The Scarred Ground: Searching for the Remnants of Knoxville's Civil War Forts

In late 1863, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman forced his army north to Knoxville to relieve it of the weeks-long Confederate siege, only to find the occupying Union army had already deflected Longstreet's army away to the northeast. Sherman looked around and declared Knoxville the best-fortified city he'd ever seen in his life. He was especially impressed with the architect of Knoxville's defenses, engineer Capt. Orlando Poe. Most of what Sherman saw during his visit has been gone so long there's no one alive to remember any of it.

Knoxville was a compact city of maybe 6,000. In area, the whole city was about what we think of as "Downtown Knoxville," and nothing more. On this blufftop were hundreds of buildings. Only about five Civil War-era buildings remain in downtown Knoxville, and most of them don't look very much like they did then.

But if you look closely at the ground, you can find traces of the war. Telling what was what requires much scholarship, a good deal of exploration, and some educated guesswork.

What we can find in 2012 is a small fraction of the fortifications that once defended the city on all sides. And even those call for some interpretation: A rut, an odd hard bump, a symmetrical hole, a long pile of clay. Almost all of our remnants are in the deep woods, in places we've never gotten around to building houses or roads. These places were, almost 150 years ago, little forts, with young men in uniform manning cannons, aiming rifles, protecting a city most of them had never seen before they got here. Some of these places had names: Fort Dickerson, Fort Stanley, Fort Higley. They've been in the news a lot lately, probably more than they've been since 1863, for an ambitious plan, proposed by the Legacy Parks Foundation and supported by the city of Knoxville, with a major assist from the Aslan Foundation, to preserve them as parks and link them together as a "heritage trail" perhaps unique in America.

That may take a decade or two, though. Fort Dickerson, by far the largest and best-preserved of the sites, has been a hilltop city park for decades. People who are used to looking for the Civil War's earthen remnants are impressed with Fort Dickerson, how well preserved it is, clearly defined hilltop earthworks, now adorned with a couple of genuine Union cannons. It's the sharpest image of Civil War construction in the Knoxville area.

Others are sometimes less impressed. Once I took a tour group up there, a busload of World War II veterans, all survivors of prison camps, who were meeting in Knoxville. I thought they'd be interested in seeing Fort Dickerson. One looked at the symmetrical humps of earth and said, "Where's the fort? What happened to it?"

And most ruins are not nearly as obvious.

Forts Stanley and Higley are as hard to find as they ever were. We got express permission from the Aslan Foundation to explore them for this story. Another site, a rarity on the north side of the river, is a relatively recent discovery.

June is, by the way, the worst time of year to do this story. Knoxville's outdoor Civil War remnants, some of them hard to find even in winter, are now defended by jungles thick undergrowth of blackberries, briars, nettles and poison ivy. Paths you remember from last fall may be invisible right now.

***

Knoxville's Civil War experience was more complicated than that of most cities. Divided in its loyalties from the outset, with more than two different points of view on the war—many more than two, in fact—the city, important as a rail connection between Virginia and the Deep South, and for some small industry, was securely held by Confederate forces for more than half of the war, even as the more pro-Confederate parts of the state, like Nashville and Memphis, were occupied by the Union Army. In June, 1863, Confederates used fortified artillery, mostly planted at strategic locations downtown, to repel a Union raid led by a young colonel named William Sanders.

But Confederate troops evacuated Knoxville late that summer, called to assist in the Chickamauga campaign. Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside paraded into Knoxville without firing a shot, and commenced an ambitious fortification campaign, building a formidable ring of forts around the city, on both sides of the river.

Originally from Ohio, Capt. Orlando Poe had come to Knoxville with some expectations; most schoolkids had heard of Knoxville, which was notable in history books for its association with some of the early heroes of the Republic, and with the founding of the politically lively state of Tennessee. But when he got here, he found a miserable town—perhaps after suffering from two years of Confederate military occupation, and perhaps from the fact that, since losing capital status, Knoxville had been ignored by the nation for about four decades. Knoxville might not have seemed worth defending, half its population evacuated, many of its businesses closed, and with only a couple of impressive buildings, chief among them the school for the deaf (then known as the Deaf and Dumb Asylum) soon commandeered as a military hospital. Nonetheless, Poe had his orders, and went to work to make this city impregnable.

Under Poe's direction, the Union Army had dug in about 20 fortifications big enough to be named, in a complete circle around the town. Part of Knoxville's advantage was natural: it was surrounded by ridges and hills, and Poe built his forts on hilltops, notably on the south side, more accessible than ever before in the town's history thanks to a new Union pontoon bridge.

