A Trip to a Rarely Seen Civil War Landmark

Fort Stanley looks a good deal different than it did just over 146 years ago, when young men climbed the steep hill just south of downtown Knoxville and dug embattlements out of the cold clay. Many had never been in combat, and likely glanced over their shoulders for the first signs of the anticipated approach of Confederate cavalry from the south and west. Whoever held this hill, within cannon fire of the cluster of modest buildings of brick and wood on the bluff just across the river, could control Knoxville, or destroy it.

The men cut down the trees of the hill that had been known as Gobbler's Knob. A panoramic photograph taken from this hilltop shows a slope denuded of foliage, a barren landscape with a few men in dark uniforms lounging by canvas tents on the north face, waiting for something to happen.

In 2010, the same hill is unrecognizably dense with trees and underbrush. Even in the winter, it's a maze of vines and briars. Except for a broad passage to a cylindrical KUB water tank, the hilltop has no paths. But an occasional rotten foam-rubber mattress or a collection of vintage beer cans suggests people have found ways into here. Startling views of downtown are visible in glimpses.

Today, three of us are up there trying to see what remains of Fort Stanley. In the lead is a thin, quick, efficient woman named Carol Evans. Not too long ago, she was an executive with the Chamber Partnership, adept at presentations to men in suits in fluorescent rooms. Today she has twigs in her hair and leaves in her ears. She works her way through the underbrush more swiftly than the two lumbering guys behind her.

"That's the thing with Carol, and everything she does," says Scott Frith. "There's never a trail in front of you. You just have to follow Carol." Frith is deputy director of the Knox County Election Commission, and also board member of Legacy Parks Foundation. Carol Evans has been, since the foundation's inception in 2008, its director.

"I know it's right near here," she says, as she comes upon a pit, about five feet deep, of unknown origin.

The scars of war are still discernible on the northwestern slope of Gobbler's Knob, which rises immediately east of Chapman Highway.

Fort Stanley was built a few weeks after the construction of larger Fort Dickerson. Gobbler's Knob was the closest hill to downtown Knoxville, and at 360 feet above the river, the tallest.

By General Burnside's order, all forts were named after Union officers killed in the weeks-long Knoxville campaign. This one was named for Captain C.E. Stanley, who died when Nathan Bedford Forrest's Confederate cavalry liquefied a Union brigade in Loudon County. (Fort Stanley's proximity to the neighborhood's best-known business, Stanley's Greenhouse, is coincidental.)

The engineer in charge was Captain Orlando Poe, who had previously worked on fortifications around Washington, when Lee's army was close to the capital city. He saw the Southern heights as paramount to holding the city. On that point Confederate General Longstreet agreed. But by the time he arrived, the hilltops were already well fortified under the U.S. flag. Although Fort Stanley may have seen no direct combat, it certainly made the invasion of Knoxville more discouraging.

Fort Stanley's remains are not quite as obvious as the cleared ramparts of larger Fort Dickerson, or, farther to the west, what's left of tiny Fort Higley, which would startle a wanderer even if they weren't looking for Civil War earthworks.

Fort Stanley's trenchwork is invisible until you're standing right in it, and what it looks like is not so much a fortress but a miniature road through the woods, a hillside shelf maybe five feet wide and 50 or 60 feet long. On the northwest side of the hill, it looks like an excellent place to shell Thompson Boling Arena.

It's just part of what was once a long, hairpin-shaped loop of trenches crowning the hill. There are said to be other traces that may be more obvious when some of the undergrowth is cleared.

Like some of the other peaks of South Knoxville, the perch's rare windows of visibility offer an almost disorienting view of a familiar city. You're in the woods, in a place only hoboes have been recently—and then, judging by their beer cans, not very recently. Still, you can almost see your friends on Gay Street, and want to wave.

Legacy Parks is early in a campaign to raise $800,000 to buy 18 acres of Gobbler's Knob, including these traces of war. It would be another piece in a puzzle that, when completed, would link three Civil War forts with great views of Knoxville and become what may be a genuinely unique attraction. (Though some have dreamed of trying to build a footbridge from Dickerson to Stanley, across Chapman Highway, Evans says it is not on Legacy Parks' agenda. They're planning to improve pedestrian crossings on grade.)

Gobbler's Knob seems like prime real estate. A recent project to build a subsidized apartment building up here fell through a couple of years ago, and Legacy Parks got an option on it. They've raised less than 10 percent of the amount that had been needed by the end of this month, but got a year extension. Evans needs to raise about $750,000 by February 15, 2011.

Well-known author and historian Carroll Van West, director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, is impressed with the effort, and what he's seen. The sites still visible on the south side are not necessarily the most dramatic scenes of the Battle of Knoxville, but considering that the last of Fort Sanders vanished decades ago, along with most of the 17-odd forts and batteries that encircled Knoxville, South Knoxville's hilltop earthworks are the best of what remains, with enough left to suggest the forbidding ring of fortifications that kept Knoxville Union. It's unusual to have visible Civil War ruins so close to a downtown. In town a few days ago, West told a group of Legacy Park supporters, "You've got a Lookout Mountain on your hands."

Learn more about the Legacy Parks Foundation at their website, legacyparks.org.