Thursday, May 12, 2016

'So much potential': Resaca battle park has promise for county, Civil War visitors to region

A section of the Blue Battlefield Trail near I-75 (All photos by Picket)

Resaca Battlefield Historic Site put on its soft opening last weekend. The curious drove past replica defensive fortifications at the gate and down a road bordering a scenic valley and forested hills.

The peaceful scene that greeted them belied the fact that the May 1864 Battle of Resaca in northwest Georgia was the second-bloodiest of the Atlanta Campaign.

Ten cars came Friday, 20 on Saturday and about 30 on Sunday. Gordon County Administrator John King and Ken Padgett, head of the Friends of Resaca Battlefield, pointed out the first visitors were a Michigan family.

The Civil War park, which will have its grand opening ceremony this Friday at 3 p.m., in some ways carries the mantra, “If you build it, they will come.”

County officials and the friends group want the site to be an educational, recreational and historic beacon for local residents, travelers and Civil War buffs. The park contains significant remnants of earthworks, including an impressive length of trenches visible on the Red Battlefield Trail (Signs point out metal detectors are banned and artifacts cannot be removed).

And they would like to see the quiet Exit 320 interchange on I-75 and the town of Resaca get an economic boost.

Ken Padgett of the Friends of Resaca Battlefield

“There is so much potential,” King said earlier this week during an interview at the site’s picnic and restroom pavilion.

A big advantage is the park is right off Interstate 75 between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn. (Construction of the interstate decades ago did destroy parts of the battlefield). While there are no signs or billboards noting the new venue on I-75, Gordon County officials are working with the state to have one installed.

For now, they are largely depending on websites, local media and groups and word of mouth to publicize the park. (They don’t know how the Michigan family learned of the site.)

Gordon County may benefit from a bit of synergy.

Just to the north is Whitfield County, which is believed to have the most surviving Civil War fortifications in the country. The Civil War Trust is working to buy and preserve a 309-acre tract there where Confederates built defensive works on Rocky Face Ridge before they slipped south to Resaca as Federal forces pushed on toward Atlanta. Whitfield officials plan to open a park, perhaps next year, according to CNHI newspapers.

Gordon and Whitfield counties are southeast of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which draws nearly 1 million visitors annually.

Section of trenches on Red Battlefield Trail

Jim Ogden, historian with the federal park, said he can now direct those interested in the Atlanta Campaign to a well-preserved site between Chickamauga and Pickett’s Mill or Kennesaw in suburban Atlanta.

“In addition to recently developed access at a couple more Dalton area sites, with the opening of the Resaca battlefield, there's now a lot more from that first epoch of the campaign for one to visit,” Ogden wrote in an email. “This also means, for Civil War round tables or other history-based groups, particularly if they'll do a little walking, there's now … enough in the Tunnel Hill-Dalton-Resaca area to make a multi-day tour of just that part of the campaign. With a good guide and a willingness to walk, there's potentially a day now at Resaca by itself.”

For now, the Resaca battlefield site will be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

The park contains most of the battlefield on the early afternoon of May 14, 1864. Late-afternoon action is on the east side of the interstate. Chitwood Farm, site of an annual Battle of Resaca re-enactment, is a couple miles east of the new I-75 park.

While the battle was a stalemate, Confederates withdrew and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman continued his eventually successful march on Atlanta. 

Ogden said the new historic site illustrates the growing strength of Rebel fortifications and the importance of Federal flanking attacks and movements.

Confederates manning the fortifications one sees in the park turned back several Union assaults,” he said. “This is not just reflective of the course of the Battle of Resaca itself but also of the larger Atlanta Campaign: W. T. Sherman would use his larger army to maneuver against Joe Johnston's flanks to force him out of positions that were seemingly ever more fortified as the campaign extended week by week.”

I spent several hours Monday at Resaca Battlefield Historic Site. A word to the wise: Bring plenty of water and good walking shoes. The 1.-2 mile Red Battlefield Trail on the south end is hillier than you’d expect, but the experience was enjoyable. I saw several deer at the top.

The 2.6 Blue Battlefield Trail on the northern side of the 483-acre park has a whole different feel. On its east side, you do walk through some hills that held Confederates, but as you walk counterclockwise much of it features gorgeous meadows in the valley that separated the two armies. The west side of the trail is where the Union brigades prepared for assaults. 

Bridges cross Camp Creek and other small streams. Butterflies flitted about and I saw a large snapping turtle as I neared the pavilion to conclude my hike.

The site features many state-produced interpretive panels, with some geared toward children (though they would be of interest to most anyone). King would like to see more of them along the trails.

Several include a helpful inset of a Battle of Resaca map made years ago by the late historian Bill Scaife. I wished those carried a “You are here” designation to better orient myself when looking at the park map and Scaife’s order of battle.

Wayside stops and loop trails offer plenty of opportunities to put the battle into perspective (though I wish a few had not been so jammed with text). King said three part-time park managers at the site and nearby Fort Wayne can help visitors with further questions on the battle.

Local residents began pushing for the park in the 1990s and the state acquired the property. The Friends of Resaca Battlefield organized support and raised money. Georgia appeared poised to build the visitors center after an October 2008 groundbreaking.

The Department of Natural Resources realized it did not have the money to finish the project. 

Gordon County stepped in and took over, agreeing to do the construction and staff and maintain the facility. But in March 2010, citing costs and inherited permit problems, Gordon County punted on building the site. The state agreed to take the project back, with the caveat that the county would operate it once the work was done. State budget woes put an end to plans for a visitor's center/museum and film.

Things have come together over the past year. Improvements have been made to signs and trails and a widening project on Ga. 136 at Interstate 75 has been finished, allowing for better access to the site.

Exit 320 is one of the least-developed I-75 interchanges in Gordon County. There’s only a large truck stop on the east side to offer refreshments to park patrons.

“It is not going to be a flip-the-switch to economic impact,” King said of the opening.

John King
Still, he touts in development possibilities and efforts toward building a more educated workforce. He cites the area’s schools and a new college and career academy in nearby Calhoun. (Gordon County is known for its floor-covering industry).

While King acknowledged there was some opposition to the project, particularly a few years ago during the economic slowdown, he said residents are starting to get on board.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “(We originally thought) the baby was ugly, but it belongs to us. It's not an ugly baby. It’s beautiful. We are very proud of it.”

He wants to focus now on the opportunities the site will bring, and asks that groups and individuals help raise awareness and pitch in to make the historic site a success.

“We have always focused on getting to this point,” King said. “This is not the end of the campaign. It is just the beginning.”

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