the spot from where Hood was said to have watched the battles of Atlanta, situated within the attractive and peaceful Oakland Cemetery. The cemetery has many Confederate graves including six generals, the ‘Lion of Atlanta’ which commemorates those who fell defending the city and the monument to all Confederate dead. Margaret Mitchell, author of ‘Gone with the wind’ is also buried here. We made a brief stop outside the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jnr and saw where he was buried before continuing on to Ezra church, the scene of another futile Confederate attack as Hood tried to prevent a Union flanking movement.

Our last stop of the day was at Jonesboro where the Confederates attacked in an attempt to prevent the Macon railroad being cut: it failed and the ultimate consequence was the surrender of Atlanta the following day. We ended our day by sampling Italian food at the Olive Garden restaurant in Morrow: it looked like that they would have us wait for over thirty minutes, but we called their bluff in threatening to leave instead and miraculously they found us a table within five minutes where we enjoyed great food and service. Thence it was back to the hotel, en-route enjoying a film of the Atlanta cyclorama, a visit to which has been denied to us on this trip as it is in the process of being transferred to the Atlanta History Centre.

Monday 20th March: Atlanta

We woke up to another beautiful day, bright sunlight glittering off the high rise towers of Atlanta with bright blue sky backdrop. Perfect weather then for a much slower paced day which started at the apartment that belonged to Margaret Mitchell, author of ‘Gone with the Wind’. The house tells the story of a young shy lady who had little belief in her writing ability and who took seven years to write her first and only novel which tells the story of civil war Atlanta and its post war reconstruction. An instant success, the famous film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh was premiered in Atlanta and we learnt that like us, the stars stayed at the Georgian Terrace Hotel.

Our next port of call was the Atlanta History Center, which is a fantastic museum with well-presented galleries dedicated to many interesting themes, but the one of interest to us was, of course, about the American Civil War and two particular exhibits stood out: the collection of civil war artillery projectiles – the size and variety in use by both sides was staggering and the Union Army supply wagon that had served with the Army of the Potomac from 1861-63. It had been involved in the battles around Chattanooga in 1864, served Sherman’s army as it marched on to Atlanta, saw the surrender of the Confederate army and took part in the victory parade in Washington – all this and only one brake required replacement during its 4160 miles of travelling. Outside they have preserved a civil war era farmstead that was once owned by a family by the name of Smith. Re-enactors play the roles of the family and its slaves during that time. We could have spent much more time there but after lunch in its café, we made our way out of the city to Stone Mountain.

Stone Mountain is a massive isolated 2-mile wide granite pluton 825 feet high to the east of Atlanta that simply dominates its surrounding area. Although it is possible to walk up it, we took the cable car to the summit from where on this bright sunny day we could see for miles and miles: the Atlanta skyline to our west, Kennesaw Mountain to the north, the foothills of the Appalachians to the northeast and the land over which Sherman marched to the sea to the east. Carved into the mountainside is a massive relief that features Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee, all mounted on their favourite horses. Whilst most took the cable car back down, Alan took a very pleasant 40 minute walk down and around the mountain. Thence it was back to Atlanta to prepare for dinner at Mary Mac’s, a short walk from our hotel where we enjoyed southern food delivered with a somewhat erratic service.

Tuesday 21st March: Andersonville and Ocmulgee

Checking-out of our Atlanta hotel we were greeted with another bright and sunny day. We seemed to have had few problems with the Atlanta traffic during our stay and so it was today that we were soon speeding down the interstate highway to Andersonville prison camp watching the eponymous film. Although little remains of the original camp, two small sections have been recreated to provide a very good idea of what it must have looked like, particularly the North Gate which overlooks the ‘Stockade branch’ stream and the Providence Spring. The Cemetery, as expected, was poignant with the tombstones close together sited above the trenches into which the dead were buried en-masse.
In the afternoon we visited the Ocmulgee National Monument which was built by the Native Americans around the same time that Stonehenge was built. During excavations before WW2, the Earth Lodge was discovered – it was a seat of council and was probably burnt by the tribe before they moved on to pastures new. However its remains are regarded as the oldest building in North America. A few of us walked across the park to the Great Temple in the wonderful sunshine where we climbed to its flat summit to gaze around the park. A truly remarkable archaeological site.

Thence to our hotel for the night: the comfortable Courtyard by Marriott in Macon. Robert then duly obliged us by driving us to the Outback Steakhouse for dinner where we enjoyed some very memorable food.

