It was on this very day, long ago, that a group of stern-faced men rode their athletic horses across the table top of Lookout Mountain, up towards the Point. They were searching intensely for a small path leading down the western bluff. Pete, one of two riders in front, looked at the other and spouted, “Brax, have you fallen and hit your head? We’ve been doing stupid stuff lately but this is just out-and out dumb. There ain’t no Signal Rock or Sunset Rock anywhere around.”
“Pete, hush your grousing and keep looking. You just keep on and I may do the world a mighty favor and push you off of it when we get there! We got to find it,” the somber man answered, weaving his horse through the trees and around the huge boulders that are ageless reminders of The Great Earthquake of 1812.
“Did you see the look on that scout’s face when he told you about this rock-of-all-rocks? It was clear to me he regarded you like you were about three inches south of ignorant! The only rocks we should worry about are in your head!” Pete fired back, trying to avoid briars on his fabled horse “Hero” as the other riders delighted in the diatribe blessed by the late-morning sun.
“Over here,” yelled an out-rider. “I think this is it!” he said, reining his horse away from an uncommon opening that was partially hidden by saplings.
“Can we ride down it?” yelled Brax and Pete rolled his eyes. “Try and you’ll die, old son!” As Pete jumped off Hero to tether him, the others also dismounted and Pete hollered at Brax. “Don’t forget your telescope. It’s in your sack next to that bottle of whiskey that is now about half as full as you think it is!”
“If you been in my whiskey, I’ll throw you off this rock instead of push you,” promised Brax as the men began to scramble down the short-but-steep trail and sucked in their breath as “the rock” they had been promised suddenly gave way to the most stunning view of the valley below any had ever seen.
* * *
On October 28, 1863, a group of Confederate officers, led by General Braxton Bragg and James “Pete” Longstreet, walked only two-tenths of a mile to stand on what is today Sunset Rock. They were there on purpose and through their copper telescopes they watched with worry as their former West Point classmate, Joe Hooker, brought his huge Army of the Potomac towards Lookout Valley from the south.
I can only imagine that the good-natured jokes and jabs that always seem to accompany men on horseback gave way to drawn faces, cigars you gnaw rather than light, and a call for maps that showed the latest troop positions. On the vast valley floor they watched as 15,000 men, hundreds of horses and mule-drawn wagons and cannons advanced. What a sight it must have been!
The Rebs already knew that Ulysses S. Grant had gotten into town the weekend before, replacing William Rosecrans after the Confederate victory at Chickamauga. They had also just been told that the night before Baldy Smith had floated a group of pontoon boats down the Tennessee River through the dark and the fog past Confederate sentries to build a bridge at Brown’s Ferry that would almost immediately snap the siege of Chattanooga and open up "the Cracker Line."
So as the officers watched Hooker move his men directly towards that now-secured pontoon bridge, (which they could also see to the right of Sunset Rock) it became evident the time for conflict was nigh. The way I’ve got to believe what happened here 150 years ago, it was right about then that Bragg looked at Longstreet to say simply. “Tonight at midnight we attack at Wauhatchie,” setting the stage for a rare night battle in the Civil War.
Whether my imagination intrigues you doesn’t really matter. I’ve been to Sunset Rock all my life but Sunday morning before church the quiet place came to life as never before. This is the day. Scooter and I live not a stone’s throw away and what you see today is the top of a Big Walmart, I-24 as it snakes towards Georgia, and quite nearly 100 percent more houses and hotels than those Confederate officers did when they studied the valley in 1863.
Of course, there aren’t two armies with leather-tough fighters getting ready to fight at midnight, either, but the wide view, the big rock’s floor, and the changing leaves on the trees still lends stunning testimony of a time that shaped and formed our nation.
If you want to feel it, to smell the air like Bragg and Longstreet did on an Oct. 28 long ago, I urge you to take a moment today and stand on Sunset Rock. It’s easy to find, free of charge and thrilling in an historical way. (Wear lace-up shoes with soles that won’t slip on rocks; no one wants to fall off!)
Directions: Go up Lookout Mountain via Scenic Highway (past Ruby Falls) and go straight at the top. When you get to the stone fountain right before the Commons, veer to the right and the road will morph into West Brow Road. The Sunset Rock parking area will be on the left, just before the 400 block begins, and with the weather forecast perfect, you may have to find parking on a side street. The Park Service closes Sunset Road at sundown.