Henry Boynton, Battlefield Preservation, and Civil War Memory
Emerging Civil War welcome back guest author Colonel (ret) Ed Lowe…
Civil War battlefields evoke a range of emotions in visitors. One may imagine the Confederate attacks against Major General George Meade’s lines at Gettysburg or the Union gunboats battling their way through Vicksburg’s defenses. As I look up at Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, I hear the men of Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland yell, “Chickamauga, Chickamauga!” as they scaled the heights, causing Braxton Bragg and the Army of Tennessee to flee into Georgia. One man who put those raw emotions and deep reflections into action was a veteran of that assault up Missionary Ridge in November 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Van Ness Boynton. Boynton sustained a debilitating wound while leading the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry up the ridge, an action that led to his receipt of the Medal of Honor. Boynton put forth his energies into battlefield preservation after spending many years as a journalist with the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette. He looked no further for a suitable preservation site than the major battles he fought and bled in, Chickamauga and Chattanooga.
Henry was born in Massachusetts in 1835. The family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio when Henry was just a small child. Turning down an appointment at West Point, Henry graduated from the Kentucky Military Institute at the top of his class. When the Civil War began, Boynton helped to recruit and train soldiers in Ohio, eventually finding a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Organized under the Army of the Ohio, the regiment saw little action at Mill Springs, Shiloh, Perryville, and Stones River; however, the regiment did participate in Major General Henry Halleck’s Corinth campaign. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Boynton found himself leading the regiment when its colonel led the brigade. The regiment’s participation in the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga proved significant driving Boynton’s passion for battlefield preservation. As historian Tim Smith concluded, these battles proved “events that would change Boynton’s life.”[i]
In 1888, Boynton took his journalistic skills into a completely different passion, Civil War memory, and battlefield preservation. Just 25 years removed from the scars of combat, the push for safeguarding those same bloody fields tugged at Boynton’s heartstrings. Boynton made his intent clear: “The survivors of the Army of the Cumberland should awake to great pride in this notable field of Chickamauga. Why should it not, as well as Eastern fields, be marked by monuments, and its lines accurately preserved for history?” Perhaps as a means of reconciliation, Boynton continued, “both sides might well unite in preserving the field where both, in a military sense, won such renown.” Boynton laid the foundation for what would become the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.[ii]
The period of the 1890s proved the ideal time for such a preservation movement. The dozen-plus years of Reconstruction left a bitter taste for many Americans, both from the war itself and Federal efforts afterward; time was beginning to heal the emotional wounds from the war. Veterans recognized their endurance to pursue preservation efforts was waning through aging. A strong sense of urgency resonated with the veterans, both from the North and South, for action in this endeavor. Perhaps more importantly from a historical context, the massive Federal undertaking to print The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies provided a much-needed resource to the American public, allowing for a detailed examination of the war. Though less prominent at the time, urbanization and industrialization would soon reshape the landscape. As historian Tim Smith concluded, “Boynton and the other veterans’ efforts could not have come at a better time.”[iii]
Boynton, however, recognized this monumental task was something he could not complete on his own. He needed assistance and he had to look no further than veterans from the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, both Union and Confederate. Gaining momentum through articles he published, in the summer of 1888 Boynton and Ferdinand Van Derveer, another Chickamauga Union veteran, walked the fields of that September 1863 battle.[iv] Ideas took shape. The following year veterans established a joint Chickamauga Memorial Association, with Union and Confederate veterans from “each state to be represented in proportion to the number of troops it had engaged in the battle.” The association’s first meeting occurred during the annual reunion of The Society of the Army of the Cumberland, held in September 1889 in Chattanooga. The veterans gave a rousing endorsement to establish a national military park. Chickamauga and Chattanooga veterans from the Union side included the commander of the Army of the Cumberland at the time of the battle, William Rosecrans, Absalom Baird, John Palmer, Thomas Wood, and John Brannan. Confederate representation included the likes of Lee’s “Old Warhorse,” James Longstreet, Joseph Wheeler, William Bate, Edward Walthall, and Alexander P. Stewart.[v]
