Pruning the Parks: Chattanooga National Cemetery (NPS 1933-1944) Was Born on Christmas Day
For the 11 years it was administered by the National Park Service,Chattanooga National Cemetery enjoyed a distinction among NPS units that we’re unlikely to ever see again. It was born on Christmas Day.
In the late fall of 1863, as the Civil War dragged on and the dying continued, Union General George Thomas, who had earned the nickname “Rock of Chickamauga” for his battlefield valor, established a cemetery near Orchard Knob in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This burial ground was needed for the graves of Union soldiers killed in the November 23-27 Battles of Chattanooga, including the hard-won Union victory at nearby Missionary Ridge. Thomas confiscated about 75 acres for the cemetery.
On December 25, 1863, General Thomas took pen in hand and issued General Orders No. 296 creating a national cemetery commemorating the Battles of Chattanooga. In this way Chattanooga National Cemetery came into existence under War Department administration.
After the Civil War ended, the Federal government purchased the land General Thomas had confiscated, plus some adjacent land. The enlarged cemetery (current size 120.9 acres) was then used to bury the remains of Union soldiers disinterred from hasty graves and cemeteries on battlefields and encampments throughout Georgia and Tennessee. Eventually, the remains of nearly 13,000 Union soldiers were buried there, including the bodies of six “Andrews Raiders” who received the Medal of Honor -- posthumously, sad to say -- for their role in the Great Locomotive Chase. The sentiment of the times being what they were, no Confederate burials were allowed.
Chattanooga National Cemetery was transferred to National Park Service administration on August 10, 1933, incident to the agency reorganization initiated via presidential executive order. It was then returned to War Department administration by act of Congress on December 7, 1944, after existing for 11 years as the only NPS unit that was -- at least in the deep historical sense -- born on Christmas Day.
Postscript: Among the more than 46,000 graves at Chattanooga National Cemetery are the graves of at least 78 German soldiers from both World Wars, most of whom died while confined as prisoners-of-war in Georgia’s Fort Oglethorpe internment facility. Chattanooga is the only national cemetery containing the graves of foreign POWs.