Massive cleaning undertaken to preserve hallowed Tenn. Civil War monuments
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Over more than a century, tree branches obscured them from view and grasses grew tall around the markers of bronze and stone, set in places where hundreds of men fell in the nation's war with itself.
Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is home to more than 700 battlefield monuments.
They're 150 years removed now from the Battle of Chickamauga, one of the Civil War's bloodiest engagements and the South's last major victory in the fighting.
Each memorial — from shoebox-size plaques to granite monuments more than 20 feet tall — was placed with care, to honor, to remember.
But time wars against memory. And as surely as bayonet thrust or gunshot felled these civil warriors, neglect took its toll on the monuments.
Some have been vandalized, bearing gouge marks and empty spots where plaques once lay. Soldiers stand with rifles minus bayonets broken off in years gone by.
"When you look at what the park was created for, all of these (monuments) play a very important role in telling the story of the historic events here," said Jim Szyjkowski, the park's Chief of Resource Management.
But, he said, "We've not done a good job in our past as far as maintaining them."
The first serious effort yet to clean, maintain and preserve these pieces of history began last year.
The work has been placed in the hands of an Acworth, Ga., man who spent 22 years doing restoration and preservation work at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gordon Ponsford also has restored Martin Luther King Jr.'s Bible, as well as thousands of items recovered from the Titanic and mountains of relics from the Forbidden City in Hong Kong.
At Chickamauga, Ponsford sees his work as a continuation of the craftsmen who created these historical signposts. Sometimes he can see the marks of the craftsmen's tools.
"When you're cleaning it you get a feel for the craftsman who worked on it," he said. "And you're kind of bonding with them in a sense."
Many of the monuments are rarely seen by the public. Until the late 1980s, many of the park's rangers had never seen some of those hidden on out-of-the-way trails.
Szyjkowski has been at the park for nearly 30 years. He worked on a crew of rangers who spent nearly three years hacking through the woods and locating overgrown monuments and marking them on maps.
"It was kind of like an Easter egg hunt at the time," he said.
Even now, not all of those spots are easy to drive by for a quick viewing. There are nearly 25 miles of paved roads but an additional 82 miles of trails, where the bulk of the park's monuments stand.
The inventory revealed the need for a wider maintenance effort.
Enter Ponsford, who grew up in England and gained many of his skills working in his grandfather's automobile restoration shop.
Last year and now this summer it's been the job of Ponsford and his three assistants to drive his battered white van through paths so narrow that the trees scrape its sides, to locate the monuments and give them a good cleaning.
Hidden in the backwoods near Winfrey Field, where Confederates collided on Sept. 19, 1863, with Union units from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Michigan is a squat stone fixture — the Michigan Monument, named for the unit that fought there. A broad, detailed bronze frieze depicts the battle up close.
Ponsford points out telling details in the frieze.
"Some of these have got northern attitudes in them," he said, chuckling.
A close look reveals a Union soldier brazenly loading his rifle with his back to the advancing Confederates, as if taunting the enemy.
On one side of the monument is a bronze plaque of the Michigan state seal, larger than a dinner plate. On the other side, two holes remain where the loose the fixture that once was there has been pried loose.
He finds the monuments in various states, some even discolored from dog urine. Most often the monuments have a simple green patina over the bronze and acid-wash markings on the stone from bleeding metal.
His team sets about micro-blasting away the century's worth of accumulated corrosion.
When the work is done, the bronze plaques shine like a new penny, much as they would have when first out of the foundry.
But they can't be left that way, exposed like a man's face after a morning shave.
Ponsford and his men heat the metal with a blowtorch, put on an anti-oxidation chemical and then apply a conservation wax, giving the bronze a protective layer the color of dark chocolate.
The materials used for these monuments — granite and bronze — do well if cared for. Despite a lack of true maintenance for most of the past 100 years or more, they've weathered time well, Ponsford said.
In 2013, Ponsford's team cleaned and repaired 52 monuments at a cost of $56,750, according to park records. This year his team is scheduled to clean 160 for $89,500.
That will leave about 500 more to go, said Szyjkowski.
Once they're all cleaned, he hopes a regular cleaning cycle can be instituted that will assure the monuments are around for centuries more.
Ponsford's work varies from an hour on a small piece to daylong efforts on larger monuments.
The cleaning is a job, but Ponsford digs into the history, too. He wrote a poem about the monuments, and quotes this line:
"These statues more than bronze and stone, they're bought with blood by boys from home."
And of all the projects he has worked on, the rare, the treasured and the historic, he finds special value in his work at Chickamauga.
Standing in these wooded areas, surrounded by history and hearing birds chirp and seeing the occasional deer pass by makes this work some of his most favorite, he said.
At a monument for Col. Emerson Opdyke, Ponsford looks out over the Yankee stronghold known as Snodgrass Hill, where more than a thousand men were killed or wounded within hours, while an assistant fires the bronze with the propane torch and two other workers spray away at a nearby monument.
He mused, somewhat in awe, at what it must have been like in 1863.
"Just think, standing up here watching the Confederates come up that hill ..."