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The Forgotten Battle
Has Nashville lost its (potentially lucrative) Civil War heritage?

Article appearing in The Nashville Scene, Oct. 17-23, 2002 edition

By Bill Ditenhafer

Unless you're in one, war is a formidably abstract
concept. That's just a fact. Win or lose, because of
war's necessarily horrific nature, we tend not to think
about it very often. And besides, as Americans we can
afford the luxury of ignorance. After all, the vast
majority of our battles were fought--and, one hopes,
will be fought--on other continents, in countries most
of us will never visit, on streets that mean no more to
us than good magazine pictures. Still, that's no reason
for the city of Nashville to misplace an entire fort.

Well, maybe "misplace" is, in this case, a little
misleading--but how else to describe the all-but-secret
existence, the almost ghostly life of Nashville's Fort
Negley? As far as hiding places go, Negley's not in a
particularly good spot. Tucked between Greer Stadium
on one side, the Children's Museum and the
Cumberland Science Museum on another, and with the
heavily trafficked intersection of interstates 40 and 65
buzzing just below, the overgrown, sprawling site sits
atop a hill high enough to command a view of the
entire city. It's akin to losing a monster truck in the
parking lot of a mall.

"It's like this huge alien spaceship, and no one knows
or cares that it's there," says Wes Shofner, former
president of The Battle of Nashville Preservation
Society, of the neglected fort. "And I think that's
crazy."

He's got a point. The remains of Fort Negley are
startlingly evocative. Just out of view from the street,
hidden behind a small patch of trees, the fort's
crumbling walls spread out into the then-militarily chic
shape of a giant star before opening into a
courtyard--large enough, in its open air, to fit Fort
Nashboro--dotted with hackberry trees. (All of
Nashville's hackberry trees, it's been said, hail from this
spot, descended from the non-native ancestors that
hitched rides with the hay bales that were stored
here.) From a modern perspective, it is a decidedly
un-American sight--most of us are simply not used to
seeing the evidence of war on our own soil, however
long ago the battle. Maybe that's why, nearly 140
years later, so few Nashvillians realize that they're
living near the site of arguably the most important
battle of the Civil War.

"To draw a historical parallel," writes the eminent
historian (and unforgettably named) Wiley Sword, in
his book The Confederacy's Last Hurrah, "the battles
of Franklin and Nashville may well represent the Civil
War equivalent of the World War II atomic bombing of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Questionable hyperbole
aside, what Sword is getting at is that, although the
Civil War dragged on for a few more sullen months
until finally sputtering to a halt in early April 1865, it
was the crushing of the Confederate Army of
Tennessee in and around the city of Nashville on Dec.
15 and 16 of 1864, that, for all intents and purposes,
decided the fate of the country. And it is for that
reason, say the preservationists and history
buffs--and, lately, a couple of key politicians as
well--that the city needs to rediscover and preserve its
historically significant past. Well, that and the potential
money the city could make.

"Statistically, heritage tourists stay longer and spend
more money than any other type of tourist," says Bob
Henderson, the current president of the Battle of
Nashville Preservation Society. "[Former Mayor]
Bredesen brought it up in a speech a couple of weeks
ago, and Mayor Purcell agrees, Civil War tourism could
be a great source of revenue for the city."

Of course, Henderson concedes, there's a long way to
go. For one thing, over 95 percent of the battle area is
now privately owned--running through your backyard,
for instance, if you live in the Belmont-Hillsboro area or
in Green Hills, among other neighborhoods--making
true preservation almost impossible. But there is also
the fact that no one really knows anything about the
battle.

"I bet if you were to just start asking people on the
street, most people would say they'd never even
heard of the Battle of Nashville," says Forrest Shoaf, a
managing director at the investment banking firm
Avondale Partners and an amateur Battle of Nashville
historian since his days at West Point. "And," Shoaf
continues, "I'll tell you why. It's very simple. We lost."

But while Shoaf and other historians can go into
serious detail--book-length detail, some of them--to
back up this reasoning, its straightforward truth is
undeniable. Nashville, which had once been considered
as a choice to be the capital of the Confederacy, had
been occupied by Union forces for nearly three years
by the time the Battle of Nashville was fought, and by
all accounts, living in an occupied city does not make
for fond memories. (Here's a little known fact: Because
a whopping 40 percent of Union soldiers in town had
some form of venereal disease, Nashville became, as a
last-resort way of controlling the outbreaks, the first
city in the United States to legalize prostitution.)

George Gause, who works for the Metro Historical
Commission, puts it this way: "Nashville was pretty
much raped by the Union forces. There are reports that
say that there was not a single tree [left] in downtown
Nashville. And by the time it became acceptable to
start thinking about the Civil War again in the 1920s
and '30s, country music started to take over, and they
just forgot about the battle."

"Today, the problem is forgetfulness," Shofner agrees.
"While the Old South had to work at forgetting
Nashville, the New South simply forgot. And it took."

But if there's a woeful absence of general knowledge
about the battle that took place literally beneath our
feet, dedicated preservationists and historians like
Henderson, Shofner, Shoaf and Gause more than make
up for our lack of dedicated study and drive. And it's
starting to pay off. Mayor Purcell has allocated
approximately $1 million, as part of his capital budget,
for a plan to improve the Fort Negley site. (Another $1
million may come next year.) The first phase,
Henderson says, will involve some restoration of the
fort itself and the development of a trail system to get
it open to the public. The second phase will consist of
constructing a visitor's center, though precisely where
it will be sited hasn't been determined.

"That's always been a dream of ours," Henderson says
of the visitor's center. "We've always wanted to have a
focal point, a jumping off point to the rest of the city
and to the rest of Tennessee."

In the meantime, with a little help from groups like the
Metro Historical Commission (862-7970) and the Battle
of Nashville Preservation Society (www.bonps.org),
guided tours are the best way to explore the city's Civil
War past. "We're haunted by it," Shofner says. "And
we should be."


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