With the formation of the Chickamauga Memorial Association, Boynton saw the preservation efforts as two-fold. First, it would help preserve the nation’s rich history. Second, the battlefield would open itself for future study by America’s military leaders. As Boynton concluded, “the two together form one of the most valuable object lessons in the art of war, and one which, looking solely to the interests of the public, may properly be preserved.” Even William Rosecrans acknowledged it was sure to “inspire the soul or fire the heart of an American soldier.” Patriotism, reconciliation, and prideful remembrances proved the very foundation of what Boynton and others sought to achieve.[vi]
With many Civil War veterans occupying seats in the U.S. Congress, the passage of a bill to bring the military park to life moved relatively quickly through both houses. President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill on August 20, 1890. The bill included $125,000 to purchase the Chickamauga battlefield and approaching roads, including those along Missionary Ridge and Lafayette Road. As historian Tim Smith indicated, “The creation of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park as a park was also pathbreaking in that it included, and even mandated inclusion of, both sides of the Civil War. Gettysburg was moving in that direction but Chickamauga/Chattanooga was the first park so created.”[vii] As Boynton proudly proclaimed, “there is probably no other [field] in the world which presents a more formidable natural obstacle to great military operations than the slopes of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, while, as shown, there is no field that surpasses Chickamauga in the deadliness and persistence of its fighting.”[viii]
With approval from Washington behind them, the committee moved toward a formal park dedication that occurred in September 1895. Along with the dedication of several state monuments during the remembrances, many dignitaries made their way to the battlefield. Vice President Adlai Stevenson I (Adlai Stevenson’s grandson lost in two presidential contests to Dwight D. Eisenhower and served as the U.S. representative to the United Nations during the Kennedy administration) served as the primary attendee from the executive branch, which included four cabinet members. Fifteen state governors arrived and thirty-two senators and representatives rounded out those on behalf of the Congress.[ix] Some estimates placed overall attendance at 50,000 participants.
Veterans representing both the North and South gave rousing speeches throughout the many events. Confederate veteran John Gordon set the tone reflecting “that our Civil War was fought, not between friends of freedom on one side and its foes on the other, but between its friends on both sides.” Union veteran John Schofield pointed out that what the Founding Fathers had sought to establish “has now been fully and firmly established by the sacrifices which you, my comrades, laid at the feet of our common country.” Striking a tone of both reconciliation and patriotism, Union veteran John Palmer emphasized, “we meet as citizens of a common country, devoted to its interests, and alike ready to maintain its honor, wherever or however assailed.” For the official dedication of the park on September 20th, Vice President Stevenson reminded all those attending that “they meet, not in deadly conflict, but as brothers, under one flag.”[x] The tones of brotherhood and reconciliation rang loud and clear over those couple of days; healing of sorts had occurred, for veterans and the nation.
The question of racial issues in American society, however, remained just beneath the surface. While reconciliation between former combatants seemed somewhat restored, the steps made for racial progress immediately after the war appeared but a distant and fading memory. The passages of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments shortly after the war provided little comfort for blacks in 1890s America, especially with the government-sanctioned decision that drove the separate but equal doctrine of the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson into the American lexicon. While many Americans sought to heal the deep wounds resulting from the war, “the 1890s saw a retreat from the issues of race, thus allowing segregation to run rampant in the South as well as the North.”[xi] It would take another fifty-eight years before the unanimous overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Meanwhile, the park forged ahead as an ideal location for study by future military leaders.
The nation utilized the Chickamauga battlefield when war broke out with Spain in 1898. 70,000 soldiers, 8,000 horses, and 6,000 mules made their way through Chickamauga. Nearly the same number of men passed through the Chickamauga battlefield during the years of World War I. For park officials in both instances, a massive cleanup restored the park to its configuration before the troops’ arrival.[xii] Nonetheless, Boynton and Vanderveer had conjured up such practical applications for the park as they walked the fields many years earlier; thus, fulfilling one of the park’s initial purposes.
