Saturday, April 11, 2020

Nashville's Fort Negley: A tale of 'paradise,' hobos and the KKK

A cropped enlargement of a war-time image of Fort Negley by George Barnard.
(Library of Congress)
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In the decades after the Civil War, Nashville's Fort Negley wasn't just a decaying relic of the past. The massive Union fortification on St. Cloud Hill was also a playground for the city's youth. They would scour its trenches, breastworks and nooks and crannies for buttons from soldiers' uniforms, ordnance and whatever else the Federals left behind during their occupation of the city from 1862-67.

"A small boy's paradise," a Nashville Tennessean columnist called it.

Fort Negley is on St. Cloud Hill, a short distance from downtown Nashville.
The place also has a sordid past: In the 19th century, a band of desperadoes, covered from view by rubble and undergrowth. reportedly occupied Fort Negley,  And beginning in the late 1860s, shortly after the Union Army left town, the fort became a favorite meeting place for the Ku Klux Klan, which spewed its hate-filled message there well into the 20th century.

"The thing that the struck terror to us children more than the Battle of Nashville," May Winston Caldwell recalled about the era immediately after the Civil War, "was the Ku Klux Klan that had its meetings in the then abandoned Fort Negley. When twilight came, or in the misty moonlight, these figures of ill-omen would sally forth.

"The appearance of the Klan caused consternation; and after seeing one, it was days before we got back to normal."

Ruins on fort's south side. Peach Orchard Hill, a key Battle of Nashville site,
 is in the middle distance.
In the 20th century, several organizations advocated for saving Fort Negley -- there were even plans to turn it into a national park. But few in Nashville were eager to memorialize a place so closely tied to the Federal occupation of the city and the disastrous Confederate defeat at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864. And so the fort deteriorated until the Works Progress Adminstration restored most of it in 1937.

But over the ensuing decades few visited Fort Negley, and the historic site once again fell into disrepair. "Winos and hobos" used it for a refuge, and the fort was closed to the public for safety reasons. "Fort Negley has grown into such a thicket," said a member of the Davidson County Civil War Centennial Committee in 1963, "that policemen don't like to go up there alone at night."

In 1964, Fort Negley was considered for a zoo, but that plan went nowhere. After decades of neglect, the fort -- built mostly with African-American labor in 1862 -- was restored by the city at a cost of $2 million and re-opened in 2004 as a city park. (A plan backed by the mayor to build a mixed-use development at the site was thankfully scrapped in 2018.)

Which brings us back to our "small boy's paradise." In 1929, Tennessean columnist Truman Hudson Alexander advocated for the creation of a Fort Negley national park. "Romance," he wrote, "clings around the old atrocity in South Nashville," where the newspaperman hunted with friends for Civil War artifacts as a boy.

Below is Alexander's column -- a remarkable window into Nashville's past -- as published in the Tennessean on Dec. 7, 1929:

            PANORAMA: View from a lower tier of the fort toward downtown Nashville.
                                   (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)



It has been only a few years ago that I, in company with other ragamuffins from Vine Street, used to play on old Fort Negley. Indeed, for 65 years the old fort in South Nashville has been a small boy's paradise.

In 1929, Nashville Tennessean columnist
Truman Alexander advocated for the creation
of a Fort Negley national park
And now, if I read the public prints aright, the sixty-sixth General Assembly is asked to make a national park of the old fort, immortalizing forever the spot near where [John Bell] Hood and [George] Thomas fought, where robbers used to hide in reconstruction days, where the original K. K. K. held ghostly conclaves by night and where goats and small boys have disported in late years.

I do not agree with a venerable contributor who wrote in to the paper the other day to say that he could not see why Fort Negley should be honored, because it was a pain in the neck to Nashville from 1861 to 1865. As well, he intimated, to erect a monument to a carbuncle or to the hives.

And I do not agree because old Fort Negley is to my not too ancient memory a place of pure delight. True, of late years it has been the rendezvous mainly of billygoats who thrive on tin cans. It has resembled nothing so much as one of Mayor Howse's celebrated city dump piles but may be distinguished from the garbage mountains by the fact that the piles of garbage are in active eruption, burning fiercely and giving forth an odor reminiscent ot a Chinese stink bomb.

I am for old Fort Negley and make haste to align myself with the proponents of its salvation through federal grace because as a lad we used to find Union buttons by the peck, play soldier on its slope, play robber in the remains of the old breastworks and charge rival gangs from its summit with fixed bayonets, which were sharp sticks and powerful weapons against little colored boys who ventured "too close."

