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Conflicting Memories on the “River of Death”: The Chickamauga Battlefield and the Spanish-American War, 1863-1935

 Bradley S. Keefer,  Kent State University Press

Bradley Keefer’s absorbing new book explores the rich history of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. Established in 1896 to commemorate the sacrifices of Northerners and Southerners—thanks to Union veterans Henry Boynton and Ferdinand Van Derveer—the park was also supposed to encourage tourism and economic development, promote the concept of reunion and serve as a training ground for present-day soldiers.

Keefer’s study begins with the battle itself, highlighting the conflicting accounts that resulted from the confusing battle. Chickamauga was not unique in that contradictory memories surfaced about the fighting after the war. But the veterans could at least agree on one thing: The ferocity of the fighting there was unmatched in the Western Theater. Boynton and Van Derveer’s efforts to create a battlefield park would have failed without the assistance of Confederate veterans, who also worked tirelessly to see their vision of the battle preserved.

The U.S. War Department used the park as a training facility in the summer of 1898, when the nation was preparing for its war against Spain. Civil War veterans were initially enthusiastic about this new conflict, which built on the concepts of reunification and patriotism. After William McKinley declared war against Spain in April 1898, the training camp at Chickamauga began to receive men and materiel to prepare for an invasion of Cuba. When hundreds of volunteers died in a typhoid fever epidemic, however, battle lines were drawn. On one side were Spanish-American War troops, who saw the park as a disease-ridden installation, a symbol of senseless death. On the other were Civil War veterans trying to preserve the battlefield’s memory.

Keefer concedes that the battlefield did not become a “sacred site” like Gettysburg, but it succeeded in promoting the collective memories of the men who had helped to create it. In addition to Chickamauga NMP, their idea spawned the entire military park system as Americans know it today.

The narrative deftly documents the controversies surrounding this pivotal battle. But readers will also gain an understanding of historical memory, preservation, military politics, the concept of manhood, commemorative activities and the spirit of reconciliation during the postwar era.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.