U.S. Grant on Lookout Mountain? Historian takes skeptical look at famous photo

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Jul. 29—History teachers and students statewide will likely be familiar with the famous photograph of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing on Roper's Rock, atop Lookout Mountain. It is often used during discussions about the Civil War and can even be found in the Library of Congress photo archive — but local historian Chris Young isn't convinced it's the real deal.

On Saturday, Young will present a one-hour program at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park focusing on Grant's visit to Lookout Mountain.

Young plans to conduct an analysis of Grant's profile in the photo and provide evidence about the misnaming of other officers pictured to encourage a discussion about whether the general is actually in the photo and what it might mean if he isn't.

"I'm not saying it isn't him," Young said. "I'm saying we should question it because there's a lot of evidence that points to that not being Gen. Grant. As historians, we want to be skeptical and should always question what we're told."

False information and images about the past can spread easily and often unintentionally. Stories handed down through time can change because of something as minor as misremembering the name of a battle that a relative fought in or accidentally listing the wrong names on the back of a photograph.

In the case of the Grant photo, Young believes mislabeling may have played a significant factor.

According to notes attached to the photograph in the National Archive, Gen. John Rawlins might be pictured with Grant in the image. Young said that cannot be true because, based on their uniforms, the officers pictured are all lower grade officers. One of the men stated to be in the photo was not even on Grant's staff at the time, he said, and had resigned from the military entirely by late 1863, when it was taken.

"So, there are people who were supposedly in this photo on Lookout Mountain who we know were not there simply because they were no longer in the army," Young said. "So if these guys aren't correctly named in the National Archive catalog, should we take it at face value that Grant is?"

Saturday's program is not meant to answer that question directly. Instead, Young hopes the public will engage with him in a dialogue about what it means for the people actually photographed in the picture if Grant is, in fact, not one of them.

"If we've mislabeled these people, what have we done to their achievement? They felt this moment was important enough to document at a time when that wouldn't have been easy," Young said. "Don't they have a right to their place in history too?"

David Moon, president of the nonprofit historical organization Picnooga, said that while he hopes Grant is actually the man pictured, he appreciates Young's framing of the discussion as an opportunity to better include those whose stories may have been forgotten to time.

A South Jersey native with a passion for Chattanooga history, Moon founded Picnooga in 2014 with the goal of amplifying an inclusive interpretation of the city's history using rediscovered artifacts and chronicling first-hand stories.

"People here really care about history, and I think some of them would be upset if it came out that this wasn't Grant in the photo. Even I don't want that to be true, but it is absolutely possible. Over the years people have misnamed Grant in tons of photographs," Moon said. "If that's the case here, I hope we are able to find out who those people really are. I want to know their stories."

Both Young and Moon noted nothing is taken away from local history if Grant is not in the photo.

"Nothing is lost here, which I hope people keep in mind. Grant played a smaller role at Lookout Mountain," Young said. "We know where his headquarters were and where he spent his time. This just gives us some clarity into this one photo."

The program will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday inside Point Park on Lookout Mountain. There is a $10 entry fee, per adult, to enter the park. Children 15 and younger get in free.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.

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