USS Neosho at Bell's Bend

U.S.S. Neosho at Bell's Bend near Nashville
from Harper's Weekly, circa 1860s

The Battlefield Beneath Us

© 2001 By Robert Wayne Henderson, Jr.

Having grown up on the epicenter of the last major battle of the Civil War, the lack of information available on this most dramatic event in Nashville's past has always amazed me.

Most people think of Appomattox, Virginia as the end of the Civil War, but it was Nashville where, for all practical purposes, the Confederacy waged its last serious offensive military operation. The loss that resulted, insured the defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia in the east, which was barely hanging on around Petersburg. After Nashville, the Confederates were forced into retreat until they would finally surrender a few months later in Virginia, North Carolina and finally Texas.

Those final events stand as a lasting image of the end of the war, and eclipsed the pivotal events of Spring Hill, Franklin and Nashville.

Due to the lack of any interpretive museum about the Battle of Nashville, most visitors to the city have no understanding of Nashville's role during the Civil War. Many residents as well would probably be surprised to learn that there was a war fought in most of their own backyards. Unlike Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Shiloh and many other battlegrounds in Tennessee, there is little visible evidence of the battlefield that lies beneath most of west and south Nashville. Random historical markers are the only evidence of the mighty struggle that effectively ended the war in the west.

The lack of historical education on the war, and Nashville's role in particular in it, has probably been the greatest obstacle to preservation efforts today.

Some say that the subject of the Civil War is still too controversial, and is generally dismissed as an affair that many would just as soon forget ever happened. This sentiment is probably a typical response to the population of any defeated country, but is exasperated by the lingering bitterness over slavery, as evidenced by the recent battles over some southern state flags.

Given this state of tension, it is no surprise that the media and most educational institutions steer away from the subject altogether.

Nashville is one of the few major battlefields in the Nation that does not have a national military park. Today there is little of the battlefield available for public access.

The majority of the most significant sites have been developed for commercial or residential purposes. The old Fort Negley fortifications behind the Cumberland Science Museum in downtown Nashville, and the new Peace Monument Park on Granny White Pike, are the only Civil War landmarks in Nashville owned by the local government.

Fort Negley, which is the largest inland stone fortification of the Civil War, is in a rapid state of deterioration. There are another twenty sites around the city that can be linked to the Battle of Nashville. None are under the protection of the city, state or federal government.

As the city swells to meet the growing demand for new office space, housing and infrastructure, it risks losing what little is left of this valuable historical resource.

There is a little known site that may become the first park of its kind in Nashville -- Kelley's Battery, which is a scenic piece of real estate located on the Cumberland River nine miles west of town in a sharp bend in the river known as Bell's Bend.

It is a well preserved wooded area, and has visible earthworks from its use as a land battery in the preceding weeks of the Battle of Nashville. A six-acre tract of the river battery site is planned to be donated to the city through negotiations between The Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, Inc., Metro Councilman Bob Bogen, and the commercial property development company that owns it: JDN Realty. The Metropolitan Park Service has expressed an interest in incorporating this land into a Greenway Park.

One hundred and thirty-seven years later, some of what little is left of this historic battlefield, might finally preserved for future generations.

A recent survey of visiting European tourists listed the Civil War as the most important attraction in Tennessee. Nashville is a perfect genesis for Civil War tours, as it has the closest international airport to the majority of Tennessee's Civil War sites, which are second only to Virginia in the number of battlefields in the Nation. There are an estimated 1,100,000 direct descendants of Union soldiers and 470,000 direct descendants of Confederate soldiers who fought in the Battle of Nashville.

Nashville is the closest major battle site to 11 northern states which sent soldiers here to fight. Unfortunately, there is not much for the tourist to see interpreting this pivotal event in American history.

The Tennessee State Museum in Nashville is estimated to have only 10% of the state's Civil War artifacts on display. It has a very nice war section, but not very much information on the specifics of the Battle of Nashville or Franklin.

As the city looks for new sources of tourism dollars, there is a wealth of drama, history and heritage that is a priceless cultural and economic resource to be shared with the rest of the Nation.

Preservation of Nashville's valuable battlefield real estate should be a higher priority in the allocation of funding for historical preservation. When these historic sites are developed, they are lost forever. Erasing these sites cannot remove that painful experience from the city's past. As troublesome as that chapter may be to some, it is a page of our city's past that deserves more attention and respect. It is our duty as citizens to preserve these windows to the past for the benefit of us, as well as our descendants.

Understanding what transpired in generations before us, gives many clues to societal behavior today. We are, for better or for worse, influenced by those events that preceded us. It is to be hoped that by learning from these dramatic stories, we evolve a better understanding of ourselves, as well as those from whom we are descended.

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