Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Fort Negley: From the Civil War to the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s

 By Michelle Shocklee


As an admitted history nerd, there's nothing I enjoy more than poking around old ruins. Homes, towns, forts, plantations. You name it, I'll poke around in it.

When we moved to Nashville in the fall of 2017, one of the first historical sites we visited was Fort Negley. The fort itself is no longer there, but there are ruins that give visitors a solid idea of how the fort was laid out and what Federal soldiers, former slaves, and others would have seen from high atop Saint Cloud Hill.

But first, a bit of history.

Capital building in Nashville, TN; circa 1864

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Tennessee was as divided as the country. While some Tennesseans wanted to join the southern states and secede from the Union, others felt it was important to keep the United States united despite differing opinions on slavery and states rights. On July 2, however, the decision was made and Tennessee joined the Confederate States of America. With several railroads and major roads intersecting in Nashville, it was an important city for the Confederacy. 

But in February 1862, with several recent victories in other parts of Tennessee, Federal troops marched into Nashville and remained in control of the city until the end of the war. They lost no time building fortifications around the city, including several forts. 

 Drawing of Fort Negley

At the time the fort was built, it was approximately two miles south of the city center. It's location on top of Saint Cloud Hill gave Federal soldiers a clear view of Nashville and the surrounding vicinity. Enormous limestone blocks, mined from nearby, were laid out in a star pattern with a wooden stockade in the center. Although soldiers were undoubtedly put to work constructing the fort, most of the labor was provided by former slaves. An estimated 2,700 conscripted men and women who'd escaped slavery were, in some instances, forced into the difficult and often dangerous work of building the fort.    

  Impressing Former Slaves to Work on the Nashville Fortifications, Annuals of the 
Army of the Cumberland, John Fitch, 1864

In my latest novel, Under the Tulip Tree, the character of Frankie, a former slave, tells of living in a contraband camp in the shadow of Fort Negley. There isn't an exact number of how many former slaves lived in the camp, but it would have been several thousand. Many of them, like Frankie, took refuge behind the fort's walls in December 1864 during the Battle of Nashville. At the end of the two-day battle and Union victory, Fort Negley and its occupants were still standing. 

Following failed efforts to preserve Fort Negley as a national military park, St. Cloud Hill once again became a popular picnic area. The City of Nashville purchased the property in 1928. In 1936, 800 men working for the Works Progress Administration--like Alden in my book--reconstructed Fort Negley at a cost of $84,000. The Fort reopened to the public in 1938. However, in the 1960s, the deteriorated stockade was removed for safety measures and the fort was closed to the public. Vegetation soon hid what remained of this historical site. 

Fort Negley, 2011

But thankfully, it wasn't left hidden. In 2002, the City of Nashville appropriated funds to restore the area. The project remains the largest expenditure of city funds in the nation for the preservation of a Civil War site. Fort Negley reopened to the public on the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville in December 2004. A visitors center opened in 2007.

  Me at Fort Negley with downtown Nashville in the background. 
Behind me, down the hill, is where the contraband camp was located.

If you live near Nashville or visit Music City on vacation, I hope you'll make time to visit Fort Negley. For readers of Under the Tulip Tree, you'll definitely want to hike up the hill and look out over the same landscape Frankie and Sam would have seen as they awaited Freedom. 

Your turn: What's your favorite historical site in your area?

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at

Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.

As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?


  1. I don't know that I have a favorite site around where I live, but a prominent one is Fort Western in Augusta. I am amazed at the size and design of Fort Negley and feel sad that it wasn't kept up for the sake of the history. I wonder if there are other forts in the country with that star design? Thanks for the post!

  2. Connie, I'll have to make a trip to Augusta and Fort Western. Thanks for sharing!