Editor’s note: Now it strikes me I’ve spent entirely too much time poking about in Uncle Sam’s backyard over the past decade.
Time after time, I’ve set out across the country in a fit of wanderlust, burning up nonrenewable resources with inexcusable profligacy and searching in vain for answers to questions I can’t fully articulate.
In late May of 2007, I flew to Raleigh, N.C., and met up with Lauri Lebo, author, chicken mama, bon vivant and all around super woman. We careened across the country in her black Jetta, making stops in Cosby, Tenn., Tallapoosa, Ga., Tuskegee, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., New Orleans and on and on westward until she dropped me off at the airport in Phoenix. The narrative below finds us first in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., and then eight miles to the south engaged in a twilight tour of the Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga.
Since I’m such a big fan of digressions, here’s one: When I was a kid, my family came this way to visit a friend of my dad’s in Lookout Mountain, Tenn. We got lost on a serpentine mountain road without guardrails, probably much like the ones moonshine runners navigated under moonlight in the old days. My mom, sister and I closed our eyes, chewed our nails and tried not to look over the precipice while my dad labored valiantly to get us safely off that mountain.
The reason we were lost? While our friends’ address identified their hometown as Lookout Mountain, Tenn., they actually lived across the border in Georgia.
We arrived at the Chickamauga with the sun on the decline, and set out for a hit-and-run tour of and the site of the watershed battle in Sept. 19-20, 1863.
But first, we spent a little time in Chattanooga proper.
Today we checked out of our temporary home at the local Knights Inn and cruised into downtown Chattanooga. They calls it Chattanugga here, according to Rebecca Raymond, kindly volunteer at the regional history museum at Fourth and Chestnut (the history museum is no longer here. The spot now hosts a high-rise, luxury hotel, I think).
I was engaging in my usual, aimless conversation with Rebecca when Lauri interrupted with a direct question about moonshiners.
Rebecca, who described herself with good humor as “a raging Southern liberal,” directed us to the library at 10th and Broad. Lauri repaired to the Starbucks on Broad to chat with, well, to chat with someone whom neither of us can quite recall.
I’d sorta been on a moonshine bender since the beginning of the trip, when we drove through the hills of North Carolina and Tennessee and spent a day with an old whiskey runner named Me-do.
At the library, I found a book, “The Moonshiners” by Henry M. Wiltse, published in 1895. I scribbled down some notes over the course of a couple hours of feverish research, most of which I cannot read. The helpful staff also supplemented that with a file folder stuffed with liquor-control-related press clippings.
While Cosby, Tenn., claims the title of Moonshine Capital of America, others have conferred upon Chattanooga’s Sand Mountain status as the “Cradle of Moonshine.”
This I discovered in an old clipping from Collier’s magazine.
In January of 1920, in the wake of Prohibition’s onset, a husband-and-wife team from Alabama turned a summer of mountain research into a three-story series in Collier’s. From West Virginia to Georgia, V.H. and R.R. Cornell found the Appalachians “literally honeycombed with homemade stills for the illicit manufacture of the beverage known familiarly as Moonshine, Blue John and Mountain Dew.”
In a way it was the golden age of moonshine. Illicit liquor that sold for $1 or $1.50 a gallon before World War I now could fetch $10-$20 for the same gallon.
Interesting as it was, the overall tone of “It’s All Moonshine” was condescending and no little bit judgmental. The writers lamented the “demoralizing effect” moonshining had on the uncultured mountain folk who had taken them into their confidence. Still, they allowed, stopping it was difficult business as long as good, civilized people in the cities like Chattanooga and Birmingham insisted on slaking their thirst for illicit booze.
Thanks to the generosity of their subjects, the Cornells trudged without fear into remote mountain hollows shrouded by “tangles of house-high blackberry bushes” and “dense wild plum thickets” to observe moonshine stills in operation.
And yet, the best they could say for their subjects was “the moonshiner is not vicious. He is like a child – ready to behave anytime Uncle Sam makes him behave.”
They admitted their subjects were at worst conscientious craftsmen: “These home manufacturers are, almost without exception, averse to poisoning their customers with anything but whiskey.”
Still, an illegal operation always can turn dangerous.
A little more than a year later, on May 28, 1921, Walker County Sheriff Albert Catron was shot and killed by a moonshine runner on Lookout Mountain. Tipped off that a deal was in the works, Catron and U.S. deputy marshal W.A. Wardlaw led a posse into a place called Nickajack Gap at 3 a.m., where they discovered a Ford with its top down parked on the roadside.
