Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Back in 1864, April 27 was not yet The Day. It was just another spring day in a time of war, with nature vividly resurging around the soldiers as they reconnoitered through the mountains northwest of Chattanooga.
The soldiers were products of mid-19th century America, but in many ways they were no doubt a lot like us, like my friend John and me as we traipsed through the green of the old Andersonville Pike, near where it crosses the rushing freshet of Standifer Creek. They were guys with dreams, trying to make their way past the inevitable obstacles of life, and the pike they followed at this particular juncture is still there today, though the stone foundations of the Double Bridge are all that mark the former crossing, and the worn, rocky trail is now crowded with hemlocks, cucumber magnolias, mountain laurels and ferns.
I had earlier told John I'd like to see a remnant of the original routes which the soldiers aboard the Sultana had followed through the mountains. I had seen the nicely preserved remnants of historic roads in national parks; the abandoned pike in Saluda, Indiana; the forgotten link near Campbellton, Georgia; and the Old Bridgeport Road near my Mississippi home. I wanted to see what was left of all the old sets, and in particular, of the old conduits that pointed inscrutably yet inevitably toward the Sultana disaster. As he drove his/my old Pathfinder through the mountains around Chattanooga, John said, “I’ll show you one.” So it was that we came to the woods near his parents' house to hike a network of abandoned, sunken paths, used mostly by animals now, that traverse the deep woods of Signal Mountain. We were keen for clues, and it was a good day to be out and about in the woods.
John is a sculptor, a musician and a mountain climber. All of those undertakings, and particularly mountain climbing, are about finding routes, and then, using a combination of strength, dexterity, balance and analysis, getting there. Climbing is obviously recreation, but it taps crucial survival skills, and the process of a successful climb is similar to that of a successful survival episode. Climbing also instills a love of both complex routes and the process of finding them. John and I also share a love of history that at times borders on mystical. Together we have roamed ancient nomad pathways in the Sahara Desert and trails through the rock escarpments near Timbuktu, where the Dogon people have practiced their animist culture for a thousand years. We are attracted to routes that have special meaning.
Signal Mountain is an escarpment northwest of Chattanooga which forms the opposing range to Lookout Mountain. It’s a beautiful landscape of towering old forests and switchback roads threading their way past rock outcroppings and episodes of falling water. At his parents’ house John and I doused ourselves with Cutter’s to fend off lyme-disease-bearing ticks, then headed off into a deep, wooded valley where the landscape is interspersed with cold springs, with water racing downward. It is a steep and lush place, layered with rock and humus, rife with copperheads and rattlers, though we did not see any on this day.
Eventually we reached an old trace road running intermittently along Standifer Creek, perhaps 10 feet wide and worn a few feet into the earth. The roadbed is full of stumbling blocks, which for some reason I had not envisioned -- tree roots and rocks the size of hay bales, which would have made for rough passage in a wagon, on a horse, or even on foot. It was rough as roads go, but it was the route of least resistance through the mountains, and still is if you’re on foot in the woods. The path crosses and recrosses the creek, zigzagging from level side to level side, so that we repeatedly had to wade through bracingly cold water, finding our way across submerged, mossy stones. At one point we paused in a grove of ancient hemlock trees and listened to the sound of water falling over rock, and birds singing. It was easy to imagine what it was like back then, though the edge was missing -- the atmosphere of hunger and discomfort and fear of injury or death, which lurked everywhere.
As we talked, our voices reverberated through the trees, the vocal accompaniment to the music of the water. Sunlight, fractured by the high canopy of trees, played upon the riffles. The main crossing, known as the Double Bridges, spanned two creeks just above the point where they joined to form North Chickamauga Creek, at a logical juncture. The North Chick is not that same creek where the infamous battle was fought, which was south of town, though it bears a variation of the same Native American name. It flows through an area that served as an important line of supply for the two armies, and at the site of the bridges four old, abandoned routes converge, one to what is now a hunting preserve, another up the mountain toward a distant residential development, a third along the banks of Standifer Creek, and the last to thread its way up a mountainside, its course only wide enough for a single horse or man, twisting over rocks and between trees, heading in the direction of Chattanooga. The latter route, the steepest one, was the main supply route contested by the Confederate and Union armies, and as it disappeared over the mountaintop, it seemed to lead back to the the Civil War. Along the route soldiers were occasionally ambushed, and at one point, hundreds of enemy mules were once found tethered in a camp, and slaughtered. In the version of the mule-slaughter story that John has heard, they were Union mules, killed by Rebel raiders; it is similar to a story I have read about Romulus Tolbert and his compatriots killing hundreds of Confederate mules on a raid through nearby Georgia. In other words, it was not a good time to be a man or a mule.
Our day was splendid by comparison. The valley was a great place for a hike, and it was fun to imagine the two of us standing there during the Civil War, eyes peeled for danger amid the beauty, perhaps talking about the war, our own personal affairs and the vagaries of life. Then, as now, we would have had little idea of what lay ahead. No doubt there were scribes and artists among the ranks, and with our beards we could perhaps play a pair of them in the envisioned movie, though John’s earring would have to go, his tattoos would have to be covered by long, wool sleeves, and our Chacos would have to be replaced by uncomfortable brogans. I could imagine us sitting by the creek in the evening, searching our nether regions for ticks, talking about life. It was not that hard, because we were there, armed with the memories of fated men, with just enough of the basic infrastructure still intact, and because John and I both are prone to probing thoughts and ruminations, and to whimsical dreaming.
It did not occur to me as we hiked that it was the anniversary of the Sultana disaster. It only came to mind as we were driving back into Chattanooga and I got a text from my friend Arthur Minton saying he has just seen, on TV in the dressing room at his gym in Jackson, a mention of the Sultana on C-Span. The segment concerned Ark. Rep. Vic Snyder’s resolution to commemorate the disaster, which he chose to file on the day of the 144th anniversary, to ensure that it, and the fatal war profiteering that brought it on, are not forgotten. Snyder had called into the NPR show two weeks ago and announced his plan to file the resolution; like the location of the Double Bridges, his choice of the anniversary date represented a logical juncture.
John and I were glad to know that the tragedy, whose prelude began for many along old trace roads like the abandoned routes along Standifer Creek, is now a part of the Congressional Record, and so, is a little less forgotten.