Victory at Fort Higley: Breaching the Ramparts with Aslan

Scaling the Lilliputian ramparts of Fort Higley last week, I hardly knew the place. One of the two best-preserved Civil War battlements in Knox County, the little fort's been half-forgotten in these South Knoxville woods for the last 149 years, but it still stands out, and you wouldn't have to be a military historian to notice it.

It's so close to Neyland Stadium that we could sing along with the Pride of the Southland Band practicing "The 12 Days of Christmas." Still, few people have ever seen this tiny Union fortress, known as a redoubt. That will change in 2013, thanks to the Aslan Foundation, the unusual charity founded by the late Lindsay Young. Their park project will be completed in time for the sesquicentennial of the Siege of Knoxville next November.

I'd been to Fort Higley a couple of times before, most recently with photographer David Luttrell. This past May, the swaybacked ridge was covered with bright green foliage, much of it huge and moist and venomous, poison ivy the size of young palmettos. Led to believe there was a path, we were also warned not to even try to find it in late springtime. After hiking in from the car, stalled a few hundred yards back by a fallen tree, the jungle closed in behind us. Lacking a pith helmet and a machete, we could hardly see ahead or behind. The jungle was so thick I feared we were going in circles. In the briers I ruined a pair of khakis for all polite purposes, and the poison ivy seeped through cotton socks to raise vengeful welts on my ankles.

Back then, by pure dumb luck, we finally happened upon the old fort. The oddity, peculiarly small, might seem a silly excuse for a fort unless you know that in late 1863 it held a couple of Union cannons that might ably have commanded these heights. In much sharper relief than most speculative earthen ruins of that war, it's fascinating to contemplate.

Almost exactly six months later, the same trek that made Fort Higley so formidable in the spring was a walk in the park. Last week, downtown people in downtown clothes trod the same route in a few minutes.

Now you can see a lot more of the fort and its network of trenchwork on the razor-steep slope alongside. In May, the greenery lush and bewildering, I didn't even know the precipice was there. Today, you can also see—a big surprise to me—the river and UT's campus, clearly.

Part of the advantage is just that it's late in the fall, and the leaves are down, but the Aslan folks have cleared much of the brush in the way. Aslan doesn't mean to replicate the barren ridgetop landscape that appealed to U.S. military engineers, but just removing the dead trees and the invasive underbrush makes a dramatic difference in bringing out the detail of the fort.

The TV crew that showed up at the impromptu parking area passed on the short walk to Higley itself. Many photographers have tried to capture this fort, and failed. Photographs of it invariably look like dirt and leaves in the woods. For a guy who makes his living in print, it's a comfort to know there are still some experiences that don't come across on TV, or on the Internet. Fort Higley is invisible except in three dimensions.

The project encompasses 39 acres, though the steep terrain and undergrowth makes most of it hard to get to. The area being developed for the trail is a much smaller kernel of it, maybe five acres.

Aslan is calling this project High Ground Park, a good enough name. It's very high ground, maybe 400 feet above the university's elevation, and that view will be a big part of its appeal. The name Higley refers just to the little fort itself. It was the habit of the Union command to name new fortifications after officers who'd recently died in action in the East Tennessee campaign. It offered a ready supply of honorees. This redoubt was named for Capt. Joel P. Higley of the Seventh Ohio Cavalry, a 38-year-old family man who'd hardly arrived in Knoxville before he was dispatched with his unit to secure potential supply lines to the east. He died in a minor Union victory at the Battle of Blue Springs, in Greene County, a few weeks before the Confederate siege of Knoxville.

The first time we wrote about it, six or seven years ago, Fort Higley was threatened by an out-of-state developer's condo project. Aslan's purchase of the site prevents any such development forever. The new park is a distinctly low-impact development, with a small parking lot near Cherokee Trail, and an oblique fishhook sort of path in, by way of a terraced "meadow," to the fortification itself, with no further improvements except some railing and stone walls. Landscape architect Sean Vasington of Knoxville-based Carol R. Johnson Associates is doing the honors.

Knoxville, especially South Knoxville, has become accustomed to well-intended dreams that either move at a pace so slow as to be unnoticeable or, more often, fizzle out altogether. Aslan has the wherewithal to strike fast.

"Aslan is very proud of this. We'll make it work," says Aslan president Bob Young, nephew of Lindsay Young. Originally from Knoxville, the professional network television writer—he's lately been penning sitcoms for the ABC Family cable network—lives in Los Angeles, but visits Knoxville frequently to survey the foundation's dramatic progress here. Aslan has been involved in numerous long shots in recent years, like saving the unusual pocket neighborhood known Log Haven, adjacent to the High Ground plot.

It's another piece in the complex puzzle that means to link all of South Knoxville's "urban wilderness"—someday, we may be able to walk from Fort Higley to Fort Dickerson and beyond. Perhaps not soon; there's a big ravine in the way.

About this particular project, he's exultant. "People just don't even know this is here," says Young, almost as if it's the first time he's ever seen it, himself. "It's gorgeous up here. Absolutely gorgeous."