Civil War Veterans Often Returned For Chattanooga Get-Togethers

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - by John Shearer
Old Chattanooga Times articles and advertisements on 1913 Civil War reunion in town
Old Chattanooga Times articles and advertisements on 1913 Civil War reunion in town
- photo by John Shearer

Exactly 150 years ago, Union Civil War forces retreated to Chattanooga after losing the Battle of Chickamauga, and the surrounding Confederate Army’s siege of the city was underway.

One hundred years ago this month, thousands of Union veterans descended on Chattanooga as well, and a few Confederate veterans joined them. However, this time the objective was to have fun and reminisce.

From Sept. 15-20, 1913, the boys in blue and a few gray coats were in Chattanooga as part of the Grand Army of the Republic’s annual reunion and encampment.

The GAR was the umbrella organization formed after the Civil War for all Union veterans, and the group met annually in different cities. In 1913 they were in Chattanooga – no doubt due to the 50th anniversary of the local Civil War battles.

The United Confederate Veterans had also met in Chattanooga in late May 1913.

Although both Union and Confederate veterans sometimes met at the same time for special events – such as the dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in 1895 – this event in September 1913 was just for the GAR.

However, some members of the Forrest Camp of the United Confederate Veterans joined the gathering and, in a touching scene, were eventually able to take part in the parade.

By this time, many of the former Union soldiers were around 70 years old, so they were enjoying no doubt a slower pace than in the dangerous and exciting days of the 1860s.

But they were still able to occupy themselves with the present as much as the past during the 1913 gathering. 

This was especially true in an unusual event held on Sept. 16 – the crashing of two train engines into each other at Warner Park while the machines were going about 30 miles an hour.

The show was being promoted by Wallace Bathman and Hayes Brummett, and $50 in gold was being offered by Stagmaier and Co. to either engineer A.H. Capehart or G. W. Colset (whose name was also mentioned as Colson in the story).

After a little building up of suspense, the two trains started toward each other and the engineers jumped off their respective trains when their speeds reached about 20 miles an hour.

While it was considered by the Chattanooga Times reporter as a “scenic success” for the spectators watching the two engines crash and do equal damage – resulting in the gold prize being split evenly – it was called a financial failure for the promoters.

This was evidently because only 4,000 paid $1 for grandstand seats or 50 cents for standing room only to witness the event in the rainy conditions. Another 3,000 viewed the event for free from outside the grounds or on rooftops of houses surrounding the park.

For those looking for additional entertainment, Pain’s “Battle in the Clouds” show about the Chattanooga battles took place at Andrews Field, later the site of Engel Stadium. It concluded daily with an expensive fireworks display.

And as an early forerunner of the Senior Olympics, a 100-yard dash race and a three-mile run competition were being staged at the Boynton tent. Whether that was at Boynton Park on Cameron Hill is not known.

As could be expected, more entered the 100-yard dash/jog than the long-distance run.

Plenty of other events were held during the gathering and were perhaps more meaningful in reliving the 1860s’ days of danger and challenges.

A booklet with supposed documentation was distributed among the gathering stating that Capt. John Wilson of the Eighth Kentucky Union Infantry had indeed being the first to plant the Union flag on Lookout Mountain after the Confederates were driven from it on Nov. 24, 1863.

A claim had also been made over the years that a squad from the 29th Pennsylvania Regiment had reached the top first.

Perhaps the most realistic event was kind of a re-creation of the Battle of Missionary Ridge by members of the 17th U.S. Infantry and three companies of the Tennessee state militia.

Veterans, including GAR commander-in-chief A.B. Beers, gathered at both Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge for the event, which included realistically sounding booms of weapons fire.

The event also featured music while the veterans were gathered on Orchard Knob for the military maneuvers. Just before a signal was fired, one older veteran standing near the band sang the entire version of “Just Before the Battle, Mother” and was given a rousing applause.

Music was evidently not lacking during the entire gathering, as a popular attraction was the singing of old-time war songs and other tunes in the lobby of the five-year-old Hotel Patten every night.

Among the other events, naval veterans gathered at the Masonic Temple at Seventh and Cherry streets one night for a ceremonial “dog watch” event to tell old war stories. One older man, a Capt. Fay, said he had been on the Monitor when it sailed from New York to attack the Merrimac, and he wanted to describe the journey for the crowd.

However, a Commodore Van Tassel stood up and said that he heard that only one man from the Monitor was still living in Philadelphia, and he would not let Capt. Fay finish his story due to the late hour. Capt. Fay became angry and left the hall.

Hurt feelings were apparently the only casualties when the Blue and Gray gathered in Chattanooga this time, but it apparently did take place several times.

A group of Confederate veterans from the Forrest Camp were in town camping near the area of the Brabson House – due to the lack of hotels for the thousands of visitors – and they thought they were to take part in the big parade scheduled for Sept. 17.

However, Mr. Beers had said it was strictly for GAR members, causing a little embarrassment to the Ohio veterans group that had invited them.

When the parade was held, some Ohio members who evidently did not like the ruling decided to have some of the Confederates march with them. It was perhaps reconciliation at its best.

Most people apparently were not angry with Mr. Beers, as he received an honorary medal during the week, a piece of decoration that was apparently just sold on eBay in recent weeks for $26.

The refusal to allow the Forrest Camp group to be invited to march or the drizzling rain apparently did not dampen any spirits, as some 50,000 people watched the 1 hour, 20 minute parade along Broad Street and elsewhere with much excitement.

Some 12,000 veterans took part, including former black troops from Kentucky and other states.

War veteran and poet/scout Jack Crawford also marched and received quite an ovation, due to his fame at the time.

Conspicuously not there was Tennessee Gov. Ben Hooper, who apparently thought it was politically advantageous not to come, perhaps because Confederate sympathy was much stronger in most of Tennessee 50 years after the war.

The Chattanooga Times criticized his absence, pointing out that he had been gladly greeting nearly everyone at the United Confederate Veterans gathering in Chattanooga back in May.

The GAR parade was one of two held in Chattanooga during the week, and motion picture news photographers from the Universal Film company and Pathe Weekly were here to capture them.

Movie making was a new technology, as were the number of automobiles no doubt spotted around town.

But as these veterans would unfortunately see, wars were both old and new. The Spanish-American War had taken place less than 15 years earlier, and World War I was just over the horizon.

But in September 1913, it was simply time to remember with comfort and fun the once-trying time that was the Civil War.

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