Wednesday 22nd March: March to the Sea

Today we started in the tracks of Sherman’s march to the sea. Not far from our hotel is the little battlefield of Griswoldville, situated at 212 Baker Street. But there are two Baker Streets in Griswoldville and luck would have it that our satnav took us to the wrong one first. The actual battlefield is little changed from 1864 and is a perfect setting for the poignant story of a local militia consisting of boys and grandfathers desperately attacking the smaller but far more professional and better equipped Union cavalry force. Thence to Milledgeville to take a quick glimpse at the old Georgia state capitol, today part of the Georgia Military Institute. And well, that was all we saw of Sherman’s march to the sea until we arrived at Fort McAllister.

The earthen work fortifications of Fort McAllister were considerably restored in the 1930s by Henry Ford and we enjoyed a guided tour of the site by one of the Georgia State Park rangers. The ranger took us through the drill of the ‘hot shot’ gun with Malcom, Roger, Tim, Manny and Nick acting as crew members, one of them earning the memorable title of ‘powder monkey’! Amidst the ubiquitous gnats we climbed the ramparts and explored the underground ‘bombproof’.

We made Savannah in good time to check-in to the Riverside Inn, our base for the next two nights. The hotel is actually a converted cotton warehouse overlooking the Savannah River and within easy walking distance of bars, restaurants and the historic centre of the town. That night we had dinner in the ‘Pirates House’, which served excellent fayre but frustratingly we were placed in a back room which excluded us from the restaurant atmosphere.

Thursday 23rd March: Fort Pulaski and Savannah

This morning we travelled out to Tybee Island, from where the Union troops sited their guns for the successful reduction of Fort Pulaski. Some of us visited the beach and even stepped in to the Atlantic Ocean although it was mighty windy with plenty of whitecaps on the water. Who said that The Cultural Experience doesn’t offer seaside holidays?

Next we were off to Fort Pulaski across the narrow bridge that gives access to the National Park. Fred took us around the outside to show the considerable damage the Federal batteries had done. The brickwork of the repaired breach was clearly visible and there were even one or two shells still embedded in to the masonry. Inside the fort we climbed atop the ramparts from where we gained views of both the channels of the Savannah River which Fort Pulaski was built to protect. We had time to explore the inside of the fort, which has many interesting recreated rooms and displays, and the small museum and film in the Visitors’ Center.

We were back in Savannah by midday, where we split for lunch. In the early afternoon Fred took us around the historic centre of Savannah, a Regency and Victorian architectural gem. Having been spared by Sherman, who rested his troops here during January 1865, all of the buildings are original. This evening we dined at the Boar’s Head Inn, a two minute walk from our hotel.

Friday 24th March: Forts Moutrie and Sumter

This morning we checked out of The Riverside Inn and bid Georgia farewell as we crossed the Savannah River in to South Carolina and in particular to Fort Moultrie to discuss the defence of the sea approaches to Charleston. Fort Moultrie is situated on Sullivan Island and guards the northern approaches to the roadstead: it was also where the Confederate submarine, H L Hunley, was launched when it carried out its successful but fateful mission against the Union ship Housatonic in 1864.

Then it was on to one of the more anticipated sights of the tour: Fort Sumter. We arrived at Patriot Point on the north bank of the Cooper River in good time to board the boat that would take us to Fort Sumter. This involved manoeuvring around the massive WW2 aircraft carrier, the USS Yorktown and a rather idle looking pelican. The 20 minute journey along the Cooper River was enjoyed in wonderful sunshine and the visibility was perfect. Once moored alongside Fort Sumter, we had just over an hour to explore a fort that has changed much since 1861.

Returning to Patriot Point we then crossed over on to the Charleston Peninsula and checked-in to the Francis Marion hotel. Dinner that evening was at the rather pretentious Eli’s Table, our waiter forever memorable for all the wrong reasons!

Saturday 25th March: Charleston, H L Hunley and Drake Hall

Another highlight of the tour today when we visited the preserved Confederate submarine H L Hunley where we marvelled at the courage of the eight men who carried out their final mission in such cramped and claustrophobic conditions. Still submerged in a PH solution to dissolve the damaging salt, the surrounding water was crystal clear which allowed an excellent view of the submarine.

Late morning we arrived at the Plantation dwelling of Drayton Hall. The building has been preserved just as it might have been during the civil war, it never having been modernised in the following years. It was the last in a trilogy of southern dwellings that we had visited during the tour: the working-class Bortherton Cabin at Chickamauga, the middle-class Smith Farm at Atlanta History Center and now the upper-class plantation at Drayton Hall.
The afternoon was free for us to explore Charleston as we wished. Five of us participated in a wonderful carriage tour of the old city through its historic streets. The day ended with dinner in a much appreciated pizza/pasta restaurant.

