An Archaeological Excavation for the Union's Fort Sanders

For the past few weeks of this hot summer, Charlie Faulkner and his wife Terry have been hard at work digging in the dirt. Retired couples often cooperate on digging a rose garden. The Faulkners are different. They have been conducting science's first archaeological excavation of Union Fort Sanders.

The site of the biggest military assault in Knoxville-area history has never been the subject of organized digging. The Faulkners figured it was time. They also mean to prove a hypothesis, annoying to the Civil War orthodoxy, that Fort Sanders was not exactly where scholars have assumed for the last 50-odd years. All obvious remnants of the Union fort were developed into oblivion before 1930. In all maps since about 1961, the westernmost wall of the Union fort has been drawn at 17th Street, where a United Daughters of the Confederacy memorial marker has stood since 1914.

The Faulkners think the actual ramparts extended a few hundred feet west, to what's now 18th Street. And that it was there the Confederate charge in 1863 came to a violent end.

The Faulkners arrived at that conclusion after studying historical photographs, particularly one taken in 1890, at the time of the major blue-gray veterans' reunion, which appears to put the ruined battlements hundreds of feet to the west of a house that stood on Laurel near 17th Street, and an aerial photo from 1922, which may show earthen remnants in the vicinity of 18th Street and Laurel.

Their excavation is a modest project: They picked an approximately 10-by-10-foot plot, one of the few available and apparently undisturbed between 17th and 18th Streets, and began methodically digging (better, they say, if we don't mention the precise spot right now). They went after it as Professor Faulkner once directed his grad students—sampling, sifting, brushing, labeling, photographing. Faulkner has done more scholarly digging around Knoxville than anybody.

They'd hardly begun digging in this Fort Sanders site before they found one bit of evidence. Just eight or nine inches below the surface, the humus ends and there's extraordinarily hard-packed clay. Usually, he says, there are a couple more transitional phases. But here's this rock-hard earth, rumpled and weathered like the surface of Mercury.

It's not like farmland, not like a yard. Fort Sanders was bare, hard-packed earth during the war, massive ramparts of clay. Within the parapets, men slept in tents and lived as if camping out. Sporadically respected and visited by tourists, the bare earth baked in the sun for about 50 years until it began to be re-landscaped and developed early in the 20th century.

In the upper part of that hard earth, the Faulkners have found several objects. A squared-oval tin that appears to be part of an old meat can, opened with a knife. Part of a stovepipe. Some chopped-up bones, pork and chicken. And, the most intimate find, a tiny bone button, a recognizable fastener for 19th-century underwear.

They found coal, partly incinerated, on heat-scorched clay. Suburbanites may rarely burn coal in the yard, but much of the Union occupation of Fort Sanders was during frigid winter weather.

The one place where the earth wasn't that hard was a post hole, almost a foot in diameter. This is, they think, about where the "revetment," the interior wall of the earthen parapet, would have been. It was likely braced with posts. But they haven't come to a conclusion about what that hole once anchored. It could be the site of a forgotten telegraph pole.

All of that's concentrated in this one sample, microscopic compared to the large fort.

They've found no obvious military scraps. Minieballs still turn up around the neighborhood, but not yet in this little patch. One thing they didn't find may be evidence, of a sort. The most common ingredient in domestic digs is broken kitchenware, almost universal in 19th-century civilian dump sites. There's none of that here.

The site is well west of the traditionally understood boundaries of Fort Sanders.

The marker on the west side of 17th Street, they think, was placed there mainly to catch eyes. Then as now, 17th was the most-traveled cross street in the neighborhood. Newspaper accounts of the 1914 monument dedication mention that the fort's ruins are still present, somewhere nearby. The marker's inscription includes no claim it's placed right at the point of attack. In newspapers, the monument's "on the fort"—and "near" the ditch that surrounded the parapets, where most of the soldiers died.

The Faulkners' findings are contrary to some carefully plotted maps, based on those of detail-obsessive Union engineer Orlando Poe. The Faulkners haven't proven anything absolutely, just found some stuff that's consistent with a Civil War military camp, and pretty odd for an ordinary front yard.

To Charlie Faulkner, who's been conferring with some other archaeologists, what they've found is a strong indication that much further work needs to be done. A big chunk of the battlefield was recently the site of a major construction project, the hospital's Center for Advanced Medicine.

James Agee's autobiographical novel A Death in the Family indicates that there were still remnants of the fort in 1916, a "waste of briars and embanked clay." But by then, most of the block east of 17th had been developed with fancy houses and yards. Was that site west of 17th, then still mostly undeveloped?

The Faulkners suspect that some hints of the ramparts may still be visible. At the corner of Clinch and 18th, for example, the grassy yard of the house known as White Columns has an odd hump to it. It's not dramatic, but once you notice it, it doesn't look like something a landscaper would form deliberately. The Faulkners suspect it's the southwestern parapet of Fort Sanders, graded down.

The one feature most likely to be intact would answer most questions. Its lines are probably still discernible, down there somewhere, under yards or even foundations. It's the bottom of the nine-foot-deep ditch where more than 100 soldiers died.