Fort Negley Is a Common Link Between Black Nashvillians Past and Present
Fort Negley Is a Common Link Between Black Nashvillians Past and Present

Gary Burke

Proud and defiant, now 155 years after it was completed, Fort Negley still stands as the most prominent structure in its neighborhood. The largest inland fort built during the Civil War, its bastions ringing Saint Cloud Hill — built using more than 62,000 cubic feet of limestone — it’s a testament to the men and women who built it, and those who restored it.

The fort dodged much of the action of the Battle of Nashville, primarily fought farther south, and it was abandoned by the Union Army shortly after Appomattox. Forgotten for decades by official Nashville — perhaps willfully, given its provenance and the utter embarrassment that the Battle of Nashville was for the Confederacy — it hosted Ku Klux Klan meetings and cross burnings throughout Reconstruction and into the 20th century. Those generally pathetic displays were made all the more pathetic since Fort Negley — a Union project that saw almost no action — could represent little of what the Klan purported to stand for and, in fact, serves as a much stronger symbol of what the Klan resisted. It should come as no shock, of course, that the KKK and its ilk completely misinterpreted history.

The simple narrative of Fort Negley — construction, abandonment, misappropriation, New Deal restoration, abandonment again, revival and then another insidious attempt at erasure, with the area’s proposed redevelopment thwarted by a surprising coalition of historians, conservationists, the NAACP, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others — glosses over Fort Negley’s true essence.

Last year, the Fort Negley area was targeted for a high-profile development project; the Cloud Hill Partnership’s plans included residences, retail and offices. A major kerfuffle followed, and the project was scuttled after archaeologists confirmed burials of slaves and others in the area. What was not, perhaps, wholly apparent to large swaths of Nashville before those events is that Fort Negley is a critical piece of history for the city’s African Americans, a monument to something much more important than architecture or engineering.

“It’s a freedom trail,” Gary Burke says.

Burke is a member of the board of the Friends of Fort Negley and a re-enactor with the 13th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Those bona fides are more than enough to qualify him to speak on the site’s importance, but Burke’s connection is deeper.

“I found out my great-great grandfather served at Fort Negley,” he says. “Peter Bailey, private, 17th Regiment, USCT. He was 5-feet-4 and 18 years old when he enlisted in 1864.”

Fort Negley — and its sister ring-forts, built by the Union after occupying Nashville — was constructed in large part by former slaves who fled to the Union lines, and freed blacks conscripted out of Nashville’s churches. It was garrisoned by, among others, members of the USCT.

“To them, Fort Negley was the possibility of freedom,” Burke says.

So strong was the hold of the fort that after the war, many of the laborers stayed on St. Cloud Hill, creating what was essentially the city’s first black neighborhood, complete with apartment buildings that crowded the hillside. Eventually, some of the families would move to the north side of town, helping found and nurture what would become Tennessee State and Fisk universities. But for decades, they’d come back to tend to the fort’s increasingly overgrown grounds, to picnic, to remember, to thumb their noses at the Klansmen desperately trying to repackage the fort as something it never was. The fort never worked as a symbol of white supremacy — it was, in fact, a symbol of black accomplishment in the face of unspeakable oppression.

Vanderbilt University’s Fort Negley Descendants Project works to reconnect the present with that past. Thanks to muster rolls for the USCT and a list of laborers kept by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, most of the names of those who helped build and defend the fort are known. A three-woman team — postdoctoral fellow Angela Sutton, Ph.D. candidate Juliet Larkin-Gilmore and undergraduate and Nashville native Destiny Hanks — uses digital archives to help people trace their family trees back to those who built and served at the fort. And they invite them to tell their stories, recording interviews.

Burke says he’d already been a re-enactor for six or seven years when his father died and he found paperwork indicating his great-grandmother received a Union pension for her father’s service with the USCT. He knew then that he was a descendant of a Civil War soldier, which certainly raised the possibility that his ancestor had been at Fort Negley. But he still wasn’t fully prepared for the moment when he learned for sure.

“It was emotional,” he says. “I never thought my own flesh and blood would be there. It’s a moment I’ll always cherish.”

Sutton and Larkin-Gilmore emphasize that they are facilitators, providing the assistance and the means for descendants to make that connection. Genealogical research for African Americans is not only difficult from a logistical sense, but is often emotionally heavy, as filling in blanks can mean seeing, for example, a slave schedule with an ancestor’s name, or a receipt for a person’s sale.

So the team isn’t scouring phone books trying to track down descendants. They are, as they say, there when people are ready. 

So many public history sites that deal with black history commemorate particularly insidious events — think slave cabins at former plantations, or sites that commemorate violent backlash in the civil rights movement. There was, of course, ugliness at Fort Negley, but the site also tells a deeper, fuller story. It begins with slaves seeking freedom, USCT soldiers literally fighting for that freedom, and laborers using their ingenuity to build a truly impressive structure. After the war, it was the site of resistance against the forces of reaction and a place of community. Later, even as the forests and weeds took it over, it was place of memories. And when it finally reopened as a park in 2006 — an effort spearheaded by the USCT re-enactors — it was a place of pride.

“Nashville didn’t know what it had,” Sutton says.

“But African Americans in Nashville knew,” Larkin-Gilmore adds. “There’s a long history of that, and it’s just now reaching the mainstream, but they hold that history dear.”

“People are drawn to it,” Sutton says. “Fort Negley is unique because it is both a site of pain and of triumph; there's a wider range of emotions associated with this place."

With help from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the Fort Negley Descendants Project assisted Burke and Franklin native Eleanor Fleming in finding their connections to the fort. A set of four siblings is heading in for their interview later this year. 

Academic historians aren’t prone to believing in mystic connections or metaphysical explanations. Sutton and Larkin-Gilmore like the word “serendipity” as a catch-all for the seemingly magic coincidences that surround the fort and their research, like longtime Negley enthusiast and re-enactor Burke finding out he had a familial connection to the place.

Or like when the project’s intern, Destiny Hanks, noticed a certain surname on the rolls that also showed up in her family tree. A few more connections need to be made, but “it’s looking promising” that Hanks is a Negley descendant herself, Sutton says.

“It’s the power of Fort Negley,” Larkin-Gilmore says.

There’s something there, and now Nashville is paying attention.

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