Sunday 26th March: Sherman’s March through the Carolinas

We said farewell to Charleston and once again picked up General Sherman’s trail: this time his march through the Carolinas, with our first stop at Aversboro battlefield where we met local guide Dean Harry, who would escort us around for the next few hours. Dean had made special arrangements to open the plantation house at Oak Grove, once owned by William Smith. The house is now positioned on the opposite side of the road to where it was during the battle of Aversboro, but it still showed the scars from that battle with blood stains, bullet and cannon ball holes clearly visible. The battle itself was a Confederate holding action, the position was well selected by General Hardee with both his flanks resting on rivers and being able to defend in depth. It was the Union outflanking manoeuvre that ultimately forced him to abandon the position.

At Bentonville, a battle the size of First Manassas, we followed the development of an encounter battle as Union General Jefferson C Davis came up against a large Confederate force. The Confederates fiercely counterattacked and if it hadn’t been for the stubbornness of Morgan’s division, Union troops might have been swept from the field. The rest of the Confederate army came up and started digging-in, forming a ‘U’ shape waiting for the Union Army’s next move. But the Union Army was doing likewise and it wasn’t until Union General Mower got behind the Confederate left and surprised Johnston’s headquarters that the crisis of the battle materialised. However on the cusp of success, Sherman himself gave the order to cease attacking and the Confederate army was able to withdraw over the bridge at Bentonville.

We pushed on to Durham, where we enjoyed our final dinner of the tour at the Freebird Wood Fired Grill and suitably refreshed we checked-in at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in Durham for our final night of the tour.

Monday 27th March: Surrender

A relatively late checkout from our hotel saw us make our way towards The Bennett Place, where on 17 April Generals Johnston and Sherman met to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate forces, a process that took some 9 days to finalise. Normally closed on a Monday, the park had granted us special access: our ranger showed us around the Bennetts’ House where the surrender instrument was signed on behalf of all Confederate armies in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida – some 85,000 men, the largest surrender ever to take place in the United States. Except that it wasn’t in this house, because the actual house burned down about a hundred years ago. The house that we saw once belonged to the Proctor family: it was acquired by North Carolina and modified to become a n almost exact replica of the original Bennett Place. But a typical visitor would be none the wiser, it has been so well.

Our final stop of the tour was off topic: the battlefield of Guildford Courthouse where in 1781, British General Cornwallis with just 1900 men attacked 4400 Rebels under Nathanael Greene (whose grave we had last seen in Savannah a few days earlier). Greene had prepared a defence in depth to receive the British, a tactic that it is said Confederate General Hardee adopted at Aversboro (which we had visited the day before). But, just like Hardee, Greene was forced to abandon the field. Incredibly for an attacking force, Cornwallis only lost half the number of men killed compared to the Americans (93 vs 185): indeed the latter lost over a thousand men who simply fled from the battlefield. Ironically the American view is that this was a Pyrrhic victory as the British also had over 450men wounded: the 1000 odd Americans who ran away were simply militia, so didn’t count. But they say that the victors write history: such is the interpretation of events.

For our final lunch stop we chose a typical American restaurant, a ‘Cracker Barrel’, which offered good wholesome American food which was to be our final taste of America. Arriving in good time at Charlotte International Airport, we said our farewells to Robert our coach driver, Fred our guide and Alan our tour manager. Having had his Newark flight cancelled at short notice, we were pleased to find that Manny Licht had managed to find and alternative. Whilst Mark checked-in for his flight to New York, the reminder boarded the American Airlines flight to London Heathrow.

A great 12 days: we made new friends and renewed acquaintances; we stayed at some fabulous hotels - 3 nights in Chattanooga, 3 nights in Atlanta, 1 night in Macon, 2 nights in Savannah, 2 nights in Charleston and last night in Durham; we indulged our appetites in numerous restaurants and bars and raided innumerable gift and bookshops. We saw the ineptitude of Braxton Bragg as an army commander with his failure to communicate and exploit opportunities at Chickamauga, how he failed or lacked the resources to take Chattanooga and subsequently allowed himself to be driven away by Sherman, who then grasped the initiative. We saw how wily Joe Johnston held up Sherman’s march on Atlanta, but lost the confidence of Jefferson Davis and subsequently passed over command to the rash John Bell Hood whose unimaginative assaults on the besieging Union forces around Atlanta ultimately led to no effective Confederate army standing between Sherman and the coast.

So we followed Sherman to the sea, explored forts McAllister and Pulaski, soaked up the colonial atmospheres of Savannah and Charleston, sailed to Fort Sumter, saw the submarine H L Hunley and finally marched with Sherman through the Carolinas to the Bennett Place where both Sherman’s and our journey came to an end. We will all do it again someday, maybe the Western or the Eastern Theater tours, but for now we need time to reflect upon what was an incredible tour, sort out our photos and re-assess our understanding of the American Civil War in the Southern Heartland.

View details of this tour - American Civil War: Through the Southern Heartland

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