Officers later would find 26 gallons of whiskey in the car.
Catron said something like, “Boys, what have you got in the car?”
Two of the moonshiners took off running. The third, James Douglass, opened fire, wounding the deputy and Catron, who died later at a Chattanooga hospital.
“Oh, Bill, I am shot,” Catron is reported to have said. “He has killed me.”
James Douglass was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. His case went to the Georgia Supreme Court, which granted him a new trial, largely because police at the scene failed to properly identify themselves as officers of the law.
Ultimately, Douglass again was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The New York Times ran a story on the killing. It’s an interesting read, particularly if like me you’re one of those people who occasionally wring their hands and decry that the quality of journalism ain’t what it used to be. Maybe used-to-be never was.
Under the headline “Moonshiner Kills Georgia Sheriff” ran a subordinate headline: “Also wounds deputy – lynching possible if posse capture trio of fugitives.”
After describing the scene and noting that residents of Walker County had ponied up a $2,000 reward for the arrest of the killer (or information leading to said arrest), the story offered quite bluntly that “large posses are now searching Sand Mountain in search of the fleeing moonshiners, and it is likely that a lynching will follow their capture.”
And then, without any supporting evidence or sources, the story closed with this doozy:
“It is thought that the man who did the shooting knew that he was firing at Sheriff Catron and did so with the deliberate purpose of killing him in revenge for the jailing of some of his kinsmen or friends.”
In other news, it is thought that all 21 victims of the Pakistan drone strike were terrorists who gathered with the deliberate purpose to ruin America’s day in revenge for detaining or otherwise insulting some of their kinsmen or friends.” Twas ever thus, I suppose.
Meanwhile the Internet, for all its foibles, is something of a miraculous place. With a couple deft searches I found the full text of the Collier’s articles, the Times story and a ruling in the South Eastern Reporter wherein the Georgia high court granted Douglass a new trial.
Of course, the Web also saddled me with a lot of information of dubious utility. Perhaps it would have been better to simply write “in 1921, a moonshiner shot and killed a local sheriff on Lookout Mountain” and leave it at that. But I have a weakness for additional information, a weakness the Internet ruthlessly abets.
In any case, that would paint a portrait of the old-time moonshiner that is at best incomplete. By all accounts, they weren’t a murderous lot. They were generally peaceable, and they tended to accept their occasional incarceration as an occupational hazard.
“I have pinned many a moonshiner down to an admission that he was a lawbreaker,” wrote the Collier’s authors, “but never to the acknowledgement that he therefore was a criminal.”
Off topic, the Cornells, in their discussion of the riches to be had making moonshine in an era of Prohibition, introduced me to an expression that had somehow escaped my notice, probably because it has been an anachronism for 75 years: “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”
Con man J. Rufus Wallingford was the hero of George Randolph Chester’s serialized stories in Cosmopolitan. They eventually were published in book form in 1907 as “Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford: A Cheerful Account of the Rise and Fall of an American Business Buccaneer.”
But that’s another story. There is a movie out there, from 1931, called “The New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford.” I’d like to see that.
Chickamauga’s where I been …
After a while it came time to put aside the moonshine obsession. I met up with Lauri, and we drove out of Chattanooga and crossed over into northern Georgia. We arrived at Chickamauga around 6:30. The visitors center was closed, we set out on foot across McDonald’s Field, heading south along the Lafayette Road.
Here Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee won something of a Pyrrhic victory over William Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. In winning the battle, the Confederates failed to cut the Federals off from Chattanooga and thus guaranteed their own defeat. It all added up to a ghastly two days in September of 1863. At roughly 35,000 casualties, and 4,000 dead, it ranks second to Gettysburg among the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.
Night was falling fast as we got out of the car, so we had little time for complicated maneuvers.
It is surprisingly easy to appreciate a great and complex battlefield in a short but determined campaign on foot. Before long I sat on the cool, concrete base of the cannonball memorial to Brig. Gen. Benjamin Hardin Helm, Confederate States of America. Later, Lauri would point out another marker identifying the ill-fated officer as Lincoln’s brother-in-law.
The field was sparsely populated as twilight descended, and a scene of remarkable stillness and repose greeted me as I wandered a few hundred feet east of Lafayette Road to check out Helm’s memorial and a similar one dedicated to Col. Peyton Colquitt.
Both fell on the morning of Sept. 20.
Helm, 32, was the son of Kentucky governor John LaRue Helm, who had opposed secession. He was a state legislator himself in addition to being the husband of Emilie Todd, Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-sister. His Orphan Brigade was on the left wing of Breckenridge’s division during the late-morning assault. He was shot out of his saddle by a Kentucky rifleman, carted off the field here during Leonidas Polk’s failed attack on the Union left. He died the following day.
