Friday, November 12, 2010

TRAVEL: Tennessee Civil War Trails-A journey into the dark heart of war

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

Chattanooga, Tennessee-Veteran’s Day Weekend began with a journey down the Tennessee River aboard the River Gorge Explorer, the Tennessee Aquarium’s state of the art, high-speed catamaran, one of the most technologically advanced vessels on the open water. It became the modern-day vehicle for a time-travel back a hundred and fifty years ago to the dark heart of the nation’s bloodiest chapter, the Civil War.

“Chattanooga was, without question, the most strategic point-of-entry into the South and the supply line to the Confederate Army,” James H. Ogden of the National Park Service said after the two-hour cruise. “It was critical that the Federal Army take Chattanooga if they were to cripple the Confederacy and win the Civil War.” With its railroad lines crisscrossing in all directions, Chattanooga was the transportation hub of the South.

The tour guide/first mate aboard the Explorer leafed through a series of drafting-table sized maps as he lectured through a power-point presentation on the maneuverings of Federal and Confederate troops along the bluffs lining the Tennessee River. As he spoke, images of the maps and historic photos of the war were shown on TV monitors mounted throughout the ship. He spoke in the present tense, as if the battle were playing out in real time.

Chattanooga is a city in blossom. It’s eco-friendly buildings, restored historic sites are dotted with open space containing bike paths, climbing walls and jogging paths. Parks double as sculpture gardens, with both public and privately owned art on display for all to enjoy. The Tennessee Aquarium, built just over a decade ago, became the centerpiece of a multi-million dollar revitalization of the city’s decaying downtown. It was an expensive bet that paid off ten-fold.

Looming over it all is Lookout Mountain, a silent witness to the city’s rebirth and a reminder of its war-torn past.

The historic journey down the Tennessee River was the first stop on a five and a half day preview of the state of Tennessee’s new travel initiative “Discover Tennessee Trails and Byways.” As the state also prepares for the Civil War Sesquicentennial, the tour also included “Tennessee Civil War Trails.”

A stay in the quaint Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel that transformed the city’s shuttered and decaying Central Station into a luxury hotel, with actual train cars serving as its hotel rooms, a flourishing art district with one of the nation’s largest public art collections, an award-winning gourmet bakery and a choice of fine-dining restaurants and sweeping skylines, made this the excursion of a lifetime. The coming days will bring tastings at local award-winning wineries, a sip of two of distinctive Tennessee whiskey at two of the world’s most famous distillers and emotion-laden journeys through some of the nation’s most picturesque, yet historically tragic sites. This journey of discovery and remembrance peers into the depths of the crucible in which the modern-day United of America was forged and spans the vistas of its Phoenician resurrection into the future.

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