Waterfowl have claimed the crystal-clear waters that gush forth from the hillside at Crawfish Springs, a municipal park located within the historic district of Chickamauga, Ga. Ducks paddle through the cold shallow water, and a palette of green aquatic grasses sway toward a railroad bridge built in the 1880s. Downstream, another spring adds volume to the watershed before it empties into West Chickamauga Creek.
Don’t let Crawfish Springs fool you. It might appear to be a quaint place for a picnic, with its gently sloping grass hills, crumbling rock walls and scattering of Civil War interpretive markers. However, Crawfish Springs is sacred ground. The spring and surrounding landscape are historically significant to the Cherokee Nation and the American Civil War’s bloody Battle of Chickamauga.
Cherokee history at Crawfish Springs
For centuries, American Indian towns and villages thrived along the rivers and within the valleys of North Georgia. Between 1783 and 1828, much of North Georgia remained under the control of the Cherokee and Creek Indians. Before that, most of North Georgia was controlled by the Creek or Mississippian mound builders.
American settlement whittled away the historic homelands of American Indian tribes. By 1800, the majority of the remaining Cherokee Nation—which formerly claimed land in Southeast Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina—was in present-day Georgia.
In the mid-1800s, the Cherokee divided their nation into eight districts, and Crawfish Springs became part of the Chickamauga District. The district’s courthouse, which operated from 1821 until the Indian Removal in 1838, was located across the road from Crawfish Springs at the current site of the Gordon-Lee Mansion.
"Any place where there are large springs, generally there were populations of American Indians because of the water source," said Frederick Ufford, director of the Walker County Regional Heritage Museum and Civil War Center in Chickamauga, Ga.
According to a history of Chickamauga published in 1979 by Espy Publishing Co., Cherokee arrowheads were produced en masse downstream from Crawfish Springs on a piece of land formerly known as Fork Field. A large number of arrowheads were found there in the years before the field was cultivated.
Seven times between 1805 and 1832 Georgia used a lottery system to distribute the land taken from the Cherokee Nation and Creek Nation. Almost three-fourths of the land in present-day Georgia was distributed using the lottery system. Cherokee land in Northwest Georgia was sold through land lotteries in 1832.
In 1838, any remaining Cherokee in North Georgia were forcibly removed to Indian Territory during what is known today as the Trail of Tears. The empty Cherokee courthouse then became the first county seat of Walker County, Ga.
Civil War history at Crawfish Springs
In 1836, James Gordon and his brothers moved to Crawfish Springs from Gwinnett County, Ga. Between 1840 and 1847, slave laborers built Gordon’s brick mansion—known today as the Gordon-Lee Mansion—at the site of the Cherokee courthouse overlooking Crawfish Springs, which served as the main water supply for the town.
During the American Civil War, Union Gen. William Rosecrans and surgeon Glover Perin, the U.S. medical director for the Army of The Cumberland, decided to locate a federal hospital complex at Crawfish Springs.
"That summer was extremely dry, and the most reliable source of water in the area was from Crawfish Springs," Ufford said.
Wounded and injured soldiers were cared for at the Gordon-Lee Mansion and its adjacent buildings during the bloody Battle of Chickamauga, which took place Sept. 19-20, 1863. Soldiers from both sides used Crawfish Springs as a primary water supply.
George H. Putney of the 37th Indiana Infantry Regiment was at Crawfish Springs on Sept. 19, 1863, and wrote this of the experience:
"After going some distance, we came to Crawfish Springs. There we were permitted to fill our canteens, which we gladly did, as we knew the importance of water in a bottle. What a beautiful spring of water that was and is! Think of going from that pure life-giving fountain of clear, cold water, springing up in great abundance, to a great and dreadful battle where smoke and dust and toil and wounds and death hold high carnival. That is war!"
After the War Between the States, Crawfish Springs was the site of a historic reunion of veteran soldiers from both the North and South who had fought in the Battle of Chickamauga. Called the Blue and Gray Barbecue, 14,000 veterans gathered at Crawfish Springs in 1889.
Military bands were present to provide entertainment, and 30 tables were set up to hold the food. A ceremonial "smoking for peace" took place following the meal. Pipes made from wood taken from Snodgrass Hill and stems made from river cane cut from the banks of West Chickamauga Creek were used for the ceremony, as well as some 85 pounds of tobacco.
Plans to create the nation’s first national military park came into being at the Blue and Gray Barbecue at Crawfish Springs. As a result, the country’s first and largest national military park—Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park—was dedicated in September 1895.
In the early 20th century, Chickamauga became a textile mill town. D.A. Jewell and his business partner, Col. W.L.L. Bowen, purchased land adjacent to Crawfish Springs to open a mill, the Crystal Springs Bleachery Company, along the banks of Crawfish and Crystal Springs in 1909.
The Crystal Springs Bleachery Company closed earlier this year; however, Crawfish Springs continues to beam with aquatic beauty and a heavy dose of history. Downtown Chickamauga offers a vibrant historic district for visitors, with shopping, historic sites, cafés and restaurants. The former railroad depot houses the Walker County Regional Heritage and Civil War Center, just a short walk from Crawfish Springs.
For information about Civil War 150th events taking place at Crawfish Springs, Ga., click here.
Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge, whose writing interests include conservation, outdoor adventures and history in the Southeast. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.