History and Myths on Lookout Mountain

Are they rifle pits or ceremonial circles built by prehistoric inhabitants?
Are they rifle pits or ceremonial circles built by prehistoric inhabitants? Rodger Ling
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Some 20 years ago, I happened across a series of stone walls in the woods that made no sense to me. I was alone high on the western slopes of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, somewhere between the Bluff Trail and the Upper Truck Trail. I had climbed the slope looking for a cave I’d been told about. I found the cave, or rather just a small vertical hole that had been dug open between sandstone blocks. I could see wooden timbers that had been placed as supports—someone had clearly been mining their way down into the mountain. This was tantalizing, but even in those days I was smart enough not to climb far down into a hole when no one had a clue where I was.

With darkness approaching I started a hasty retreat downhill, and soon found myself on a flat bench of land where the slope was interrupted to form a wide, natural amphitheater. Along that ground, perpendicular to the slope, was a regular pattern of low sandstone walls. Unlike the erosion control walls built across the mountain by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, these walls seemed to serve no purpose. Years before, my very first job had been working with archaeologist Lawrence Alexander, a task that earned me minimum wage and no credentials whatsoever, but it may explain why I was immediately convinced that these walls had been built long ago for some ceremonial purpose.

The sun was very low and I took only a quick look. I would come back someday with my camera, I thought.

I didn’t go back, but later I did start researching another set of walls not far away, Lookout’s curious “rifle pits.” If you walk a quarter mile south from the Cravens House on the Rifle Pits Trail, you’ll see the jumbled remains of a rock wall just downhill, and soon after may see the indistinct rifle pits, rough circles of stone that do not, in fact, seem to be sensible places to defend. The locations are oddly chosen, exposed to attack when a better position is often just a few feet away.

In 1962 Phillip Smith had published a report challenging the idea that the rifle pits and associated stone wall had been built during the Civil War. Historians including Dr. Gilbert Govan agreed: These structures were likely built hundreds of years before the war, perhaps by a prehistoric, aboriginal race. Similarities were noted with the mysterious wall at Fort Mountain, Georgia, and other locations across the country. In 1974 the National Park Service announced they would change the signs to read “archeological remains” instead of “rifle pits.”

Remains of Confederate breastworks near Cravens House.
Remains of Confederate breastworks near Cravens House. Rodger Ling

But the debate wasn’t over. In 1976 Dr. Jeffrey Brown published a convincing argument that the L-shaped 415 foot stone wall near the Cravens House was in fact a Confederate breastwork that originally consisted of rock, wood, and earth. The wood had long since rotted away, leaving just the jumbled rocks. Dr. Brown did not specifically address the rifle pits, but seems to imply that if the wall was Confederate, the circles must be, too. Evidently it was enough, because the signs on the trail still point to the “rifle pits.”

Terry Hamrick in a "rift pit" a half mile from Cravens House.
Terry Hamrick in a "rift pit" a half mile from Cravens House. Rodger Ling

We all have our mythologies. Our minds are trained to look for patterns, and we are quick to make assumptions based on how we think the world should look. On the slopes of Lookout, a mountain awash in a swirl of natural and human history, how much can we hope to understand? How much of our history is wrong or at least subject to revision?

In the case of one legendary battle on Lookout Mountain, most of what we know is probably wrong. In the parking lot at the tourist attraction Ruby Falls is an historical marker commemorating the “Last Battle of the American Revolution.” As the story goes, in 1782 Col. John Sevier (who later became Tennessee’s first governor) led a raid against the Chickamauga Indians who were allied with the British. At least, that’s what happened according to a novelist-turned-historian named James Roberts Gilmore (writing under the pen name Edmund Kirke), who tells of “a body of about five hundred Tories and savages, who…made a stand upon one of the upper slopes of Lookout Mountain, and there bade Sevier defiance.”

The location, at least, makes sense. The Great Indian Warpath (and later the Jackson and Old Federal Roads, which followed roughly the same route) crossed the northern toe of Lookout Mountain near Ruby Falls in order to avoid the river and cliffs below. You can still see the remains of an old road at the upper end of the parking lot at Ruby Falls, passing just above the Eagles Nest quarry before crossing the Guild-Hardy Trail and descending steeply as a deeply rutted gully towards Lookout Creek. Col. Sevier and his party were supposedly on the opposite riverbank at Moccasin Bend when they were taunted by the Chickamaugas. “Crossing the broad river in the face of the enemy,” Gilmore writes, Sevier “climbed the rugged mountain and attacked and routed this banditti on the identical spot where, eighty years later, Hooker fought his famous battle above the clouds.”

According to historian E. Raymond Evans, there is a big problem with Gilmore’s tale: The actual accounts of Sevier’s 1782 expedition, which were written immediately afterward in some detail, make no mention of any battle on Lookout. Gilmore didn’t pen his story until more than a hundred years later. His sources were at best second-hand stories relayed by people born long after the supposed event. Theodore Roosevelt, writing the Winning of the West series in 1889 before going on to become president, said that unless Gilmore could provide “contemporary evidence for this mythical battle, it must be set down as pure invention.”

Yet the drama resonated, and it would be embellished over the years. Lookout’s “Last Battle of the Revolution” is still presented today as fact, without even a hint of a question mark. Starting around the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the battle was re-enacted regularly. Local artist George Little painted a stirring depiction of Sevier and his men firing toward the bluffs of Lookout across the river. In 2007 the historical marker was erected, with great ceremony, at Ruby Falls. “Sevier and his men engaged the Chickamaugas in a battle high in the palisades at the north end of Lookout Mountain,” the marker reads. “The Frontiersmen’s accurate rifle fire soon overcame their foes.”

This historical marker celebrates a battle that is probably fiction.
This historical marker celebrates a battle that is probably fiction. Rodger Ling

Ironically, there was a documented skirmish six years after Sevier’s alleged battle in the very same location, but that 1788 engagement receives less attention, perhaps because the Chickamaugas won.

Memory is a tricky thing, a distorted shadow of the original events. We live in an age of information, but the rising tide of knowledge lifts all boats, including a few that might be best left on the bottom. The Internet now tells us that George Washington did not, in fact, chop down a cherry tree. Columbus was a fearless explorer, but throughout all four of his voyages believed he was exploring Asia. And 20 years ago I drove up Lookout Mountain past the site of a battle that probably never took place, hiked beside rifle pits that might or might not be rifle pits, and stumbled across a series of low rock walls built before recorded history.

At least I think I did.

About a year ago I spent an afternoon bushwhacking the side of the mountain, trying to confirm or deny my memories of the mined cave and the mystery walls. It was winter and the trees were bare, the hillside lonely. When I got to the place I remembered the cave would be, I found a 10-foot sinkhole lined with bare earth. There was no hole, no entrance—the cave or whatever it had been had collapsed—but I could discern that rocks had been piled and dirt moved here long ago. I stood for a long time, catching my breath and trying to reconcile what I saw with what I remembered.

Having the cave’s location as a starting point I assumed I would be able to find the flat bench where the walls had been, but after an hour of tromping back and forth through the rocks and leaves I hadn’t found anything at all. Like the cave, the stone walls had vanished into the shadows of my own version of history.

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