It’s hard to believe that a piece of land located between I-75 and U.S. Highway 41 can be a peaceful place. But if you doubt it, then you’ve never walked among the headstones in Anderson Cemetery.
Located in Ringgold, a mere 10 miles south of the Tennessee line (and Chattanooga), Nathan Anderson Cemetery is a wonder and an anomaly in 2017. Begun as a family cemetery all the way back in 1840, it was long ago filled to its capacity with local residents, Anderson family members from far and wide and a number of soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Ringgold Gap.
Part of that battle was fought on property likewise owned by prominent local plantation owner Nathan Anderson.
Anderson was by all accounts a deeply religious man, and this fact led to one of the rare forgotten moments in the campaign that included the Battle of Chickamauga. Anderson’s two-story home, which has long since disappeared, was used as a hospital during the Battle of Ringgold Gap. A Union hospital, at that.
The Battle at Ringgold Gap was an offshoot of the Confederate disaster that was Missionary Ridge – a shocking setback to Bragg’s Army of Tennessee. Routed by a haphazard Union advancement against fortifications that both sides thought might be impregnable, General Braxton Bragg was forced to beat a hasty retreat south to Dalton.
The only Confederate division not in disarray was General Patrick Cleburne’s, so he was called upon to be the rear guard for Bragg’s retreating army, which had more than 4,000 men captured or deserted in the rout.
Gen. William T. Sherman, who would later enjoy a more successful march through Georgia, was halted in his pursuit by Cleburne at Ringgold Gap, that narrow passage that I-75 now shoots through between White Oak Mountain and Taylor’s Ridge.
Although outnumbered four to one, Cleburne’s division of 4,000 stopped 16,000 Union troops cold, killing more than 500 with the loss of only 20 men. Bragg’s army as a result would enjoy nine more months of doing battle in the Georgia hills.
The majority of the Confederate dead were buried in Anderson Cemetery, some only temporarily, after the Union troops returned to Chattanooga to regroup. The official battlefield, while at the time also part of Anderson’s plantation, was south of the cemetery, so as a result the graveyard was not made part of any official national landmark.
During the battle, any wounded Union soldier able to be moved was brought back to the Anderson home for medical care. It was believed that more than 100 Union dead were placed in an unmarked grave adjacent to Anderson Cemetery, a site that was not formally discovered and properly documented until recently.
As many as 135 Confederate soldiers were at one time buried there in a more formal manner, but many of them were later moved to an official Confederate battle cemetery near Kennesaw.
The unique status of Anderson’s plantation meant that it remained one of Ringgold’s most prominent homes while being afforded Union protection.
Brig. Gen. John W. Gray issued orders protecting Anderson’s family and lands from any Union action after Anderson, in Gray’s words, “readily and with charity and honor did assist those wounded Union soldiers.”
Gray wrote in November of 1863, “…a safeguard is hereby furnished for Mr. Nath. Anderson for his premises, stock and other property. All officers and soldiers are ordered not to molest them in any manner.”
And that hands-off policy seems to remain in effect until today.
The government does not have oversight of Anderson Cemetery, and what little upkeep it enjoys comes from fundraising by a local non-profit trust. Which is why, even in the whirlwind of Confederate history being wiped out one monument at a time, a Confederate flag has flown over the few graves that remain.
Not even the ruling by Veteran Affairs in August of 2016 affected it. That declaration banned Confederate flags from flying from “any permanent flagpole” on an official battlefield or U.S. government controlled site.
But if you connect the dots, it seems apparent that the Veterans Affairs ruling did trigger a response.
The Confederate flag that flew over Anderson Cemetery was small, old, sort of tattered and generally no big thing in a town that breaks out more than 1,000 American flags on its streets every Memorial Day weekend.
Its origins are not well-documented, but it is a matter of record that the Daughters of the Confederacy oversaw the care of the cemetery as a service project following the Civil War. They eventually turned over its care to the Ringgold Garden Club, which did the job proudly for some 40 years.
One of the prominent members of the Garden Club years ago, the late Mabel Adams, oversaw the creation of the non-profit trust fund that continues the upkeep to this day. However, the fund is limited to rudimentary upkeep, and an act of vandalism a decade ago still remains largely unrepaired.
But in what was either a measured response or a heck of a coincidence, following the Veterans Affairs edict, a much larger, newer Stars and Bars appeared on the humble flagpole, nearly uprooting the thing before hasty repairs firmed up the base. But the result was a striking image of a Confederate flag easily visible from the interstate.
So, it was more than a little convenient that the discovery of the Union burial site coincided with one of Ringgold’s long-promised but unfunded projects: a formidable, large American flag for the site.
One of the city’s oldest businesses, the Ringgold Telephone Company, footed the bill for a 60-foot flagpole just east of the older pole, a donation in addition to its annual donation for upkeep. The new flagpole was dedicated April 19.
And, in another remarkable coincidence, the American flag is measurably larger than the Stars and Bars.
But to drive upon the property today, the two flags coexist, side by side, like they’d been there for years on the crest of a rise – not even a hill, really. And the oddest thing – it looks right and proper. Both sides of a tragic, all-American conflict coming back together to honor their dead.
But what isn’t a coincidence is that the Anderson Cemetery is, irony of ironies, a place of healing. The land was official made a community graveyard in the will of Nathan Anderson’s father, G.W. Anderson, when he died in 1848. The land’s purpose was explained in Luke 6:27-36:
“But to you who are listening, I say; Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those that curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other, also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your skirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”
Catoosa County’s Grateful Dead
Even the most casual of Civil War buffs can tell you that more enlisted men for the U.S. armed forces – North and South – died and are buried at Gettysburg than anywhere else in the United States. What few could tell is that the second-largest number of soldiers who died in uniform are buried in Catoosa County.
Gettysburg’s honored dead, according to the National Park Service website for Gettysburg, included 10,000 killed or mortally wounded over three days, with the Confederate total of 4,700 only an estimation. More than 30,000 were wounded, according to estimates.
Catoosa’s terrible toll comes from a variety of tragic circumstances, some of them surprising. The Battle of Chickamauga saw some 125,000 troops engaging in fairly even numbers, leaving 4,000 dead and close to 24,000 wounded between Sept. 18-20 of 1863. Most of the dead found a resting place on the battlefield.
But another 400-plus enlisted men died during what is now described as a flu pandemic in 1918, most of them in the now-dismantled base at Fort Oglethorpe where many troops underwent their basic training during and after World War I.
An even earlier outbreak of typhoid fever struck hard on the base in 1898, which left hundreds more dead in its wake.
But that dubious honor for Catoosa County has nothing to do with what the county seat of Ringgold does twice a year. Any deceased veteran who ever called the county home has a right to have a flag and marker place in his or her name, and with members of the greatest generation fast passing from this world, every new year finds more than 100 new crosses and flags placed.
The first 12 of the flags were raised at Anderson Cemetery for Memorial Day of 1972, two years after a lone, unmarked flag was placed on the grounds of the Catoosa County Courthouse for the same purpose.
From those humble beginnings, the flag project has grown and developed to the point where the Ringgold official city website now carries a database that will allow family members to locate where a particular cross will be placed.
The locations of individual crosses are moved from year to year. To find this year’s database, go to www.cityofringgold.com and click on the flags.