Ten Years of TAC: September 19, 1863: Battle of Chickamauga Begins

 

 

(The American Catholic will observe its tenth anniversary in October.  We will be reposting some classic TAC posts of the past.  This post is from September 19, 2013.)

 

 

An intelligent observer of the American Civil War in early September of 1863 would have reached certain conclusions about the War thus far:

1.  The Union was losing the War in the East.  After many spectacular battles and huge casualties, the battle lines in Virginia remained much the same as they had early in the War:  the Union controlled the northern third of the Old Dominion state and the South controlled the Southern two-thirds.  A stalemate of more than two years duration favored the Confederacy.

2.  The War in the trans-Mississippi was a side show that could be ignored.

3.  In the West, between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, the Union was clearly winning, with control of the Mississippi wrested from the Confederacy, with New Orleans and large sections of Louisiana controlled by the Union, and with Tennessee largely under Union control.

4.  The northern Presidential election in 1864 would probably prove decisive.  If Lincoln could make progress in the East and continue to win in the West he would likely be re-elected.  If the Confederacy could maintain the stalemate in the East and reverse the Union momentum in the West, or at least slow it to a crawl, Lincoln would be defeated and the Confederacy would win its independence.

General Braxton Bragg, the irascible commander of the Army of Tennessee, clearly understood that the Confederacy could not continue losing in the West, and that is why he rolled the iron dice of war at Chickamauga in a desperate attempt to stop the offensive of Major General William Rosecrans and his Union Army of the Cumberland.  Bragg proved fortunate, and his hard luck army gave the Confederacy one of its great victories, and the chance to change the whole course of the War.

Below is the passage on Chickamauga from the memoir of John B. Gordon, who during the war rose from Captain to Major General in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Gordon did not fight at Chickamauga, but his wonderfully colorful account of the battle, ground he was familiar with from being reared there in his childhood,  written with his usual entertaining purple prose, captures well the facts of the battle, and how this victory was treasured by the South, even as its benefits to the Confederacy were ultimately thrown away due to a lack of pursuit and the desultory, and unsuccessful, siege of Chattanooga.

REARED from childhood to maturity in  North Georgia, I have been for fifty years familiar with that historic locality traversed  by the little river Chickamauga, which has given its name to one of the bloodiest battles  of modern times. Not many years after the Cherokee Indians had been transferred to their  new Western home from what was known as Cherokee Georgia, my father removed to that  portion of the State. Here were still the fresh relics of the redskin warriors, who had  fished in Chickamauga’s waters and shot the deer as they browsed in herds along its banks.  Every locality now made memorable by that stupendous struggle between the Confederate and  Union armies was impressed upon my boyish memory by the legends which associated them with  deeds of Indian braves. One of the most prominent features of the field was the old Ross  House, built of hewn logs, and formerly the home of Ross, a noted and fairly well-educated  Cherokee chief. In this old building I had often slept at night on my youthful journeyings  with my father through that sparsely settled region. Snodgrass Hill, Gordon’s and Lee’s  Mills, around which the battle raged, the La Fayette road, across which the contending  lines so often swayed, and the crystal Crawfish Spring, at which were gathered thousands  of the wounded, have all been so long familiar to me that I am encouraged to attempt a  brief description of the awful and inspiring events of those bloody September days in  1863. Words, however, cannot convey an adequate picture of such scenes; of the countless  costly, daring assaults; of the disciplined or undisciplined but always dauntless courage;  of the grim, deadly grapple in hand-to-hand collisions; of the almost unparalleled  slaughter and agony.

An American battle which surpassed in its ratio  of carnage the bloodiest conflicts in history outside of this country ought to be better  understood by the American people. Sharpsburg, or Antietam, I believe, had a larger  proportion of killed and wounded than any other single day’s battle of our war; and that  means larger than any in the world’s wars. Chickamauga, however, in its two days of heavy  fighting, brought the ratio of losses to the high-water mark. Judged by percentage in  killed and wounded, Chickamauga nearly doubled the sanguinary records of Marengo and  Austerlitz; was two and a half times heavier than that sustained by the Duke of  Marlborough at Malplaquet; more than double that suffered by the army under Henry of  Navarre in the terrific slaughter at Coutras; nearly three times as heavy as the  percentage of loss at Solferino and Magenta; five times greater than that of Napoleon at  Wagram, and about ten times as heavy as that of Marshal Saxe at Bloody Raucoux. Or if we  take the average percentage of loss in a number of the world’s great battles–Waterloo,  Wagram, Valmy, Magenta, Soferino, Zurich, and Lodi–we shall find by comparison that  Chickamauga’s record of blood surpassed them nearly three for one. It will not do to say  that this horrible slaughter in our Civil War was due to the longer range of our rifles  nor to the more destructive character of any of our implements of warfare; for at  Chickamauga as well as in the Wilderness and at Shiloh, where these Americans fell at so  fearful a rate, the woodlands prevented the hostile lines from seeing each other at great  distances and rendered the improved arms no more effective than would have been rifles of  short range. Some other and more reasonable explanation must be found for this great  disparity of losses in American and European wars. There is but one possible  explanation–the personal character and the consecrated courage of American soldiers. At  Chickamauga thousands fell on both sides fighting at close quarters, their faces at times  burnt by the blazing powder at the very muzzles of the guns.

The Federal army under Rosecrans constituted the  center of the Union battle line, which, in broadest military sense, stretched from  Washington City to New Orleans. The fall of Vicksburg had at last established Federal  control of the Mississippi along its entire length. The purpose of Rosecrans’s movement  was to penetrate the South’s centre by driving the Confederates through Georgia to the  sea. Bragg, to whom was intrusted for the time the task of resisting this movement, had  retired before the Union advance from Chattanooga to a point some miles south of the  Chickamauga, and the Union forces were pressing closely upon his rear. Bragg had, however,  halted and turned upon Rosecrans and compelled him to retrace his steps to the north bank  of the Chickamauga, which, like the Chickahominy in Virginia, was to become forever  memorable in the Republic’s annals.

In order to obtain a clear and comprehensive  view of the ever-shifting scenes during the prolonged battle, to secure a mental survey of  the whole field as the marshalled forces swayed to and fro, charging and countercharging,  assaulting, breaking, retreating, reforming, and again rushing forward in still more  desperate assault, let the reader imagine himself on some great elevation from which he  could look down upon that wooded, undulating, and rugged region.

For forty-eight hours or more the marching  columns of Bragg were moving toward Chattanooga and along the south bank of the  Chickamauga in order to cross the river and strike the Union forces on the left flank. At  the same time Rosecrans summoned his corps from different directions and concentrated them  north of the river. Having passed, as was supposed, far below the point where the Union  left rested, Bragg’s columns, in the early hours of the 19th of September, crossed the  fords and bridges, and prepared to sweep by left wheel on the Union flank. During the  night, however, George H. Thomas had moved his Union corps from the right to this left  flank. Neither army knew of the presence of the other in this portion of the woodland. As  Bragg prepared to assail the Union left, Thomas, feeling his way through the woods to  ascertain what was in his front, unexpectedly struck the Southern right, held by Forrest’s  cavalry, and thus inaugurated the battle. Forrest was forced back; but he quickly  dismounted his men, sent the horses to the rear, and on foot stubbornly resisted the  advance of the Union infantry. Quickly the Confederates moved to Forrest’s support. The  roar of small arms on this extreme flank in the early morning admonished both commanders  to hurry thither their forces. Bragg was forced to check his proposed assault upon another  portion of the Union lines and move to the defence of the Confederate right. Rapidly the  forces of the two sides were thrown into this unexpected collision, and rapidly swelled  the surging current of battle. The divisions of the Union army before whom Forrest’s  cavalry had yielded were now driven back; but other Federals suddenly rushed upon  Forrest’s front. The Southern troops, under Cheatham and Stewart, Polk, Buckner, and  Cleburne, hurried forward in a united assault upon Thomas. Walthall’s Mississippians at  this moment were hurled upon King’s flank, and drove his brigade in confusion through the  Union lines; and as Govan’s gray-clad veterans simultaneously assailed the Union forces  under Scribner, that command also yielded. The Federal battery was captured, and the tide  of success seemed at the moment to be with the Confederates. Fortune, however, always  fickle, was especially capricious in this battle. The Union forces farther to westward  held their ground with desperate tenacity. General Rosecrans, the Federal  commander-in-chief, rode amidst his troops as they hurried in converging columns to the  point of heaviest fire, and in person hurled them fiercely against the steadfast  Confederate front. The shouts and yells and the roll of musketry swelled the din of battle  to a deafening roar. The fighting was terrific. Walthall’s Mississippians at this point  contended desperately with attacks in front and on their flank. The Ninth Ohio, at double  quick and with mighty shout, rushed upon the captured Union battery and recovered it. The  Confederate gunners were killed by bayonets as they bravely stood at their posts. Hour  after hour the battle raged, extending the area of its fire and the volume of its  tremendous roar. Here and there along the lines a shattered command, its leading officers  dead or wounded, was withdrawn, reorganized, and quickly returned to its bloody work.  Still farther toward the Confederate right, Forrest again essayed to turn the Union left.  Charging as infantry, he pressed forward through a tempest of shot and neared the Union  flank, when the Federal batteries poured upon his entire line rapid discharges of grape,  canister, and shell. Round after round on flank and front, these deadly volleys came until  Forrest’s dissolving lines disappeared, leaving heaps of dead near the mouths of the Union  guns. Reforming his broken ranks, Forrest, with Cheatham’s support, again rushed upon the  Union left, the impetuous onset bringing portions of the hostile lines to a hand-to-hand  struggle. Still there was no decisive break in the stubborn Union ranks. Coming through  woods and fields from the other wings, the flapping ensigns marked the rapid concentration  of both armies around this vortex of battle. As the converging columns met, bayonet  clashed with bayonet and the trampled earth was saturated with blood. Here and there the  Union line was broken by the charges of Cheatham, Stewart, and Johnson, but was quickly  reformed and re-established by the troops under Reynolds. The Union commands of Carlin and  Heg were swept back before the fire at short range from the Southern muskets; but as the  Confederate lines again advanced and leaped into the Union trenches, they were met and  checked by a headlong countercharge.

The La Fayette road along or near which the  broken lines of each army were rallied and reformed, and across which the surging currents  of fire had repeatedly rolled, became the “bloody lane” of Chickamauga.

The remorseless war-god at this hour relaxed his  hold on the two armies whose life-blood had been flowing since early morning. Gradually  the mighty wrestlers grew weary and faint, and silence reigned again in the shell-shivered  forest. It was, however, only a lull in the storm. On the extreme Union left the restless  Confederates were again moving into line for a last and tremendous effort. The curtain of  night slowly descended, and the powder-blackened bayonets and flags over the hostile lines  were but dimly seen in the dusky twilight. Wearily the battered ranks in gray moved again  through the bullet-scarred woods, over the dead bodies of their brothers who fell in the  early hours and whose pale faces told the living of coming fate. Nature mercifully refused  to lend her light to guide the unyielding armies to further slaughter. But the blazing  muzzles of the rifles now became their guides, and the first hour of darkness was made  hideous by resounding small arms and their lurid flashes. Here might follow a whole  chapter of profoundly interesting personal incidents. The escape of officers of high rank,  who on both sides rode with their troops through the consuming blasts, was most  remarkable; but here and there the missiles found them. General Preston Smith, of  Tennessee, my friend in boyhood, was among the victims. A Minié ball in search of his  heart struck the gold watch which covered it. The watch was shivered, but it only diverted  the messenger of death to another vital point. The inverted casing, whirled for a great  distance through the air, fell at the feet of a Texan, who afterward sent it to the  bereaved family. Near by was found the Union General Baldwin, his blue uniform reddened  with his own blood and the blood of his dead comrades around him. The carnage was  appalling and sickening. “Enough of blood and death for one day!” was the  language of the bravest hearts which throbbed with anguish at the slaughter of the 19th  and with anxiety as to the morrow’s work.

Night after the battle! None but a soldier can  realize the import of those four words. To have experienced it, felt it, endured it, is to  have witnessed a phase of war almost as trying to a sensitive nature as the battle itself.  The night after a battle is dreary and doleful enough to a victorious army cheered by  triumph. To the two armies, whose blood was still flowing long after the sun went down on  the 19th, neither of them victorious, but each so near the other as to hear the groans of  the wounded and dying in the opposing ranks, the scene was indescribably oppressive.  Cleburne’s Confederates had waded the river with the water to their arm-pits. Their  clothing was drenched and their bodies shivering in the chill north wind through the weary  hours of the night. The noise of axe-blows and falling trees along the Union lines in  front plainly foretold that the Confederate assault upon the Union breastworks at the  coming dawn was to be over an abatis of felled timber, tangled brush, and obstructing  tree-tops. The faint moonlight, almost wholly shut out by dense foliage, added to the  weird spell of the sombre scene. In every direction were dimly burning tapers, carried by  nurses and relief corps searching for the wounded. All over the field lay the unburied  dead, their pale faces made ghastlier by streaks of blood and clotted hair, and black  stains of powder left upon their lips when they tore off with their teeth the ends of  deadly cartridges. Such was the night between the battles of the 19th and 20th of  September at Chickamauga.

At nine o’clock on that Sabbath morning,  September 20, as the church bells of Chattanooga summoned its children to Sunday-school,  the signal-guns sounding through the forests at Chickamauga called the bleeding armies  again to battle. The troops of Longstreet had arrived, and he was assigned to the command  of the Confederate left, D. H. Hill to the Confederate right. On this latter wing of  Bragg’s army were the troops of John C. Breckinridge, W. H. T. Walker, Patrick Cleburne,  and A. P. Stewart, with Cheatham in reserve. Confronting them and forming the Union left  were the blue-clad veterans under Baird, Johnson, Palmer, and Reynolds, with Gordon  Granger in reserve. Beginning on the other end of the line forming the left wing of  Bragg’s battle array were Preston, Hindman, and Bush-rod Johnson, with Law and Kershaw in  reserve. Confronting these, beginning on the extreme Union right and forming the right  wing of Rosecrans’s army, were Sheridan, Davis, Wood, Negley, and Brannan, with Wilder and  Van Cleve in reserve.

The bloody work was inaugurated by  Breckinridge’s assault upon the Union left. The Confederates, with a ringing yell, broke  through the Federal line. The Confederate General Helm, with his gallant Kentuckians,  rushed upon the Union breastworks and was hurled back, his command shattered. He was  killed and his colonels shot down. Again rallying, again assaulting, again recoiling, this  decimated command temporarily yielded its place in line. The Federals, in furious  countercharge, drove back the Confederates under Adams, and his body was also left upon  the field.