Confederates, perhaps remorseful about forsaking Knoxville weeks earlier, commenced an unexpectedly arduous campaign to win her back. The three-week siege, beset by every variety of problem, especially political disputes within the ranks, culminated with the desperate assault on Fort Sanders, in late November. By far the largest of the Union forts, built on the site of an uncompleted Confederate fort, the ridgetop bulwarks were impossible for the charging Confederates to climb. Though it lasted only 20 minutes, Fort Sanders witnessed the area's fiercest and deadliest battle, leaving more than 130 dead and twice as many missing, almost all of them Confederate attackers.

Discouraged and disgusted with his own choices, Longstreet retreated to the north, to save his army from further damage as Sherman's army approached from the south.

In the aftermath, with Confederate forces within a day's ride, the Union command kept improving its forts, and for the 17 months of war that remained, no one dared another assault.

For years after the war, Knoxvillians showed little interest in saving trenchwork, earthen ramparts, gun emplacements and other fortifications. For people trying hard to live at peace, four years of horror needed no reminders. Knoxville grew so fast in the four decades after the war that by 1880 or so most Knoxvillians, many of them from other parts of the country and Europe, had no memory of the local war at all. Remnants of battle were hardly more than litter. Several forts were in the vicinity of the university. Encouraged by East Tennessee University President Thomas Humes, students volunteered to help fill up and smooth out, to make it all look as much as possible like it did in 1860.

Fort Sanders, by far the biggest of the forts, on what was then Knoxville's western outskirts, was too big to flatten easily, and lasted to witness a major reunion of both blue and gray in 1890. By then, interest in the war as a historical event was building, and for a decade or so after that there was a late attempt to save it as a military park. Fort Sanders was, for a few years in the late 19th century, something of a Knoxville tourist attraction, a destination for a Sunday-afternoon buggy ride. There are very few known postwar photographs of it, but in a few shots taken from Cumberland, it looks huge but indistinct, as out of place as a shipwrecked freighter.

Lot by lot, it eventually capitulated to profits and development. The last obvious remnants of Fort Sanders vanished. It was still a feature of the neighborhood during James Agee's childhood, ca. 1915, but people who grew up in Fort Sanders in the 1930s have no memory of it.

Retired archeological professor Charlie Faulkner and his wife, Terry, think it likely that some of the buildings on Clinch Avenue just east of 17th are built on what's literally a bulwark of Fort Sanders itself. The Pickle Mansion, originally called Fort Sanders Hall, is one of them. Their views, that remnants of Fort Sanders remain in subtle mounds and declivities in that irregularly landscaped neighborhood, aren't shared by all Civil War scholars.

***

It appears that almost all of the 15-odd named forts that Poe planned and built on the north side of the river, those west, north, and east of downtown, are gone without a trace, now sites of buildings, parking lots, highways. However, the south side, where slopes were steeper, roads fewer, the eroding remains of some hilltop forts outlasted the 19th century, and even the 20th.

The best known is the largest, Fort Dickerson, off Chapman Highway. Well-kept as a city park, enough of it remains that it's easy to distinguish the rectangular ramparts of the fort, where some Union cannons have been added for effect. A crater in the center, like a wading pool, is labeled as the remains of an underground magazine, for ammunition.

The next peak to the east was a smaller fort called Fort Stanley. Built at the top of one of the south side's steepest hills, it didn't see any action, but once offered a great view of the city, and would have been the easiest place to shell with maximum effect. Fortifying it was essential.

Angles are acute on hillside Sherrod Road, where architecture is more vertical than it is anywhere else in town, and some private garages are built into the hillside. Parking a car depends on the kindness and tolerance of neighbors. A steep stairway leads up to a steep dirt path, and at the top is a blue KUB water tank. Though it's one of south Knoxville's highest peaks, and it once afforded a commanding view of downtown, the foliage is so dense that views are hard to find, just a few apertures onto the Whitaker water plant on Riverside Drive, and the terrain east of town, which looks hillier than you expect.

Fort Stanley's remains are the slightest of all, almost more of a theory than a ruin. In the winter, you can sometimes pick out a path to them. In the summer, forget it. The path is not there at all. If not for the certainty that climbing uphill will get you to the KUB water tank, and the path out, you could get lost. But what's there are a couple of long cuts that looks as if it might have been a long-ago ox path. They're believed to be trenchwork, "rifle pits" in Civil War scholar parlance, but to a greenhorn the word "pit" doesn't suggest the linearity of what they're pointing at.

