The Chickamauga Battlefield. It is a January day, the leaves are dead. The sky looks like dull aircraft aluminum.
This U.S. national park sits in the northwest corner of Georgia, at the base of Lookout Mountain. Technically, we are in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. But most people will tell you this is Chattanooga.
The visitor’s center looks like a Greek-Revival mansion with big columns and a gracious porch. If it weren’t for the Columbiad cannons parked out front, you’d never guess this was a Civil War memorial.
Inside the welcome center are tourists. It’s a weekend. And people visit national parks on weekends. There are different languages being spoken all around me.
The clerk in the giftshop tells me Chickmauga is an international tourist hotspot.
“I’ve probably met people from every country,” the clerk says. “You can always spot the foreigners, they’re the ones who say please and thank you.”
I meet a couple from France. They appear to be having a marital argument in rapid-fire French. The female of the couple asks if I am American. I tell her yes, I am. She asks if I can settle their argument.
“Was Elvis from California?” she says. “My husband says he was.”
Far be it from me to interject into a matrimonial spat. But duty calls. “No, ma’am,” I say. “Elvis was not from California.”
She shoves her husband and says, “See? I told you he was from Milwaukee.”
We learn a lot on our tour. The American Civil War, a ranger tells us, is the most written about subject in the world, second only to writings about Jesus. There are throngs of books, monographs and dissertations written about this subject. Daily.
To give you an idea of what that means: There is approximately one book or dissertation written about the Civil War for every 5 people who died in the war itself.
Chickamauga turns out to be your typical National Park Service operation. Friendly staff. Great educational movies. Knowledgeable rangers. Clean bathrooms.
And yet, I find myself wondering why, as an American, I don’t remember learning about Chickamauga in grade school.
We memorized the Gettysburg Address. We learned about Sherman’s March. The Emancipation Proclamation. We learned how to square dance, for crying out loud. Why didn’t we learn about Chickamauga?
One park ranger explains, “Don’t feel bad, lots of Americans never learned about Chickamauga.”
And yet this was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the Civil War, second only to Gettysburg.
Approximately 35,000 died here. I am no historian, but that’s a lot of men.
It’s always odd visiting national cemeteries and battlefields. The mood is usually all over the map.
Sometimes you’ll see some people behaving reverent and solemn. Other people will be laughing, snapping selfies, pushing strollers, or eating picnics. I suppose there is no right or wrong way to behave. But I can’t seem to forget the thousands of bodies beneath my feet.
I meet a couple from Ireland standing before a headstone, hands folded against laps. Heads bowed.
“I lost a relative over here,” says the Irishman. “On my father’s side.”
I meet a man and his son from Korea. He has studied the Civil War extensively. He even wrote a dissertation on the war in college. He wrote his work in both French and English. Classic underachiever.
“Two percent of the American population lost their lives in the Civil War,” he says. “If the same percentage of Americans died today, the number would be over 6 million.”
He also tells me that the number of casualties in the Battle of Antietam alone, in 1862, were four times as many as those killed in Normandy in 1944. More people died in the Battle or Sharpsburg than died in all other wars fought by the United States in the 19th century combined.
I meet an American teenage girl who is having her portrait made on a tombstone. She poses on the grave like a centerfold, passionately pretending to kiss a statue of a fallen soldier.
Later, I meet four American college boys from Ohio, playing football in an open battlefield where kids their age once died.
In the giftshop, I meet a woman from Lebanon, who tells me in a solemn tone:
“When I tour this battlefield, I think about those thousands of young boys, huddled behind trees, holding guns, I can almost hear them praying. I feel their fear when I’m out here.”
I meet another woman from the United Kingdom. She just finished touring the battlefield. This is her first visit. She tells me she was overcome with emotion. She even cried.
I ask her to elaborate because I’m trying to grasp what exactly international visitors walk away from this park feeling.
“I guess,” she explains, “I keep thinking to myself, ‘It’s been 160 years, when will Americans just learn to get along?’”
Foreigners. What do they know?