John Shearer: Jim Ogden Displays Civil War Storytelling Skills To Civitan Club

Friday, June 4, 2021 - by John Shearer
Jim Ogden speaks to Chattanooga Civitan Club Friday
Jim Ogden speaks to Chattanooga Civitan Club Friday
- photo by John Shearer
Do you know the reason why Chattanooga and Chickamauga became the sites of the first national military park, or the private location near Riverview of the northernmost monument that is part of the local national park?
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park staff historian Jim Ogden does, and he shared these and other ear-catching facts that are part of his style with the Chattanooga Civitan Club Friday.
He told the 20 or so people gathered at the Chattanooga Masonic Center across Riverfront Parkway from Finley Stadium that the monument is on the Frank Harrison family farm.
The southernmost, he said, is in LaFayette, Ga.
And Chattanooga became the first park because the Chickamauga battle of the Civil War was won by the Confederates, and the battles in Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain two months later in 1863 were won by the Union.
“Veterans of both sides potentially had something about which to cheer regarding what happened here,” he told the group regarding the motivation.
His talk was filled with other such vivid facts that Chattanoogans who have heard him speak or taken one of his guided tours have become used to hearing. 
In fact, after being assigned to Chattanooga for more than 30 years, he has become as an oral Civil War storyteller for locals what Ken Burns has been through documentary film and the late Bruce Catton and others have been through books on the national stage. He is known as an in-demand historical chronicler of the Civil War.
Mr. Ogden in a brief interview after his talk tried to explain how his vocation and avocation are one in the same.
“I was raised by two educators, and we were expected to learn something,” he said. “And my mother’s family was from Northern Virginia and had both Union and Confederate ancestors. My grandmother was a 1920s UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) member, and so I heard family history. Our vacations were to historic sites, and I just got hit by the history bug.”
Despite that, he did not make it down to see Chattanooga until he was a working adult.
“My first trip here was in the spring of 1982,” he said. “I heard the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park would be hiring some additional summer help because that was the year (banker and civic volunteer) Jake Butcher was going to hold the World’s Fair in Knoxville.”
While the fair did not bring as many people to Knoxville or even Chattanooga as originally envisioned in those waning days of the popularity of world’s fairs, despite a solid overall attendance of 11 million, he was glad it brought him here.
“It got me to Chattanooga,” he said. “I was here that summer and then I went out to Russell Cave National Monument and then at Virginia for 2½ years and then Fredericksburg and then back here in November 1988.”
He said the Civil War fascinates him for several reasons.
“It is the event that has shaped our country the most in the last 245 years,” he said. “There’s the United States before it and the United States after it. It is really understanding the importance of that and what we can learn from it.”
He added somberly that he has found some parallels, such as sharply toned rhetoric, between the last few years in U.S. politics and the time leading up to the Civil War.
In his earlier talk to the club, he outlined how the national military park was planned here, saying that an interest in what had taken place came shortly after the battle of Chickamauga. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was given a tour while visiting Gen. Braxton Bragg, while Union Gen. U.S. Grant was also shown the sites by Gen. George Thomas.
Everyone knew history was being made.
“Even as the battles unfolded in 1863, the participants realized they were taking part in something important,” he said.
A few years later, Henry Van Ness Boynton, a Union officer who had received the Medal of Honor after being wounded at Missionary Ridge, and fellow Union veteran Ferdinand Van Derveer proposed a joint gathering and barbecue here to plan for a park, he said.
“It’s always good to have a little food when you talk about something important,” Mr. Ogden joked.
He said they gathered in the present-day town of Chickamauga on Sept. 20, 1889. Several officials first went to a church to create an association and then attendees heard some outdoor speakers, including former Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown and former Union Gen. W.S. Rosecrans.
Mr. Ogden said they then ate barbecue prepared by a barbecue master from Floyd County, Ga. Over 400 animals, including one goat, were smoked and enjoyed by the 15,000 guests, he added.
The bill creating the park was signed into law the next year with zero no votes, and then land was secured. While rural Chickamauga battlefield could easily be purchased, places around Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge and surrounding Orchard Knob were already being developed.
Mr. Ogden said the Cravens land was already being sold off by family members, and the Cravens Terrace area was already being developed. But they preserved what they could.
“They could create a park where you could at least look out over where the battles had taken place,” Mr. Ogden said.
He said the individual states and their artisans were involved in the creation of markers.
When a formal celebration was held dedicating the park in 1895, thousands descended upon Chattanooga, the speaker said, adding that the mayor, George W. Ochs, set up a tent city to house people in South Chattanooga near the foot of Lookout Mountain. And citizens were encouraged to let veterans and others stay in their homes.
A creative railroad circle route that went over Lookout Mountain was developed using several lines to take visitors back and forth from Chattanooga for the dedication ceremonies by Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Mr. Ogden said.
Monuments continued to be dedicated as the years passed, and Mr. Ogden said that when a Georgia monument was dedicated in 1898, a large flag was draped over it. It was not the Confederate or state of Georgia flag as some today might suggest, but the United States flag.
A show of reconciliation and reunification was the constant theme during this time, he said. As further evidence, he mentioned that the New York Peace Monument dedicated at Point Park in 1910 showed Union and Confederate soldiers joining hands. However, the Confederate soldier has his palm up as a sign of submission, he added.
Mr. Ogden mentioned that Chattanoogans early on took pride in the park, including by naming Boynton Park on Cameron Hill after park leader Boynton. And the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park overall is still important today in demonstrating the ideals for which America stands.
“What they created here has lasted and been continued on by later generations,” he said.
In a question-and-answer session with club members after his talk, he said the park here has more monuments than Gettysburg, and that a federal bill had been brought up in Congress in 2020 to remove Confederate symbols from park monuments, but it did not pass.

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