Colquitt, a former newspaper editor and Georgia state senator, was a true son of the South. His father, Walter Colquitt, was a U.S. senator and a fervent states-rights advocate. His brother, Gen. Alfred Colquitt, was a former U.S. senator who would serve as governor of Georgia after the war.
Fittingly, Peyton Colquitt was mortally wounded while leading a brigade belonging to Gen. States Rights Gist into a terrific slaughter in an effort to plug a hole in the Rebel right. State Rights Gist. Really. That was his given name. His father was a fire-eater who worshiped at the shrine of John C. Calhoun.
Squirrels rustled in the dense undergrowth, a single bird sang a lilting refrain. Four deer stood indifferent to the momentous history that occurred here 144 years ago. A wreath had been left by a detachment from the GBH Helm Camp of Elizabethtown, Ky. Not a person stirred. I sat among a tapestry of cool tranquility.
I reconnoitered with Lauri across the Lafayette Road at historical marker No. 1, which commemorates Slocumb’s battery on the extreme right of the Rebel line. We tromped south on the Battle Line Road. We soon came to the place where Rosecrans fucked up and ordered Thomas Wood to fill a gap that didn’t exist and thereby created one that unfortunately did, allowing Bushrod – yes, Bushrod – Johnson’s division to pour through and essentially win the day for the Confederates.
Unlike Helm and Colquitt, Bushrod Rush Johnson was an unlikely Confederate hero. He was born in Belmont, Ohio, just 80 miles from Pittsburgh, in 1840. His parents were Quakers and strident abolitionists. He graduated from West Point in 1840 in the same class with George Thomas and William Tecumseh Sherman.
Around 1847 the arc of his military career, you might say, went south. He pitched a fraudulent real estate scheme and was turned in by his would-be conspirator, effectively killing his career in the U.S. Army.
He married a girl named Mary Hatch (and I thought she wanted her babies to look like George Bailey), settled in Nashville and became a born-again Confederate.
Whilst Lauri checked out the restored Brotherton House, which the Rebels stormed past as they overran the Federal position, I pushed the button that triggered Bushrod’s breathless and romantic description of the Gallant Slaughter.
It was all, in a word or two, “unspeakably grand,” but that wouldn’t stop Bushrod from bespeaking its grandeur at length.
Among said grandeur were:
the impetuous and resolute charge,
the rush of heavy columns sweeping out
from the shadow and gloom of the forest
the open field, flooded with light.
Also included, in no particular ranking of grandeur:
- glittering arms
- whistling balls
- mounted men
- retreat of the foe
- noise of firearms
- whistling balls
- bursting shells
It all added up to a scene of “unsurpassed grandeur.”
Among those niggling details omitted:
- freshly maimed, formerly whole men
- newly minted corpses
- disembodied limbs
- puddles of blood
- cries of agony
- death throes
- shit-soiled breeches
It was quite a lot to digest.
With the gloaming advancing on all sides, we cut across the Dyer Road, sacrificing map-designated points of interest Nos. 5, 6 and 7, and advanced toward what we hoped would be Snodgrass Hill, where one of warfare’s all-time great nicknames was born.
We trudged, resolute and impetuous, through hip-high grasses across Dyer Field, eschewing the paved safety of the Glenn-Kelly Road for the thrill of a close-to-the-earth shortcut. We trudged. We climbed. We panted.
We got momentarily lost in the haze of battle remembrance. We asked directions of two young lovers. In the end, we came upon the hill via a brilliant flanking maneuver that took us through woodland trails and brought us down on the rear of Union Gen. George H. Thomas, who gathered his routed troops, who in turn finally halted Longstreet’s advance, averting disaster and earning Thomas the scrappy sobriquet the “Rock of Chickamauga.”
Satisfied and pleased with the unsurpassed grandeur of our vespertine campaign, we set off for the convenience of Lauri’s Jetta and either a campground or better still a motel room.
We descended through the undulating pasture once belonging to Mr. Snodgrass and were surprised by a battalion of deer which stilled their twilight romp and eyed us warily above a phalanx of black-eyed Susans.
A gibbous moon bathed the closing scene in luminous serenity.
It had been a nearly-perfect campaign. We saw everything but the ghosts who allegedly frequent Chickamauga. There’s even a Facebook page dedicated to “Green Eyes,” the most notorious of Chickamauga’s apparitions.
Well, you can’t have everything, can you?