While bicycling Chickamauga (Georgia) for the first time, I was surprised by the experience. I had not expected the ride to feel much different than a Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) or Maryland (Antietam/Sharpsburg) biking tour. But at Chickamauga, the vegetation seemed bluer, the field grass taller, and the woods darker. In a car one might not notice, but on a bike you can easily feel that you are not in the Mid-Atlantic. In addition, bicycling Chickamauga evokes sensations that are different from the nearby Shiloh National Military Park in Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. (I will explain that in a future post as I work on the next guidebook, Bicycling Shiloh National Military Park, forthcoming in 2023).
For a “bicycling historian” this is welcome news! These and other battlefields offer cyclists unique opportunities to learn U.S. Civil War history outdoors and in a safe, beautiful, and educationally rich park environment.
Where is Chickamauga Battlefield?
The Chickamauga battlefield covers 5,500 acres in northwest Georgia. The park is located about ten miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Part of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the Chickamauga battlefield is one of six historic sites preserved by the National Park Service. Before your ride, please consider watching the thirty-minute movie in the Visitor Center.
The Battle of Chickamauga
Every U.S. Civil War battlefield that you visit will evoke different feelings. Gettysburg summons stories about Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Antietam stirs thoughts about the common soldier fighting in a cornfield near a remote country church. And then there’s Chickamauga. This heavily wooded, blue-green battlefield nestled along Chickamauga Creek, Georgia, is hauntingly beautiful and geographically disorienting. The site calls up images of a defeated Federal army desperately fighting to hold a hill.Bicycling Chickamauga Battlefield <paid link to view on Amazon> by Sue Thibodeau, p. 6.
On September 18–20, 1863, Union and Confederate forces battled along Chickamauga Creek, near modern-day Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg’s 65,000 soldiers of the Army of Tennessee defeated Union Maj. Gen. William Starke Rosecrans’ 60,000 soldiers of the Army of the Cumberland.
Everything unraveled when the left wing of Bragg’s army exploited a gap in the Union line at the Brotherton Farm. The Confederates under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s command attacked and sent the Federals reeling in disarray. Rosecrans and two Union corps fled north to Chattanooga.
Thomas’ Stand at Snodgrass Hill
After the breach, Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas was the only Union corps commander on the battlefield. Thomas’ men held Snodgrass Hill long enough to orchestrate an orderly but dangerous retreat. For his performance, Thomas earned the moniker, “The Rock of Chickamauga.” Had it not been for Thomas’ leadership, the entire Union army would have been destroyed.
In the end, Bragg failed to pursue and crush the Federals. Instead, he claimed the mountains around Chattanooga and instituted a siege that threatened to starve the Federal army.
The Battle of Chickamauga was a Confederate victory. In total, about 34,624 men were killed, wounded, missing, or captured . The battle was second only to Gettysburg in terms of overall losses. To read more about bicycling Chickamauga as a fun way to learn history, click here to visit Civil War Cycling’s Chickamauga shop or read about our digital PDF document map option.
Bicycling Chickamauga is a Uniquely Rural Experience
As a bicyclist rides through the Chickamauga battlefield, it is easy to appreciate its natural amenities. Grassy meadows, prickly grass, and dark woody vegetation that obscures the horizon, all offer unparalleled beauty. You will see pine, oak, cedar, and hickory trees. Sometimes, toads, garter snakes, and eastern box turtles will cross your path. Among the park’s fifty documented mammal species, you may see white-tailed deer and gray squirrels. And of its 175 species of birds, the northern cardinal, Carolina wren, red-eyed vireo, and tufted titmouse are among the most common. In the spring, blue butterflies flitter about, and in the fall, monarch butterflies may swarm quickly across your path as they migrate south through the Tennessee Valley and on to Mexico. If you ride to Alexander’s Bridge or hike to one of the difficult to access fords along Chickamauga Creek, you will hear softly trickling water and buzzing insects.Bicycling Chickamauga Battlefield <paid link to view on Amazon> by Sue Thibodeau, p. 15.
Comparing Chickamauga to Gettysburg and Antietam
Chickamauga’s park roads wind through fields and woodlots similar to the battlefield park in Sharpsburg, Maryland—home to Antietam National Battlefield. But Chickamauga is more densely wooded and mostly flat, whereas Antietam is rolling farmland in the foothills of South Mountain.
Gettysburg’s hills, ridges, and woodlots—though well-preserved and beautiful—surround a small tourist town. However, while bicycling Chickamauga you rarely need to think about motor vehicle traffic, especially if you follow a bike route that minimizes exposure to LaFayette Road. (For safety reasons, Civil War Cycling recommends that you not follow the official park auto tour while riding your bike. But also, bicyclists will want to explore the eastern half of the Chickamauga battlefield, an area not covered by the auto tour.).
The next few photos illustrate the rural character of Chickamauga battlefield. The road network consists of several interconnecting roads that make it easy for bicyclists to ride in loops. For those of us who enjoy exploring, this bicycling amenity makes it possible to find interesting sites and structures, like a lone Confederate grave a short distance from Alexander’s Bridge Road (see the fourth photo, below).
