Jerry Summers: Nashville's Fort Negley

Saturday, April 4, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Anyone traveling to Nashville who is a Civil War enthusiast should consider visiting Fort Negley for a couple of reasons.

           
The first is to have the opportunity to view from a high elevation the immense construction that is taking place in what is now Tennessee’s largest city (Shelby is the largest county).  From a viewpoint on the knoll at Fort Negley observers can see a multitude of high level cranes engaged in elevating the Music City’s skyline.

 

From a historical perspective Fort Negley is an important part of the Civil War involvement of our state's capital in 1862-1867.  Although the wooden structure that comprised the fortifications of the area are gone, much history pertaining to the area remains.

 

After its occupation on February 25, 1862, by Union forces, Nashville was the second most fortified city in America after Washington, D.C.  The original fort was named after James S.

Negley, provost marshal and commander of Federal forces in the city.  

 

In 1865 the location was renamed Fort Hacker in honor of the death of General Charles G. Hacker, who was killed at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia.

 

The changing of the name of the fort was based on General Negley’s alleged poor performance at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.  However, he was later exonerated of the charges and the fort was known locally as Fort Negley.  Negley would later serve as a Congressman and railroad president.

 

After the defeat of the Confederate Army at Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862, the citizenry and government officials realized that the occupation of Nashville was imminent and an era known as “The Great Panic” took place.  Governor Isham Harris and the Tennessee General Assembly members left for Memphis by rail with the state's Archives.  When the Confederate Army under the command of General Albert S. Johnston fled the city on February 25, Union troops arrived headed by General Don Carlos Buell.  Terms of surrender were negotiated by Major Richard B. Cheatham and Nashville remained under federal occupation throughout the war.

 

The erection of Fort Negley was originally designed to protect any attack on Nashville.  It was located atop St. Cloud Hill, south of the city.

 

Local male and female slaves were the primary labor force that erected a star-shaped structure of limestone block.

 

An agreement was made that the runaway slaves who worked on the construction of the fort would have their status of slaves revoked.  Free blacks were also forcibly conscripted for the work.  Of the 2,768 blacks on the project, only 310 were ever paid and 600-800 men were killed while working.

 

Although Fort Negley was erected for the defense of Nashville when Confederate forces attacked the capital in the Battle of Nashville on December 15-16, 1864, most of the fighting was on the south end of the city.

 

Although units at the impressive Fort Negley fired an occasional volley toward the invading southern troops of General John Bell Hood, its role was of minor involvement.  The fort remained under federal control and martial law until 1867.

 

After the end of the Civil War, the fort fell into a state of deterioration and was abandoned.  The site became a meeting place for secret rallies of the Ku Klux Klan until 1869.  In 1937 the Federal Works Progress Association (WPA) reconstructed the fort as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelts New Deal.      

 

However, the site has had a checkered history.  After the 1937 reconstruction the fort was allowed to fall into ruins until attention was once again brought to its existence in the 1964 Civil War Centennial Celebration.  In 1975, Fort Negley was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

 

In 1980 the Metro Historical Commission marked the site with a historical marker.

 

Rehabilitation of the fort began in 2002 with stabilization of the fort and installation of interpretive panels outlining the history of the fort. Accessible walkways were erected.  Fort Negley reopened on the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville in December 2004.

 

The modernistic Fort Negley Visitors Center opened in 2007 and includes many Civil War historical features about Nashville and other areas.

 

Admission to the fort is free and information as to hours and dates of operation can be obtained at (615) 862-8470 or www.nashville.gov/parks-and-recreation-historic-sites-fort-negley.aspx.

 

Although an administrative blunder in 2017 resulted in the removal of all of the trees from the site, both reasons stated above justify a visit to Fort Negley as an opportunity to learn the past and see the proposed future of Nashville.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

Fort Negley
Fort Negley

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