Benjamin Harrison Made Two Trips to the Chattanooga Area

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - by John Shearer
President Benjamin Harrison
President Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison passed through the Chattanooga area two times.  

The first was under the most primitive of conditions as a Civil War officer preparing for battle, but the second was amid luxurious trappings nearly three decades later as president of the United States.

 As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles around Chattanooga is observed this fall, a look at some of the participants shows that three future presidents – Ulysses S. Grant, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison -- came through town in a Union uniform.

 However, they apparently were never here at the same time, unless it was just briefly.

 Gen. Garfield had participated admirably in the Battle of Chickamauga, won by the Confederates, in September 1863 before being sent to Washington, D.C. About the time he was leaving, Gen. Grant assumed command of the newly formed Division of the Mississippi and began focusing on Chattanooga, an important railway town.

 Through Gen. Grant’s leadership, the Union forces were able to lift the siege of Chattanooga, where the Union men had come after Chickamauga. They were eventually able to drive the Confederates from town after such battles as Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in November 1863.

 A few weeks after that, in early 1864, future president Harrison spent some time in the Wauhatchie/Lookout Valley area while preparing for the march through North Georgia.

 While the visits by the other two future presidents, particularly Gen. Grant, have been well documented, little attention seems to have been given Mr. Harrison.

 According to the 1952 biography, “Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior,” by Harry J. Sievers, Col. Harrison and his men from the Indiana 70th Regiment arrived in the Wauhatchie area below Lookout Mountain in March 1863 after a tiresome march from Bridgeport, Ala.

 While normally a scenic route, the road was littered with numerous dead horses and mules, creating a horrible stench during the wartime conditions.

 Up until this point, that was about the major obstacle Col. Harrison’s men had battled.

 The grandson of former President William Henry Harrison and a lawyer, Col. Harrison had begun his military career when he volunteered to raise a regiment of men for the war effort after seeing so few people join. Wanting to be a good example, he decided to lead them as well as organize them, even though he had no prior military experience.

 Known for having a disciplined unit, he soon gained the respect of his men.

 During the early parts of the war, however, his regiment mostly guarded railroads and performed reconnaissance duty.

 However, once he arrived in the area below Lookout Mountain, a change seemed to come over his men. This was perhaps even heralded by the touching greeting from the brass band of the 11th Army Corps under Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard.

 Some conversations with Gen. Howard during his stay helped Col. Harrison, a Presbyterian, grow spiritually, and he soon felt his spirits being lifted in a worldly sense as well. This was in part due to a physical climb up and around the Lookout Mountain battlefield during a tour with Gen. Howard while awaiting further orders.

 He no doubt felt an excitement that he might one day get to take more of a heroic role in the war effort while touring the damaged battlefield nearly four months after the famous “Battle Above the Clouds.”

 “I feel as if I had a character to make…..and shall work night and day to do it and hope to have my labors appreciated,” he said in a letter to his wife, Caroline.

 As spring arrived in the scenic Lookout Mountain valley, he soon felt rejuvenation as well, as he was quickly appointed commandant of the post at Wauhatchie.

 He would be there for several weeks before beginning the march to capture Atlanta while participating nobly as a brigade commander in such battles as Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain and Peachtree Creek. 

He would attain the rank of brigadier general before the end of the war, but that would not be the last respectable title he would enjoy. He would go on to be a U.S. senator before becoming the only president ever elected from Indiana in 1888 as a Republican. 

Some 28 years after being encamped for several weeks below Lookout Mountain, Mr. Harrison came to Chattanooga again on another spring day – April 15, 1891 – in what was apparently the first visit to the Scenic City by a sitting president.

 But Mr. Harrison was in the summer-like zenith of his career, which was to include only one term in the White House before being defeated in 1892 by Democrat and former president Grover Cleveland.

 However, during his visit, he seemed quite popular. At the time, he was taking a somewhat unprecedented transcontinental railroad trip around the South and West of the United States, which at that time numbered 44 states.

 He had come from Knoxville the day before, and was to head to Atlanta, which in 1891 was called the Gate City, after being in Chattanooga.

 His morning only visit to Chattanooga was short in time, but long in activities. After passing through the Ooltewah Station, he and his party enjoyed breakfast at the Sherman Heights station.

 Along the way, crowds greeted the train. After breakfast, he came to the viewing stand of his train car and waved at the onlookers while enjoying a nice Havana cigar.

 He arrived at the Union Depot about 8 a.m., and then rode a streetcar to the Incline Railway for a trip up to the Lookout Point Hotel, near where Point Park is today. The current Incline would not open until 1895, and this was the previous, more circuitous Incline railway.

 President Harrison, in contrast, was quite direct in reminiscing about the familiar landscape around him. Although he did not say, it was likely a highlight of his entire trip through the United States.

 Once back in downtown, his party hopped aboard horse carriages for a ride through parts of McCallie Avenue and downtown and past numerous waving Chattanoogans. Their destination was the two-month-old county bridge, which of course is now known as the Walnut Street Bridge.

 A number of Chattanoogans had been part of his official greeting and escort party. They included H. Clay Evans and Mayor I.B. Merriam, who rode in the carriage with him. Others were Hugh Whiteside, Tomlinson Fort, D.M. Key, H.S. Chamberlain, A.J. Gahagan, Adolph Ochs, C.E. James, T.G. Montague and John Crimmins, among many others.

 With the president, besides his wife, who would die in 1892, was Secretary of Agriculture Jeremiah Rusk and Postmaster General John Wanamaker, the founder of the famed Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia.

 After arriving back at Broad and Ninth streets for an official program after the visit to the bridge, Mr. Harrison gladly reminisced a little for the packed crowd that had gathered. But he also talked glowingly about the Chattanooga of the present he was seeing in 1891.

 “My fellow citizens, I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity of seeing Chattanooga again,” he said. “I saw it last as a camp of a great army. Its only industries were military; its pleasant hilltops were torn with rifle pits; its civic population attendants of an army campaign.

 “I see it today as a great city,” the president continued. “I see these hilltops, then bristling with guns, crowned with happy homes; I see these streets, through which the worn veterans of many campaigns then marched, made glad by the presence of happy children.”

 This man who had visited Chattanooga during two different but equally successful occasions was soon off for Atlanta.

 He was obviously enjoying being here as president, but he had also not forgotten his wartime days here. 

In fact, this was typical of him, according to Jennifer Capps, the curator of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis.

 “He preferred the title of general to president because he felt he had worked so much more to earn the title of general,” she said.

 And much of that work had occurred at the base of Lookout Mountain before climbing his own figurative mountain of personal success.




General Benjamin Harrison
General Benjamin Harrison

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