Last week I gave a presentation to the Western North Carolina Civil War Round Table and took advantage of the proximity to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time. My visit included a trip to the tallest point in the park–Clingmans Dome. As I had happened to assume, the site is named for General Thomas Clingman.
I am most familiar with Clingman from giving walking tours of the June 1st battlefield at Cold Harbor. Clingman commanded a brigade of North Carolina infantry belonging to Robert Hoke’s division. Clingman’s left flank met the right of William Wofford’s Georgians at a marshy stream afterward known as Bloody Run. Both assumed the other brigade guarded the ravine. The Union Sixth Corps attack that evening sliced through the weak spot in the line and forced the Confederates to fall back to the position from which they would repel the infamous attack two days later. The success of the June 1st attack helped contribute to U.S. Grant’s overconfidence.
In the aftermath of the June 3rd fighting at Cold Harbor, Clingman continued a fight of his own with Richmond and North Carolina newspapers who had criticized his brigade’s performance. Nevertheless, biographical sketches from his own state admit that Clingman’s “unremarkable” military career was “without special distinction.”
Thus, outside of Civil War circles, it stands to reason that the North Carolinian might be more famous for what he did outside of 1861-1865. Clingman served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in the late 1840s and through most of the 1850s. He also extensively explored North Carolina’s mountainous region. He believed that he had identified the tallest peak (which now bears his name), but his former professor Elisha Mitchell’s namesake mountain beat his claim by forty-one feet.
To visit Clingmans Dome today, one can drive a seven-mile spur off of U.S. Highway 441 (the main road through the park) to reach the bottom of a paved half-mile trail up to the summit. The short hike is quite steep but it does lead to an observation platform towering over the trees at the top. Visitors must consider the park’s name, however, as during my visit the visibility was completely blocked by the great smoky clouds. To be fair I would have been disappointed if I did not see the park’s namesake view (or lake thereof) during my visit. It was also really neat to see the clouds rolling over the top of the mountain and there are great views further down the mountain as well. I also received a little lesson on a Civil War personality as a bonus.