Our Velveeta War Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee
After our dead-end search for traces of George’s great-grandmother in South Carolina, we set off across the Appalachians in search of my great-grandfather’s Civil War battle site in Franklin, Tennessee. We took a few days to get there, first detouring into Chickamauga National Military Park. The Civil War battlefield had accidently saved a chunk of natural beauty in Chattanooga’s staggeringly ugly suburbs, a greensward built on war corpses. We learned that Civil War veterans had come together here in 1889, giving birth to the very idea of preserving the major battlefields: There will be no place here for…the show of wealth; no place for lovers to bide tryst; no place for pleasure-seekers or loungers.
In fact many visitors used the battlefield for lounging and pleasure seeking —bikers, joggers, and picnickers. I don’t know about trysting, but who knew what was shaking in those blushing thickets?
The battlefield parkland was stately, faithful to its “hallowed ground” sentiment and full of white marble monuments to military units from many states. Weirdly, combat started by accident and ended with a random, surprising breech of Union lines, the Confederates’ last victory on the South’s road to defeat. Often drunk, commanders on both sides could not communicate strategies, leaving troops in uproarious confusion. The Civil War’s second-bloodiest battle after Gettysburg ended with Chickamauga Creek running red.
Sunny and absorbing as this pleasure ground/killing field excursion was, our Chickamauga stopover also felt existential and stomach-churning, revelatory of things we didn’t really want revealed. George wondered about the “utility” of visiting battlefields at all, and I felt a chill, realizing he had named my own doubts about these touristic outings. Utility. The word mocked our very presence here, the very possibility of authenticity in travel and travel writing.
We soldiered on, even so, through the park’s heaps of historical fact. In the museum, we learned of the Union’s overall acceptance of Southern slavery. The North’s real fight and passion was over its extension into the Western territories, not the inhuman institution itself. Even Lincoln’s emancipation move may have been merely strategic. Not exactly our high school lessons of unmitigated Northern virtue.
Earlier, at a Waffle House breakfast, George and I had tried to define our ever-shifting Civil War attitudes over omelets gooey with processed cheese—a Velveeta War Summit. In the down-home chain diner’s cheery, multiracial atmosphere, we discussed our ways of relating to the Civil War, individually as Northern African-American or Average White Guy, or together as Westerners, or as Yankees, in the eyes of locals; and as ordinary modern Americans appalled by secession and slavery. Now at a popular pull-off-spot in the battlefield park, George and I roved different paths. He got itchy as the lone black guy while exploring a watchtower, feeling singled out or unwelcome, sensing the uneasiness of other visitors with his presence. When we rendezvoused at the car, I felt his estrangement. He wondered aloud if he was just being peevish, the unappeasable Race Man.
It stabbed me, how George had to suffer slights, then wonder if he really did. The battlefield was definitely White-landia, not only in the complexions of the visitors, but in the marginal mention of black roles and black stakes in this great battle. Here, of all places, the contest over who really possesses this history, who really belongs, went on and on. “The uneasiness is on both our parts,” George said. “Like neither me nor those white folks can know what the other is thinking. It’s like an awkward dance. The little courtesies just don’t flow. It seems to happen more down South, especially in places where ‘history’ happened. I felt it at Fort Sumter. I felt it in Charleston. Like I’m not supposed to breathe the rarified atmosphere.”
“Maybe we should stick to the Waffle House,” I tried to joke, thinking of the way adoring white waitresses fussed over him. The way a trio of girls at a fast food joint had gasped in joy, mistaking George for President Obama. Then he got to Chickamauga, and damn! That white stare that asks, what the fuck are you doing here?
At our last battlefield stop, a hilly overlook, vintage muscle cars lined the lane. Each one featured pairs of young women with fluorescent hair. We were told it was a photo shoot for a Chattanooga salon, Zombie Candi. The stylists posed, all
laughter and playful hauteur, while alone on the hood of one of the cars was the single black girl. George glanced at her, smiling sardonically. “I know just how she feels.”
* * * *
After Chickamauga’s battlefields, in old Rossville, we sought Cherokee chief John Ross’s house, a now-dilapidated wood structure surrounded by smelly ponds and helter-skelter commercial buildings.
I wondered what John Ross, the founder of Chattanooga, would think of the suburban town named in his honor. Rossville’s ugliness, notable even by metro Chattanooga standards, sprawled with no value but expediency. Here was a town which looked as if nothing was ever planned or improved over a couple hundred years. The site of one of America’s most tragic ethnic cleansings, Rossville today was nearly all-white, a centerless heap of strip businesses from the twentieth century’s cheap-gas car craze.
How beautiful the forests and hills must have been—like those shrouding the nearby Chickamauga battlefield—when Chief Ross lived here. Leaving aside Ross’s conflicting reputations as either the Moses of the Cherokee or an exploitative fraud, a blunt plaque underscored Andrew Jackson’s hostility to the Cherokee plight. After Ross failed in complicated legal challenges to stop the Indian Removal Act, in 1838 the Cherokee were ejected from Georgia and Tennessee on that deadly and torturous forced march to present-day Oklahoma , the Trail of Tears. Reduced to leading the removal himself, Ross lost his wife, who died en route.
A chain-link fence barred us from the historic home. It was a sad but apt commemoration: visitors fenced-out of the story, clinging instead to the metal bars and wondering which side encircled the real prison.
Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness. In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip. I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.
When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.” From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise. His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too. She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.
George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee. The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.
Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling). In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger. We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history. The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.
The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds. When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”
We learned about European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum. Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty. Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.
This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance. A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.
We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative. We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better: a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.
George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.