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Learning from the past on the battlefield of Chickamauga

That members of the U.S. military and its allies regularly visit Chickamauga Battlefield for “staff rides” is a time-honored tradition.

From the time of its founding in 1895 as the nation’s first national military park, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park was managed by the War Department as a reflection of its goal to be both a memorial and a “classroom” in studying the art of strategy and tactics.

It is for that reason that a group from the U.S. Army’s Eisenhower Medical Center at Fort Gordon traveled from Savannah to Chickamauga recently.

“Part of our ongoing military professional development involves study of military actions,” said Lt. Col. Greg Lang, who headed the group of 36 physicians touring the park and its environs.

An Army helicopter pilot before becoming a physician, Lang said he was familiar with the park from his time being stationed at Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, situated on the Tennessee/Kentucky border north of Nashville. Now based at the headquarters of the Army’s Southeast Regional Medical Command, he continues to learn from actions that took place on a mid-19th century battlefield midway between LaFayette and Chattanooga.

Best known as a Civil War battleground, the park was the nation’s largest military training ground during the Spanish-American War, and it was during training that more American soldiers died on Georgia soil than in Cuba during that four-month long conflict.

The park served a dual role of memorial and temporary encampment until the military outpost of Fort Oglethorpe was established in 1904.

Even then, the park was used as a cantonment camp during World War I. Early tanks were tested at Camp Greenleaf, a part of Fort Oglethorpe, and it was used to train medical officers, ambulance companies and nurses. During World War II, troops of Fort Oglethorpe’s 6th U.S. Cavalry, military police units and WACs trained in and around the park.

Of particular interest to the touring physicians were park historian Jim Ogden’s presentation about the prevalence of hospitals along the road leading from present-day Chickamauga to the battlefield.

“Seven of the nine field hospitals were located in the vicinity,” he said.

Ogden described Confederate troops stopping to fill their single canteen with fresh water at Crawfish Springs, located directly in front of the Gordon-Lee Mansion, on their way to fight in the Battle of Chickamauga.

That spring-filled canteen provided the only untainted liquid many soldiers would have during two days of battle beneath a hot September sun, and dehydration must have added to the soldiers’ suffering. For the field surgeons, Crawfish Spring provided a constant supply of pure water to treat wounded combatants.

“Hospitals were tied to a logistical spot,” Lang said as the group looked out into the cool water that still flows fast and clear toward Chickamauga Creek.

The lieutenant colonel noted that today is little different except rather than freshwater springs, medical care on today’s battlefield relies on airheads for medevac helicopters.

Having the capability to fly troops from combat zone to state-of-the-art hospital has changed survival rates, but Lang said using tourniquets and bandages is as critical today as during the Civil War.

“In the field, it is still the basics,” he said.

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