Fort Stanley's proximity to Stanley's Greenhouse is coincidental. All of Poe's forts are named for Union officers killed in East Tennessee.

***

To the west of Fort Dickerson is the River Bluff area. Once known as the Rose Property, but now in the possession of the Legacy Parks Foundation, it's a beautiful area of woods and ponds and caves and a few steep, cliff-like slopes. It will likely one day be open to the public before long as a city park. It's not yet. A weekday visit with Legacy Parks' Carol Evans as our guide disclosed a squatter's camp, along with its mascot, a large pit bull, uncollared and unlicensed, but fortunately friendly.

These thickly wooded hills directly across from UT have been heavily farmed and gardened over the years, but a long shelflike formation, like a ghostly reflection of the road, is believed to be what remains of a long Union trench.

Confederates still threatened a few hundred yards to the west, and attempted to acquire some of the lofty Union positions in a losing gamble called the Battle of Armstrong's Hill. Historians argue about exactly where Armstrong's Hill was—it's probably the murkiest Knoxville-area skirmish—but these traces are in one of the places that likely saw some action.

Somewhere south of there, in the thick woods across the road, is an especially interesting ruin.

"Save Fort Higley" say some hand-lettered signs. The fact that Fort Higley existed at all was known mainly to real Civil War buffs. Construction on Higley commenced in the final week of the Confederate siege. It probably wasn't completed until it was all over. There's no record that it saw any real combat.

Around 2005, proposed residential development threatened the rarely visited, but undeniably rare Union earthwork, and Fort Higley became a Vestal-area cause célèbre. Sentiment won the day, for once, when a downscaled version of the condo development left Higley out, for the time being, and the Aslan Foundation acquired it along with neighboring Log Haven, just to preserve it. The long-range plan is for Fort Higley to become part of Legacy Parks, and a unique heritage trail that will link it to Fort Dickerson, the river bluffs, the quarry, Log Haven, and eventually—somehow—Fort Stanley

I'd been there once before, after an autumn trek through the woods with a Log Haven neighbor. We were trespassing then, on land that was targeted for a major development. This time, working with Joan Markel, curator of the impressive Civil War exhibit at UT's McClung Museum at Circle Park, we were going to try to drive there. She's impressed with what's still here: "In terms of Civil War history, the forts, this is what we have to offer, I think."

"Knoxville's extremely well documented, as to where things were," Markel says, thanks to Orlando Poe's precise maps of fortifications and trenchwork, as well as Union photographer George Bayard, who took photos of everything relevant. "But it's heaps! It's heaps of dirt! It's not that distinctive. I'd like to say, ‘Aha! I recognize Civil War dirt when I see it.' But it's not that easy."

She drives us down a one-lane, twin-rut driveway, or a sort of driveway. High weeds and saplings, growing in the middle of the drive, whop the front of her car. "It's amazing how fast this has grown back to almost inaccessible," she says. And then it's literally inaccessible, when we encounter the first of several trees fallen across the road.

Photographer David Luttrell and I got out to climb past the trees, down the road. We came to a point where Joan explained the fort was "right up there." But a long ditch and a formidably steep muddy slope foiled a couple of attempts to climb up directly. We walked down the overgrown road well past the purported site of Higley to a clearing where there had previously been a house, then to fishhook through the underbrush parallel to the driveway we'd just walked down, to find the fort itself.

We'd been told it wasn't worth the trouble. Memories of having been there before, that fall when the ground was easy to negotiate, weren't any help at all. It was like a different place.

At a couple of points, David and I found ourselves in lush thickets, unable to see ahead or behind, even the path we'd thrashed in seemed to disappear behind us, and poison ivy was everywhere, sometimes growing so extraordinarily tall as to suggest maybe it's a hearty new species.

No able-bodied crow ever thinks of Fort Higley as remote; on maps, it's maybe half a mile from Neyland Stadium. It's been within Knoxville city limits since Woodrow Wilson was president. But for 15 or 20 minutes of blundering through the underbrush we saw no sign that man had ever tried to settle this wilderness. We lost voice contact with Joan, waiting for us on the overgrown driveway, making me wonder if we'd gone off course.

If not for the howling of some large and angry-sounding dogs, at some unknown distance, we might have thought we'd slipped through some interdimensional chasm, back a few centuries before the Civil War.