Chickamauga Roads are Smoothly Paved and Mostly Tree-Lined
The bicyclist in the following photo is riding south on modern-day Battleline Road, which traces the main Union line on September 19-20, 1863. This position was held by Thomas’ 14th Corps of Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland. As you can see, the road is smoothly paved and there are no shoulders. Even though motor vehicle traffic is generally light, we recommend that you wear bright colors and turn on your blinkies for the day.
The Advantage of Feeling Disoriented
No one seemed to know where our position was. All was doubt and uncertainty. The ground was wooded, broken with low, transverse hills and irregular knolls. The woods were open, but grown here and there with baffling stretches of dense underbrush. There were a very few small fields and indistinct roads.Lt. Albion W. Tourgée, 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, USA
On my first ride through the Chickamauga battlefield, I found the National Park Service’s map helpful for identifying roads, but I was very confused about the 1863 military story. What happened here? I wondered. Unlike Gettysburg, I could not find a Chickamauga wayside exhibit when I most needed help. But what made my experience particularly confusing was the dense woods and tangled roads. It was hard for me to get oriented to learn about the Battle of Chickamauga.
Only a couple of miles into my tour I realized something significant. If I felt disoriented on a beautiful Spring day while riding a comfortable bike, how awful it must have been for so many soldiers on this very ground in September, 1863. Tree foliage, swales, and ravines made battlefield visibility a big problem, and it significantly hampered military communication and operation. For the nineteenth century soldier, overcoming geographic obstacles was a matter of life or death. For me, it was only a pleasant but initially confusing educational ride in a U.S. military park.
Bicyclists Associate Roads to Battle Events
This might be obvious to “bicycling historians,” but a cyclist wants to understand the roads in order to navigate the park. But also, an educational ride requires that one associate roads with battle events. In other words, battlefield orientation has as much to do with navigation and as with learning history.
Let us consider a simple example:
Chickamauga Today—Battleline Road
At Chickamauga, Thomas’ 14th Corps formed the left wing of the Union Army of the Cumberland. The following map shows that Thomas positioned his corps on the north end of the battlefield. Look for the topmost blue box; this is Alexander’s Bridge Road. Thomas’ line curved southward along modern-day Battleline Road to meet LaFayette Road.
Note: Civil War Cycling’s military maps help bicyclists memorize very high-level tactical movements. They are deliberately impressionistic; military positions are not to scale.
Chickamauga 1863—The Left Wing of the Union Army
When you ride south along Battleline Road, the battlefield story comes alive when you realize that Union monuments stand on the right side of the road and Confederate monuments on the left. The monuments mark regimental fighting positions, and the guns point in the direction that an artillery unit would have been firing during the battle. The above map makes it obvious why that is the case. (And the photo before the map shows a Union monument and two Union cannons). Therefore, knowing this means that a bicyclist can construct the battlefield story in one’s head while pedaling. But only if you do a little pre-reading before your tour.
Civil War Cycling’s guidebook, Bicycling Chickamauga Battlefield <paid link to view on Amazon>, includes four high-level military maps that divide the Battle of Chickamauga into four phases. “Sept 20: Longstreet’s Breakthrough” (above) is the third in the sequence of four maps. Our digital PDF map, “Bike Chickamauga Battlefield Map 1,” includes these maps, too.
Bicyclists Associate Landscape Views to Battle Events
If you are an active, self-directed, and experiential learner, then you know that nothing beats visiting historical sites. On a bike, you can enjoy moving from one site to the next. The ride is not simply a necessary logistical matter. It is better than that, because the experience is continuous and uninterrupted by things like car keys, doors, and seat belts.
The next photo captures one of many hundreds of views that will impress you while bicycling Chickamauga. With a guidebook that helps you to associate a landscape view to battle events, learning about the Battle of Chickamauga is easier and the battlefield experience more captivating.
At 11:10 a.m., Longstreet’s men attacked through the Brotherton Farm. The map above has red arrows that mark the site of “Longstreet’s Breakthrough.” In the following photo, the breakthrough would have occurred behind the distant tree line. Confederate soldiers attacked from the tree line through Dyer Field and up toward Snodgrass Hill. The photo shows a Union view looking south over Dyer Field.
While bicycling Chickamauga, expect to be tempted to explore some areas on foot…
Many of Chickamauga’s short hiking trails lead to monuments or markers that, although historically significant, are not accessible by bike. Unfortunately, the only bicycle racks are outside the Visitor Center.
… and to find unexpected markers
Search for Monuments While Bicycling Chickamauga
Look for opportunities to study monument symbols
Don’t forget to read monument inscriptions
Ask questions about why a monument was erected
Bicycling Chickamauga—12.6-Mile Looped Route
Civil War Cycling’s guidebook and downloadable PDF for bicycling Chickamauga provides detailed maps, bicycle cues, photos, touring tips, and historical summaries for a 12.6-mile ride through the Chickamauga battlefield.
The guidebook proposes three different looped routes, all of which carefully avoid unnecessary exposure to car traffic on LaFayette Road. Please note that the official NPS auto tour skips the eastern half of the park and is also not the safest option for bicyclists.
Get Your Guidebook and Maps for Bicycling Chickamauga
Of course, if your goal is only to ride the battlefield, you do not need much more than the above map and basic tour planning and cycling skills. But if you want to maximize your ride to learn about the Battle of Chickamauga, you will not regret exploring Civil War Cycling’s Chickamauga product line. Or browse for Gettysburg or Antietam. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain!