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Civil War Sesquicentennial: Nashville's Fort Negley at 150 Years

The Sally Port was the heavily fortified entrance to the Fort itself.
The Sally Port was the heavily fortified entrance to the Fort itself.
Darlene Williams

When I was girl growing up in Nashville in the 1970s and 80s, there was a mysterious hill on the south side of the downtown area that had crumbling stacked stone walls and an elaborate limestone gate. Everyone called it Fort Negley, but no one was allowed to go up there….at least not legally anyway. My dad used to talk about how he and his brothers and friends would play and hang out at on the rocks, and walk through the tunnels. I wanted to so badly to explore this strange place that was overgrown and neglected, but was never allowed to. Not until the long neglected Fort re-opened on the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville in December 2004 as the latest jewel in Nashville’s Metro Parks system.

To understand why this site is so important to the city of Nashville and Civil War historians, one must understand Nashville’s and Tennessee’s place in that devastating conflict. Tennessee had originally voted to remain in the Union, but after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Legislature voted again and this time seceded from the Union in June 1861, becoming the last state to join the Confederacy. The city’s hubs of roads (turnpikes) and railroads and its strategic location on the Cumberland River made it an invaluable asset to both sides. They both knew that holding Nashville was the key to supply lines in the Western Theater—covering all the territory between the Mississippi and the Appalachians.

After Fort Donelson – less than 100 miles away -- fell to the Union forces in February 1862 it was only a matter of a few weeks before the Union Army arrived in the city and Nashville became the first major Southern city to fall. President Lincoln appointed the pro-Union Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson to be the state’s military governor.

During the occupation, Nashville was the second most fortified city in the US, second only to Washington, DC, with Fort Negley being the key piece in a series of forts and redoubts on the southern edge of the city. The state Capitol building (still in use today), completed in 1859, was also fortified with cannons and troops and renamed Fort Andrew Johnson.

Captain James Morton was directed to construct fortifications around the city to defend Confederate attacks. He chose St. Cloud Hill, one of the highest in the area, for the main fortress and work began in August 1862. To build the fort the US Army impressed 2,768 free and slave laborers. Constructed of stones, log, earth and railroad iron, it was finished in December of that year and named in honor of Union General James S. Negley, post commander in Nashville. It was the largest inland stone fort built during the war, covering four acres and measuring 600 feet long by 300 feet wide. One of the more notable design elements is that Morton created a “star” fort, which in the US were primarily built on water. (Famous US star forts include Liberty Island’s Fort Wood—the base of the Statue of Liberty—and St Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos.)

During the Battle of Nashville (December 15 & 16, 1864), the artillery shelling from Fort Negley aided US General George Thomas’ attack on CSA General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee. After the two days of heavy fighting, Hood’s army had virtually been wiped out and the remaining forces fled south, engaging in skirmishes until they reached the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. Civil War historians have called it one of the most decisive battles of the war, and it was the last major engagement of the conflict. CSA General Robert E Lee surrendered a few months later in April 1865 in Virginia.

Tennessee became the first Confederate state to re-join the union in July 1867. The army occupied Nashville and Fort Negley until September 1867 when they dismantled the majority of Nashville’s defenses. After the army’s departure the fort sat neglected and began deteriorating.

In 1928 after a failed attempt at preserving the fort as a national military park, the city of Nashville bought the property. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) reconstructed the fort in 1936 at a cost of $84,000, including rebuilding the stone parapets and wooden fort. It was re-opened to the public in 1938.

Again, after a number of years, the site was neglected and during the 1960s Metro Parks removed the dilapidated wood stockade and closed the Fort to the public. By 1975, with the fort designated as an undeveloped park, it gained status on the National Register of Historic Places.

As interest in the fort grew in the 1990s, Metro Parks’ master plan of the property’s restoration became a priority, with the city appropriating $2 million in 2002 to stabilize the fortifications and create an interpretive walking trail throughout the structure, as well as a visitors center. Archeologists have confirmed that the WPA project used the original plans and the current stone walls are built on the fort’s original 1862 walls.

Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell presided over the re-opening ceremony in December 2004, complete with Civil War reenactors. Three years later the Fort Negley Visitors Center opened and includes interactive touch screens on various topics related to the War, the Fort and Nashville; films maintained by the National Park Service; and provides educational programming for both the general public and the educational systems. The project remains the largest municipal Civil War preservation in the entire nation. Future plans include a walkway and bridge to the Nashville City Cemetery, original burial ground for both US and Confederate dead.

Upcoming events at the Fort:
Guided Tour through Fort Negley's Past with historian David Currey: May 17, 9 AM – 11 AM
3rd Annual Memorial Day Commemoration: May 24, 11 AM
Juneteenth Celebration: June 28, 10 AM – 3 PM

Fort Negley Visitors Center
1100 Fort Negley Boulevard, Nashville TN 37203, 615-862-8470
www.nashville.gov/parks/historic/fortnegley
The park is open daily from Dawn to Dusk for self-guided walking tours. Please call or visit the website for the Visitor’s Center hours of operation.

For additional information on the Battle of Nashville please visit the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, Inc's website: www.bonps.org