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Nashville saves history

Ned Jilton • Apr 5, 2018 at 2:04 PM

Nashville is doing it right.

Developers there wanted to build a housing and entertainment complex on the site of an old baseball stadium the city planned to demolish.

However, the stadium sits next to historic Fort Negley, the largest inland fort built during the Civil War, so the city ordered an archaeological study of the site.

The results changed everything.

Fort Negley was built in 1862 with slave labor for the UNION army after the Confederates had abandoned Nashville. The fort was named for Union Army Gen. James S. Negley and built under the supervision of Capt. James St. Clair Morton.

Remember, this was 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation had yet to be enacted. Therefore, “coloreds” were not allowed into military service in the Union army and were considered “contrabands of war” to be used for labor.

Some records show that 2,768 “contrabands” were enrolled to build the fort and were given the promise of freedom and pay. They were housed in “contraband camps” at the base of the hill on which the fort sits.

When the fort was finished in December 1862, between 600 to 800 “contraband” laborers had died of disease and only 310 received the promised pay.

The story of those slaves and contrabands seeking freedom had been, more or less, forgotten until January of this year when that archaeological study of the stadium site began turning up human remains.

Archaeologists had found the burial site of the slaves who died during construction of the fort.

Nashville put a stop to the development and instead plans to create a park commemorating the adjacent fort and the slaves who built it.

“Our country, our city has never really done what is necessary to acknowledge the sacrifice of the slaves in our country,” said Nashville Mayor David Briley in an Associated Press interview.

The mayor added that he hoped the park would be a step toward reconciliation and help atone for what is a great scar on our nation’s history.

I think the mayor is on the right track. But I hope that while he and other city officials remember and honor the slaves who worked and died at the fort in 1862, they also remember and honor the United States Colored Troops who served at the fort and fought there in 1864.

With the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect in 1863, thousands of black men, including some of the contrabands who built Fort Negley, enlisted in the Union army.

There were roughly 13,000 USCTs stationed in Nashville and in December of 1864, 5,000-plus of those soldiers took part in one of the worst butt whippings ever given to a Confederate army. The Battle of Nashville.

On the first day of battle, a brigade with regiments of the USCT attacked a lunette, a crescent shaped defensive position topped with cannons, on one end of the Confederate line.

So furious was the fire from the lunette that a white regiment assigned to the brigade attempted to flee the field by climbing down a railroad cut, with several of their soldiers falling to their deaths or to serious injury.

But the USCT soldiers held their ground and refused to retreat. Because of their bravery, Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood was unable to take cannons from this end of his line to reinforce the other end where the main Union attack was taking place. At the end of the day, Gen. Hood was forced to withdraw his entire army to a new position a little farther south.

On day two of the battle, the USCT joined the main assault, charging up Shy’s Hill. This charge earned these black men the respect of many Confederate soldiers and officers who would write about them after the war.

The combination of black and white Union soldiers charging Shy’s Hill broke the Confederate lines and sent Hood’s army fleeing from the field in disarray, a true rout.

After the battle, a Union officer wrote, “The blood of the white and black men has flown freely together for the great cause which is to give freedom, unity, manhood and peace to all men, whatever birth or complexion.”

I have been to those places.

I have walked the ramparts of Fort Negley, explored the grounds of the lunette and made my way up Shy’s Hill.

I did it on nice sunny days. The men of the USCT did it in a storm of lead.

I applaud Mayor Briley and the city of Nashville for honoring the slaves who built Fort Negley. I just ask that they please remember the colored soldiers as well.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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