But then, as the ground becomes irregular, the foliage opens up a little, as if poison ivy, as much as it likes to surround forts, has no taste for the actual ramparts.

Compared to the pathless jungle, Fort Higley, when we finally found it, seemed familiar and reassuringly modern.

The eroded walls are now only four or five feet high. A tiny fort, the whole thing could fit in the Downtown Grill and Brewery. It looks it would be a formidable defense for soldiers about half the size of humans, It could pass for an earthen amphitheater for a cockfight or a wrestling match.

Unlike some of the other scars, for which interpretation seems theoretical and requires some faith, Higley could not be mistaken for an natural formation, or a plowman's heap of spare dirt.

Higley does look like a fort, if a diminutive one. A lot of men worked a long time to force the clay into this odd shape. It once held two Union cannons.

***

One of the most surprising ruins is one of the handiest. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, dozens of people pass within 150 feet of it, joggers, families on bicycles, powerwalking retirees.

The site, directly adjacent to one of the best-known junctions on the Third Creek Bike Trail, is near the old Norfolk-Southern trestle, which is, it turns out, the main reason for siting a small fortress here. That masonry trestle doesn't date back to the Civil War. But the creek does, and so does the railroad, then a vital part of the main line of the East Tennessee and Georgia Railway. There was a trestle here in the 1860s, and both Union and Confederate forces had a motive to defend it round the clock, especially after the famous nighttime bridge burnings of 1861, when Union guerrillas attempted to hamstring Confederate transportation.

You can't see it right away. Across the mown clearing, there's a thick forest, a dense curtain of green. But a scant path leads in, and it's not long before you see it, hardly 50 feet from the clearing: a steep wall of earth, seven or eight feet high at its highest, perpendicular to the train tracks. To the north the wall curves inward and diminishes, but then seems to start up again just to the north of that, before vanishing altogether.

Archaeologist Faulkner, a Bearden-area resident, discovered the site about six years ago. He believes the northern part of the fortification was graded away, and that the curved-inward part may be a gun emplacement. A cannon may have been here, aimed to the west, where the Confederate approach did eventually come.

"I walked up there, and about flipped," he says. "Here's this trench, this earthwork, this gun emplacement. I don't know whether it was Confederate or Union, but my guess was that it was built by the Union army."

Not part of the bike trail, it's on a complicated 4.2-acre bit of private property; one philanthropist purchased it at a tax sale to give to Legacy Parks, who received it and held it for a year while trying to sort out the small parcel's rather impressive backlog of owed city and county taxes.

Faulkner kept it a secret, in hopes of preventing metal-detector-wielding pillagers to have their way with it before it could be studied. Meanwhile, he spoke with politicians and philanthropists, to protect it and make it publicly accessible. "It's a beautiful size for development into a little Civil War park," he says. It has to go up for a tax sale again; Faulkner and Legacy Parks' Evans both hope Knox County will acquire it.

Though this spot between Kingston Pike and Sutherland, well east of Scenic Drive, seems like the middle of town, now, it was out in the country in 1863, well outside the Union ring of named forts. It's not as handy to authenticate as other fortifications on Poe's map, because the engineer's precise diagrams don't extend this far west. An archaeological survey in response to Faulkner's observations didn't turn up much except for some Civil War period railroad spikes, distinctive by their smaller size; the fact that they were piled together, as if found and discarded by a fortune hunter, is one clue that the site might have been looted for artifacts, perhaps decades ago. Even fortune-hunters likely didn't find much; the site is not known to have been associated with any shooting affray, which suggests we wouldn't expect to find Minie balls, cannon shells, the usual debris of war. An archaeological survey of Fort Higley turned up no Civil War artifacts, either.

If the Third Creek fortification is authentic, it's the most obvious earthwork north of the river. Its features are sharper than those of Fort Higley.

***

In the 21st century, the Civil War rarely seems like a tangible thing. It was a very long time ago, before telephones, or radios, or automobiles, or motion pictures.

It was confusing even at the time, and each generation seems to interpret it a little differently from the last. It's been more than half a century since anyone who took part in the war has been alive to talk about it. Most Americans have never met anyone who remembered the Civil War. I barely remember conversations with my great-grandmother, who died almost half a century ago, at age 95. Even she wasn't born until after the Civil War was over.

But here, somehow, are these scars in the ground. They tend to last much longer than we do. And maybe for generations to come, they'll be a bit of the American Civil War that we can touch. m