Enhancing South Knoxville's Heritage

Plans for a Civil War "battlefield loop" advance with acquisition of Fort Stanley site

The last piece needed to complete the preservation of South Knoxville's Civil War heritage has just been put into place.

The 22-acre hillside on which Fort Stanley once was mounted has been acquired by the Aslan Foundation for a reported $750,000. That brings to more than $3 million the total Aslan has invested in protecting key portions of what's also come to be known as South Knoxville's Urban Wilderness Corridor. In 2008, the foundation—a philanthropic legacy of the late attorney Lindsay Young—spent $2.3 million to acquire some 100 acres that included the site of Fort Higley, another of the three South Knoxville artillery emplacements manned by Union troops during the unsuccessful Confederate siege of Knoxville in November 1863.

The steep, heavily wooded Fort Stanley site is perched just across Chapman Highway from the best known (and best preserved) of the three, Fort Dickerson, which has been a city park since the 1950s. Since little remains of Fort Stanley's earthenware fortifications, it's not likely to become the historic attraction that the 85-acre Fort Dickerson Park should be once the city makes it more accessible via a new entrance to which mayor-elect Madeline Rogero is committed. But securing the Fort Stanley hillside is important to fulfillment of an Urban Wilderness Corridor that's now claimed to encompass 1,000 acres extending from Ijams Nature Center in the east to the bluffs and ridges along Cherokee Trail to the west, all in close proximity to downtown.

Knoxville is fortunate to have benefactors like Aslan who have both a commitment to historic preservation and the resources to provide it. "The ridgetops of Knoxville are so significant both historically and topographically that it's imperative to preserve them, and we're doing it because no one else is going to at this time," says the foundation's board president, Robert Young Jr.

Aslan has "no definite plans for Fort Stanley except to protect it from development," Young says. But where Fort Higley is concerned, there's a lot more in the works. "We hope to restore Fort Higley to a visitable Civil War tourism site where people can see a reconstruction of what that earthenware fort looked like in 1863," he relates. A target date is the Battle of Knoxville sesquicentennial date of November 1863, but Young cautions that "We're still in the talking stage with a restoration consultant, and I don't know if that date is reasonable."

He stresses that the foundation "doesn't envision itself as a long-term holder of the land. However, right now city and county and even state governments have no funds for historic preservation or restoration or maintenance. We're hoping that 10 years from now they will and that we could turn it over to them."

The other prime mover in making the Urban Wilderness Corridor come to fruition has been the Legacy Parks Foundation. In the year following Aslan's purchase of the 100 acres including Fort Higley from one would-be developer, Legacy Parks succeeded in acquiring a nearby 70-acre site from another one. The Haslam family was by far the largest single donor in covering the $1.5 million purchase price of what is now known as River Bluff but during Civil War times was known as Armstrong's Hill. While there's no fort or even signage to commemorate it, the Battle of Armstrong's Hill was the only one fought south of the river—four days prior to the decisive Battle of Fort Sanders on the north side. At Armstrong's Hill, Union foot soldiers managed to repulse a Confederate charge and thus protected their artillery positioned at the forts.

Beyond acquiring property, Legacy Parks has been actively engaged in planning and providing funding for recreational uses of the Corridor. Its executive director, Carol Evans, reckons that work is now about 80 percent complete on a 15-mile trail loop connecting Ijams, the Forks of the River Wildlife Management Area, and the William Hastie Natural Area. It took $150,000 in private donations (with former Mayor Victor Ashe in the forefront) plus a $50,000 city grant to buy or get easements on several pieces of private property needed to complete the loop. The Appalachian Mountain Bike Club headed by Brian Hann has donated most of the labor involved in building the connecting trails as well as more trails within Ijams and at Fort Dickerson.

Looking ahead, Evans envisions much more expansively connecting all of the forts and Armstrong's Hill in what she calls a battlefield loop. The East Tennessee Community Design Center is addressing three options for such a loop. "It may not all be walking or biking, but I know it's doable," she says. Beyond that, a greenway system that would extend all the way from Ijams to Alcoa Highway is a goal and "I feel confident that we can do that working with the city's new greenway coordinator."

For all the harm the collapse of the housing market has done to the economy as a whole, it may have been a blessing in disguise where preservation of South Knoxville's Civil War sites is concerned. Condominium developments were about to encroach upon both Fort Higley and Armstrong's Hill when the housing market chilled and thus improved the climate for their acquisition by the Aslan and Legacy Parks foundations, for which the entire community can be grateful.