Time has its way. It’s almost dumbfounding how little is left of the city that, 150 years ago, was of so much concern that the campaign for it made the top headlines in the New York papers, even superseding other news, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in front-page prominence. Peacetime development has been much more effective than any army in erasing Knoxville as it had been known to Union Generals Burnside, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, who all spent time on Gay Street, or Confederate Generals Johnston, Cleburne, Zollicoffer, and Crittenden, and to interesting crypto-civilians like Confederate spy Belle Boyd.
In 1863, more than 1,000 buildings and houses that made up the city of Knoxville, former capital of Tennessee, headquarters of a regional railroad, a regional college and a famous school for the deaf, population about 6,000.
Of those 1,000-odd buildings, most of them downtown, about five are left.
We may be grateful, and surprised, we saved some antebellum houses around the county. The Armstrong houses on Kingston Pike, for example, were single-family homes out in the countryside, but those weren’t considered part of Knoxville as people spoke of it in 1863.
During the Civil War, Knoxville proper was mainly what we consider downtown. And architecturally, it’s almost all gone.
The Crozier house, which served as Burnside’s headquarters, was torn down for a hotel, which was later torn down for another hotel. The house where Burnside entertained Sheridan and Sherman was torn down for a surface parking lot in the ‘50s. Parson Brownlow’s famous house, so famous it was visited by most—in fact, perhaps all—of the Republican presidents who served in the 50 years after the Civil War, was torn down for an apartment development, which was later torn down for a highway. All of downtown’s churches have been torn down and rebuilt since the war, some on the same spot, some not. None of the Civil War-era university remains. Even the churchyard where Sanders was buried, secretly, at midnight, is gone, excavated, so long ago no one remembers it.
Fort Sanders is gone, too, graded away by degrees, though it was the subject of Knoxville’s first preservation effort, an earnest and prominently backed pipe dream in the 1890s and early 1900s to make it a small national park. Veterans of both sides liked the idea, but by then they were getting pretty old. No army conquered it, but money did, as it always does. The last conspicuous remnant of it vanished around World War I.
So for people interested in the Civil War, thank goodness for some peculiar lumpy places in the southern woods.
Fort Sanders was the biggest fort, but there were about 20 others, forming a protective ring around Knoxville. All but a couple have been built over, graded away, gone without a trace.
Only three sites are left, One, Fort Stanley, overlooking the river just east of Chapman Highway, is so eroded you really need to be a Civil War buff of the highest polish, and one with some imagination, to appreciate it. That leaves the biggest surviving one, Fort Dickerson, preserved and celebrated at the centennial 50 years ago but getting a significant makeover now—and Fort Higley.
The timing of the sesquicentennial is serendipitous for one big reason, and that’s the opening of a long-threatened Union mini-fort—known to military scholars as a redoubt—on a thickly wooded elevation off Cherokee Trail. That’s Fort Higley. In the last year of the war, it was a link in a chain of forts that discouraged Confederates from even contemplating a return to Knoxville. When it was targeted with destruction or compromise, it wasn’t by Confederates, but by developers.
For many years, a visit to Fort Higley was a difficult quest known only to serious Civil War pilgrims. Getting there involved an unmarked hike, sturdy pants, and some trespassing, but when you got there, you always knew it. A tiny sort of walled crater, too sharply angled to be anything natural.
About a decade ago, it was looking as if Fort Higley’s best hope might be to settle for eternity as cute landscaping for another student apartment complex. A few years ago, homemade signs posted in the woods pleaded, “Save Fort Higley.”
Cynical newspaper guys get used to reporting on efforts like that as poignant failures. But thanks to a developer’s reported financial reversal, and moreso to the generosity of the thoughtfully effective Aslan Foundation, with reinforcements from the City of Knoxville, it will be open this weekend, permanently, as an accessible public park. Guided tours are Friday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00, via a shuttle from the UT Medical Center.
If you miss that, have a look at it in the next few months. Winter may be the best time to catch the view.
The perspective’s just a little paradoxical. This summit would be an ideal place to shell the city, which is why the Union Army built it here. Not because they wanted to shell the city, although a year earlier they’d have been happy to. They wanted to put guns up here so the Confederates couldn’t. But thanks to the growth of the South Knoxville forest, up here you can see what you’re protecting much better than you could see anything you’d be shooting at, unless it was Confederate gunboats launching a naval attack on the river way down there.
Knoxville’s ring of Union forts formed a sort of memorial garden to the recently dead. Capt. Joel Higley of the Seventh Ohio Cavalry was killed at the skirmish at Blue Springs, a few weeks before the Battle of Knoxville.
They’re not calling the new project Fort Higley, though they did preserve the Hig. It’s now High Ground Park, as if to suggest this isn’t just for people who can talk artillery calibers and cavalry movements. Even if you don’t know or care what that weird crater is, it’s still one of the best places in town to get a good look at the city of Knoxville.