An aerial view of Fort Negley in 1936. (Battle of Nashville Trust)
A late 1930s view of the fort, which was restored in 1937 by the Works Progress Administration.
(Battle of Nashville Trust)
In fact, romance clings around the old atrocity in South Nashville. It is not as ancient as the old Spanish fort in St. Augustine nor as picturesque as the old Cabildo in New Orleans, but list to its tale:

It served tor four years as a fort during the Civil war. It was a star shaped fort on the highest hill in Nashville, which like Rome of old is guarded by seven hills. It was one of a chain of forts around the city and on the nearby battlefield where the battle of Nashville was fought the gallant Federal general, Thomas, won one of the most decisive victories of the Civil War over Hood, the Confederate general, because that victory, by crushing the Confederacy in the west and protecting Sherman's flank in the Georgia campaign, made the surrender at Appomattox a certainty a few months later.

After the war it became the meeting place of robbers. I am told by Mrs. James E. Caldwell, who first suggested the preservation of Fort Negley 18 years ago, that her father, who was a physician, never ventured out on a call during reconstruction days unless accompanied by two men from the family he was to visit. The days were too lawless and most of the outlaws seemed to gather around the old fort.

Fort Negley today is a protected area, but plans to make it a national park
never were realized.
It is tradition that the robber gangs tunneled from Fort Negley to the old City cemetery to enable them to escape officers who raided the place periodically. The end of the tunnel was in the old McNairy vault in the musty City cemetery, as an excited negro reported upon seeing a man emerge from the handsome bronze doors of the vault.

After this the old fort became the meeting place of the Ku Klux Klan, which held weird conclaves on the forbidding brow of the hill. The flickering pine torches revealed sometimes thousands of klansmen in white robes, about to set out to curb lawlessness or to drink buckets of water which went into a rubber sack over their stomachs. announcing simultaneously to the superstitions ' host that the white rider hadn't had a drink since he was killed at the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864!

And still later the old fort became a paradise for goats and small boys. No Nashville boy has really tasted the joys of boyhood unless he has visited Fort Negley. True, he will return with the smell of billy goats on his clothing and perhaps muddy and dirty besides, but he will have lived.

Personally, my boyish legs bore me thence often and I collected a lard bucket or two of buttons from the coats of soldiers. Indeed, I am able to see why the Civil war cost so much because the daily pleasure ot the Yankee soldiers must have been in ripping off the buttons from their coats, and in scattering cannon balls around for the small boys of another generation to collect.

      PANORAMA: A view of the remains of the stockade, the fort's last area of defense.


The profusion of Union buttons, however, may be explained by an ancient wheese hereabouts which is that a prominent merchant and Confederate sympathiser on the public square shortly after the Civil war wrote North to order a hundred pounds of onion buttons. Being a poor speller it appears that it was thought he was ordering Union buttons and instead of a hundred pounds of small onion sets he received quite a large box of brass buttons with eagles on them and the letters U. S. A. These he promptly threw away and I am constrained to believe that perhaps he threw them on Fort Negley.

That's my story, anyway, and I stick to it.

That this proposal to save Fort Negley from the knawing tooth of time came from Mrs. Caldwell is, it seems to me, peculiarly fitting. Her eldest brother, Arthur Winston, was with General Hood's Confederate army when the battle of Nashville was fought nearby. As a small child she heard the distant rumble of artillery in the battle, and it is to Mrs. Caldwell that Nashville owes much of the credit for the handsome monument to the battle of Nashville which must attract and charm visitors from the south as they approach the city over the floor-like smoothness of the Franklin pike.

If Mrs. Caldwell's ideas are carried out Nashville will have another enterprise to which we may point with pride. as entrance from Eighth avenue as well as from the Franklin pike could be arranged rather easily. There should be an imposing entrance and the dedication to Grant and Lee ought to please almost everybody -- except the G. A. R. and the U. C. V.!

Of late years, I am against almost everything I find. Much of what we call progress isn't progress at all, but I am for Fort Negley's restoration and sending the bill to Washington.

A cropped enlargement of George Barnard's war-time image of the interior of Fort Negley.
(Library of Congress)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


SOURCES

-- Nashville Banner, Aug. 15, 1963.
-- Nashville Tennessean, Dec. 6, 1964.

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