Nashville has taken a surprising but welcome approach to remembering its Civil War history that hopefully many more municipalities will follow. Instead of embracing the Confederacy and the rhetoric of the Lost Cause like many of its Southern neighbors, Nashville has chosen to honor the Union and the African Americans who helped win the war.
Earlier this month, Nashville’s Mayor David Briley unveiled a plan to honor the contributions of African Americans who fought for the Union at Fort Negley, a fort built by Union troops after they captured Nashville in 1862. More than 2,700 African Americans helped build Fort Negley that year, and then fought for the Union at the Battle of Nashville in 1864.
“Our country, our city has never really done what is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifices of the slaves in our country, to atone for what is and will be a great scar on our nation’s history, or to take steps toward reconciliation,” said Mayor Briley at a news conference announcing his plan.
In contrast to Nashville, South Carolina has a pro-Confederacy gubernatorial candidate, and has even proposed a monument to celebrate the African Americans who “fought” for the Confederacy. (FYI no slaves enlisted and fought for the Confederacy in South Carolina.)
For over a decade, Nashville has been discussing how to best preserve Fort Negley and the surrounding park. For 40 years, Greer Stadium sat next to the fort, but it has now fallen into disrepair following the departure in 2014 of the minor-league baseball team that called it home.
In the ensuing years, a fierce debate about the future of the park has erupted between conservationists and real estate developers. Most observers assumed the Cloud Hill development that Nashville’s former Mayor Megan Barry supported would prevail over the historians and archeologists, but the findings of an archaeological survey and Barry’s resignation earlier this month have changed everything.
Firstly, the survey found that many human remains are likely to be buried at the site — under the baseball stadium, parking lot, etc. These results and the pressure from conservationists essentially killed the Cloud Hill development in January. However, a decision was still left to be made, and few knew what Barry would decide.
Secondly, Barry’s resignation, following a corruption scandal related to an affair she had with the head of her security detail, propelled Briley to the mayorship, and his plan pleasantly caught many Nashville residents by surprise.
Despite being less than a week on the job at the time, Briley’s ambitious plan intends to demolish Greer Stadium, use the park as much needed green space for Nashville, and commission conservationists, archeologists and historians to determine the best way to develop the land with a special focus on highlighting the thousands of African Americans who built Fort Negley and died defending Nashville from the Confederacy.
Following the Union’s capture of Nashville in February of 1862, countless African Americans fled to the city in search of their freedom. The First Confiscation Act of 1861 allowed the Union Army to seize any Confederate property, including enslaved people. From the beginning of the war enslaved African Americans constantly escaped to Union territory in search of their freedom. Refugee camps of formerly enslaved African Americans frequently formed around Union encampments, and the Confiscation Act provided the Union with the legal framework for keeping and not returning escaping slaves.
However, the First Confiscation Act merely turned the enslaved into Union property rather than Confederate property, and it wasn’t until the passage of the Second Confiscation Act in July of 1862 that the formerly enslaved were given their freedom. The Confiscation Acts were the precursors to the Emancipation Proclamation.
The gap between the First and Second Confiscation Act created a chaotic, morally ambiguous environment for Union soldiers and escaped slaves, and this unseemly reality plays out in the construction of Fort Negley.
Of the 2,700 African Americans who were forced to build the fort by Union soldiers, only about 300 were paid, and nearly 800 died. Many of the bodies experts expect to find under the baseball field or the parking lot are those of African Americans forced to work as slaves by Union soldiers during this morally unstable year.
Following the Second Confiscation Act, newly freed African Americans began to formally enlist in the Union Army. In 1863, the 13th Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops was formed. They defended Fort Negley, and fought in the Battle of Nashville that effectively ended the Civil War in Tennessee. Following the war, freed African Americans stayed in the area surrounding Fort Negley, and it grew into a prominent black community.
Fort Negley was built by enslaved African Americans, defended by Colored Troops, and became the home to a new black community. This is the history that America and cities across the South need to elevate. But Fort Negley also demonstrates the persistence of Southern oppression and the toxicity of the South’s racist ideals.
Insufficient laws that allowed Union troops to treat escaping slaves as property also turned northerners into de facto slave owners. Only the passage of laws that celebrated the humanity of black people elevated Northerners above the inhumanity of the South.
Also during Reconstruction the Ku Klux Klan in Nashville used Fort Negley as its headquarters. This was both an act of symbolism for the embittered former Confederates who made up the KKK and desired to overthrow “carpetbagger” government, and the ideal location for terrorizing Nashville’s black community.
Around 1868, the Klan was at least temporarily dislodged from the fort via an African American militia led by Leandor Woods, but they permanently lost control of Fort Negley around 1871 following the Third Enforcement Act (aka the Civil Rights Act of 1871) that effectively outlawed the Klan so that African Americans could exercise their civil rights without the threat of terrorism.
The story of Fort Negley demonstrates the South’s relentless commitment to its racist, oppressive ideals and its capacity to sully the noblest of causes. In order to nullify their toxicity, communities across the South must commemorate the lives and experiences of their African American communities that have persistently fought for freedom and equality.
Too often the South decides to rewrite history in order to champion the immoral defenders of slavery. Hopefully, Nashville’s commitment to telling the true history of the South will be the new standard for America for years to come.