According to the Tennessean, the long overdue visitors center for Nashville’s Fort Negley opens on Saturday. Located south of downtown–Map of 534 Chestnut St Nashville, TN 37203-4803, US–and the largest Civil War site in the city, the name Fort Negley might as well be short for Fort Neglected.
There are several reasons for this. First, it was a Union fort, a very visible reminder to locals that We Lost. Second, Fort Negley was built with the forced labor of newly freed slaves, a detail that no one wanted to celebrate. Third, the Fort played a big role in local Ku Klux Klan activities, which always bring out the ten-foot long pole where historical interpretation is concerned. Finally, as Gertrude Stein might have put it, there wasn’t much there there. The once mighty Fort was reduced to some stone foundations, and not very interesting ones at that.
Fort Negley has an interesting history, however, and perhaps this new visitors center will make it the centerpiece of Civil War sites in Nashville. The Fort was built to defend Nashville, which fell to northern forces early in the war when the city was abandoned by the Confederates. The Union army, knowing that Nashville was a prize, forced newly freed slaves to construct a star-shaped, state-of-the-art fort on the top of a hill. It was the largest Civil War fort west of Washington, D.C. When the anticipated attack finally came, however, late in the war on December 16, 1864, Union forces repelled the hapless Confederate General Hood south of town before he ever got to Fort Negley.
After the war, the Fort was used as a meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan. It was there in 1870, according to the WPA Guide to Tennessee, that Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered that the terrorist organization be dissolved. Southern leaders wanted Federal troops to leave the state, and feared that continued Klan activities would give the Grant administration a good excuse to maintain the occupying forces.
According to the Guide, the Klan gathered one last time at Fort Negley, donned the robes and masks that had become such symbols of oppression, and held a final parade through the streets of Nashville, then returned to Fort Negley and burned their regalia and ritual books.
When Federal troops left, Nashvillians, like the successors to the Roman Empire, saw Fort Negley as a source of free building materials, and the Fort gradually fell into ruin. This process was accelerated when the city used much of the stones from the Fort to build the nearby Eighth Avenue Reservoir. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration began restoring the Fort, but never completed the work. The restored ruins became ruins once more. Trees grew up on the hill, and many people had no idea that a fort had ever existed there.
I hope that the visitor’s center ties Nashville to the rest of Middle Tennessee’s Civil War history. The center could provide an ideal start for expeditions to Franklin and Columbia and the various antebellum homes along the way. Let’s hope the exhibitions inside get funded as well as the building itself.