Mark Thrash arrived at the Chickamauga battlefield just days after the fighting had ended. He was immediately struck by the carnage, the bloated bodies of dead soldiers, horses, and cattle across the landscape. Thrash, however, offered a unique perspective; he was a slave. Along with his brother and other slaves, authorities pressed them into service to bury the dead. Chickamauga Park authorities hired him in 1894 to assist in monument laying and road construction. Thrash retired in 1922 after twenty-eight years of service. He lived on the battlefield for over 51 years and enthralled park visitors with his tales, often proudly wearing a coat he claimed General Grant had given to him. Thrash lived until 1943. Today, an informational marker at Longstreet’s headquarters on the Dyer Field discusses the park’s longtime and much-beloved resident, Mark Thrash.[xiii]
Today, Henry Boynton’s impact is still felt. Boynton died in 1905, leaving an indelible impression on America’s landscape with national military parks across the land. Boynton proved instrumental in the planning and construction of other national military parks, including Vicksburg, Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg. Today, Boynton’s impact and influence can be seen in Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Parks through a visit to one of Chickamauga’s primary terrain features, Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill. This is the site of fierce fighting on September 20, 1863, and where Major General George Thomas earned the title, “Rock of Chickamauga.” Consisting primarily of three distinct hills, one can walk from the parking area past a set of monuments up to Hill #2. There, off to the corner, is a lone monument for the 35th Ohio Infantry. The deliberate placement of the regiment’s monument on Hill #2 shows Boynton’s influence on the park’s construction and monument placement. Three other regiments (87th Indiana, 2nd Minnesota, and 9th Ohio) fought alongside the 35th Ohio at Chickamauga. No other regimental markers exist on Hill #2, however. Therefore, a visitor could leave the battlefield with the impression that the 35th Ohio fought on Hill #2 all alone with no support. Henry Boynton commanded the 35th Ohio Infantry during the battle of Chickamauga. As Boynton may have predicted, as a result of the monuments’ placement, visitors could not help but be moved by the bravery and tenacity of the 35th Ohio soldiers against numerous Confederate attacks. Perhaps, during your next visit to the Chickamauga battlefield, you can visit Hill #2 and experience it for yourself. It’s worth the trip!
COL (ret) Ed Lowe served 26 years on active duty in the U.S. Army with deployments to Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Haiti, Afghanistan (2002 & 2011), and Iraq (2008). He attended North Georgia College and has graduate degrees from California State University, U.S. Army War College, U.S. Command & General Staff College, and Webster’s University. He is currently an adjunct professor for the University of Maryland/Global Campus & Elizabethtown College, where he teaches history and government. He is currently working on two books for Savas Beatie. The first covers Longstreet’s First Corps from Gettysburg to East Tennessee, and the second is an Emerging Civil War Series book on Longstreet’s East Tennessee Campaign. He is married with two daughters and lives in Ooltewah, Tennessee. He currently serves as President of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga Civil War Round Table, reconstituted in September of 2020.
[i] Boynton, Henry (2010) The battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and the organizations engaged. Reprint. University of Tennessee Press; Society of the Army of the Cumberland: Thirty-Third Reunion, Chattanooga, TN 1905; Smith, Timothy (2010) Henry Van Ness Boynton and Chickamauga: The pillars of the modern military park movement. In Steven Woodworth (Eds.), The Chickamauga Campaign (pp. 166-167). Southern Illinois University Press.
[ii] Boynton, General H.V. (1891) Chattanooga and Chickamauga: A reprint of Gen. H.V. Boynton’s letters to the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette. Geo. R. Gray.
[iii] Smith, The pillars of the modern military park, 174; Murray, Jennifer M. (2014) On a great battlefield: The making, management, and memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. Knoxville, TN, 82.
[iv] Livingood James W. (1964) Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, No. 23, 3,7.
[v] Boynton, H.V. (1895) The National Military Park – Chickamauga-Chattanooga: An historical guide. The Robert Clarke Company, 258; Smith, Timothy (2009). A Chickamauga Memorial: The establishment of America’s first Civil War National Military Park. Knoxville, TN, 20-21; Davis, Sam (1999) Soldier of Tennessee: General Alexander P. Stewart and the Civil War in the West. Baton Rouge, 286-287.
[vi] Boynton, The National Military Park, 247, 258.
[vii] Smith, A Chickamauga Memorial, 34-35.
[viii] Boynton, The National Military Park, 285.
[ix] Davis, Soldier of Tennessee, 289.
[x] Boynton, Henry Van (1896) Dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, September 18-20, 1895. Reprint. Washington, DC, 38-39, 42, 66-68.
[xi] Smith, The golden age of battlefield preservation, 33.
[xii] Ibid., 71-73.
[xiii] Addison, Stephen O. (1991) Seen the Glory: Mark Thrash buried the dead at Chickamauga, self-published, 4-8.
2 Responses to Henry Boynton, Battlefield Preservation, and Civil War Memory
Thank you for the refreshing perspective on the insights and hard work that preserved the gem of the battlefields. Thirty years have passed since I visited these sites — far too long.
Thank you for the kind words.