The Chickamauga River was behind the  Confederates; Missionary Ridge behind the Federals. On its slopes were Union batteries  pouring a storm of shell into the forests through which Bragg’s forces were bravely  charging. As the Confederates under Adams and Helm were borne back, the clear ring of Pat  Cleburne’s “Forward !” was heard; and forward they moved, their alignment broken  by tree-tops and tangled brush and burning shells. His superb troops pressed through the  storm, only to recoil under the concentrated fire of artillery and the blazing muzzles of  small arms from the Federals behind their breastworks. The whole Confederate right,  brigade after brigade, in successive and repeated charges, now furiously assailed the  Union breastworks, only to recoil broken and decimated. Walthall, with his fiery  Mississippians, was repulsed, with all his field officers dead or wounded and his command  torn into shreds. The gallant Georgians at once rushed into the consuming blasts, and  their brilliant leader, Peyton Colquitt, fell, with many of his brave boys around him,  close to the Union breastworks. The Confederates under Walker, Cleburne, and Stewart with  wild shouts charged the works held by the determined forces of Reynolds, Brannan, and  Baird. Bravely these Union troops stood to their posts, but the Southern forces at one  point broke through their front as Breckinridge swept down upon flank and rear. George H.  Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga,” with full appreciation of the crisis, called  for help to hold this pivotal position of the Union left. Van Derveer’s moving banners  indicated the quick step of his troops responding to Thomas’s call; and raked by flanking  fire, this dashing officer drove Breckinridge back and relieved the Union flank. At double  quick and with ringing shout, the double Union lines pressed forward until, face to face  and muzzle to muzzle, the fighting became fierce and desperate. Charging columns of blue  and gray at this moment rushed against each other, and both were shivered in the fearful  impact. The superb Southern leader, Deshler, fell at the head of his decimated command.  Govan’s Mississippians and Brown’s Tennesseeans were forced back, when Bate, also of  Tennessee, pressed furiously forward, captured the Union artillery, and drove the Federals  to their breastworks. Again and quickly the scene was changed. Fresh Union batteries and  supporting infantry with desperate determination overwhelmed and drove back temporarily  the Confederates led by the knightly Stewart. Still farther westward, Longstreet drove his  column like a wedge into the Union right center, ripping asunder the steady line of the  Federal divisions. In this whirlwind of battle, amidst its thunders and blinding flashes,  the heroic Hood rode, encouraging his men, and fell desperately wounded. His leading line  was shattered into fragments, but his stalwart supports pressed on over his own and the  Union dead, capturing the first Union line. Halting only to reform under fearful fire,  they started for the second Union position. Swaying, reeling, almost breaking, they  nevertheless captured that second line, and drove up the ridge and over it the Federal  fighters, who bravely resisted at every step. Whizzing shells from opposing batteries  crossed each other as they tore through the forest, rending saplings and tumbling severed  limbs and tree-tops amidst the surging ranks. Wilder’s mounted Union brigade in furious  charge swept down upon Manigault’s Confederates, flank and rear, and drove them in wild  confusion; but the Union horsemen were in turn quickly driven from the field and beyond  the ridge. Battery after battery of Union artillery was captured by the advancing  Confederates. The roaring tide of battle, with alternate waves of success for both sides,  surged around Snodgrass House and Horseshoe Ridge. Before a furious and costly Confederate  charge the whole extreme Union right was broken and driven from the field. Negley’s  shattered lines of blue abandoned the position and retreated to Rossville with the heavy  batteries. Davis, with decimated Union lines under Carlin and Heg, moved into Negley’s  position; but these were driven to the right and rear. Onward, still onward, swept the  Confederate columns; checked here, broken there, they closed the gaps and pressed forward,  scattering Van Cleve’s veterans in wild disorder. Amidst the shouting Confederates rode  their leaders, Stewart, Buckner, Preston, Kershaw, and Johnson. The gallant McCook led in  person a portion of Sheridan’s troops with headlong fury against the Southern front; and  Sheridan himself rode among his troops, rallying his broken lines and endeavoring to check  the resistless Southern advance. The brave and brilliant Lytle of the Union army, soldier  and poet, at this point paid to valor and duty the tribute of his heart’s blood. The  Confederate momentum, however, scattered these decimated Union lines and compelled them to  join the retreating columns, filling the roads in the rear.

Rosecrans, McCook, and Crittenden rode to  Chattanooga to select another line for defence. In the furious tempest there now came one  of those strange, unexpected lulls; but the storm was only gathering fresh fury. In the  comparative stillness which pervaded the field its mutterings could still be heard. Its  lightnings were next to flash and its thunders to roll around Horseshoe summit. Along that  crest and around Snodgrass House the remaining troops of Rosecrans’s left wing planted  themselves for stubborn resistance–one of the most stubborn recorded in history. To meet  the assault of Longstreet’s wing, the brave Union General Brannan, standing upon this now  historic crest, rallied the remnants of Croxton, Wood, Harker, Beatty, Stanley, Van Cleve,  and Buell; but up the long slopes the exulting Confederate ranks moved in majestic march.  As they neared the summit a sheet of flame from Union rifles and heavy guns blazed into  their faces. Before the blast the charging Confederates staggered, bent and broke;  reforming at the foot of the slope, these dauntless men in gray moved again to still more  determined assault upon the no less dauntless Union lines firmly planted on the crest.  Through the blinding fires they rushed to a hand-to-hand conflict, breaking here, pushing  forward there, in terrible struggle. Through clouds of smoke around the summit the banners  and bayonets of Hindman’s Confederates were discovered upon the crest; when Gordon Granger  and Steedman, with fresh troops, hurried from the Union left and, joining Van Derveer,  hurled Hindman and his men from this citadel of strength and held it till the final Union  retreat. With bayonets and clubbed muskets the resolute Federals pierced and beat back the  charging Confederates, covering the slopes of Snodgrass Hill with Confederate dead.  Roaring like a cyclone through the forest, the battle-storm raged. Battery answered  battery, deepening the unearthly din and belching from their heated throats the consuming  iron hail. The woods caught fire from the flaming shells and scorched the bodies of dead  and dying. At the close of the day the Union forces had been driven from every portion of  the field except Snodgrass Hill, and as the sun sank behind the cliffs of Lookout  Mountain, hiding his face from one of the bloodiest scenes enacted by human hands, this  heroic remnant of Rosecrans’s army withdrew to the rear and then to.the works around  Chattanooga, leaving the entire field of Chickamauga to the battered but triumphant and  shouting Confederates.

It is not my purpose to enter the controversy as  to numbers brought into action by Bragg and Rosecrans respectively. General Longstreet  makes the strength of the two armies practically equal; General Boynton’s figures give to  Bragg superiority in numbers. It is sufficient for my purpose to show that the courage  displayed by both sides was never surpassed in civilized or barbaric warfare; that there  is glory enough to satisfy both; that the fighting from first to last was furious; that  there was enough precious blood spilt by those charging and recoiling columns in the  deadly hand-to-hand collisions on the 19th and 20th of September to immortalize the  prowess of American soldiery and make Chickamauga a Mecca through all the ages.

The fact that both sides claim a victory is  somewhat remarkable. General H. V. Boynton, who fought under General Rosecrans, to whose  vigorous pen and wise labors much credit is due for the success of the great battle park  at Chickamauga, and who is one of the ablest and fairest of the commentators upon this  memorable struggle, has devoted much time and labor to prove that the victory was with the  Union arms. With sincere friendship for General Boynton as a man and a soldier, and with  full appreciation of his ability and sense of justice, I must be permitted to suggest that  his reasoning will scarcely stand the test of unbiassed historical criticism. His theory  is that although General Rosecrans abandoned the field after two days of determined and  desperate fighting in the effort to hold it, yet his retirement was not a retreat, but an  advance. “At nightfall,” says General Boynton, “the army advanced to  Chattanooga. The Army of the Cumberland was on its way to Chattanooga, the city it set out  to capture. Every foot of it [the march] was a march in advance and not retreat.”  History will surely ask how this retrograde movement into the trenches at Chattanooga can  fairly be considered an advance, the object of which was “to capture” the city,  when that city had been evacuated by Bragg and occupied by Rosecrans ten days before; when  it was held by the Union forces already; and when that city was then, and had been for  many days, the base of Union supplies and operations. General Boynton ignores the  dominating fact that before the battle the faces of the Union army were toward Atlanta and  their backs were upon Chattanooga. The battle induced Rosecrans to “about face”  and go in the opposite direction. The same reasoning as that employed by General Boynton  would give to McClellan the victory in the seven days’ battles around Richmond; for he,  too, had beaten back the Confederates at certain points, and had escaped with his army to  the cover of his gunboats at Harrison’s Landing. From like premises the Confederates might  claim a victory for Lee at Gettysburg, and that his movement to the rear was an advance.  General Pope might in like manner claim that the rout at second Manassas was a victory,  and his retreat to Washington an advance which saved the Capitol. To my thought, such  victories are similar to that achieved by the doctor who was asked: “Well, doctor,  how is the mother and the new baby?” “They are both dead,” replied the  doctor; “but I have saved the old man.” The advance on Atlanta was checked;  Chickamauga was lost; but, like the doctor’s old man, Chattanooga was saved. General  Boynton is too sensitive in this matter. All great commanders in modern times, the most  consummate and successful, have had their reverses. General Rosecrans had unfortunate  opposition at Washington, and his record as commander under such conditions is brilliant  enough to take the sting out of his defeat at Chickamauga. His ability as strategist, his  skill in manoeuvre, and his vigor in delivering battle are universally recognized. The  high court of history will render its verdict in accordance with the facts. These facts  are simple and indisputable. First, Bragg threw his army across Rosecrans’s front, checked  his advance, and forced him to take position on the north bank of the Chickamauga. Second,  Bragg assailed Rosecrans in his chosen stronghold, drove him from the entire field, and  held it in unchallenged possession. Third, at the end of the two days’ battle, which in  courage and carnage has scarcely a parallel, as the two wings of the Confederate army met  on the field, their battle-flags waved triumphantly above every gory acre of it; and their  ringing shouts rolled through Chickamauga’s forests and rose to heaven, a mighty anthem of  praise and gratitude to God for the victory.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.