Exploited Black Labor and a Bastion of Freedom

Looking to get out again now that more people have been vaccinated? This is the debut of the Tribune’s summer travel series, “Going Places.” Over the next few months we will take you on one-day trips to places around the state where African American’s impacted Tennessee history.

By Monique Gooch

NASHVILLE TN — Fort Negley, built in 1862 atop St. Cloud Hill in Nashville by more than 2,700 enslaved, self-emancipated and free Blacks, is the largest inland stone fortification constructed during the Civil War. It covers four acres and measures 600 feet by 300 feet. From August through December of 1862, Blacks worked to complete the fort as part of a massive fortification system surrounding Nashville. 

The park is a three quarters of a mile walk with interpretive panels and beautiful views to see along the way. “Fort Negley is both a product of exploited labor and a bastion of freedom,” said Tracy Harris, the park’s education and programs specialist.

“Initially the Federal Army liberated enslaved people held by Confederates only for the immediate benefit of removing their labor source and putting the enemy at a disadvantage. The Federal Army had few long-term plans for taking care of the people. When it came time to gather a workforce to build fortifications in Nashville, the Federal Army ultimately exploited African Americans through imprisonment. Despite the conditions and treatment enslaved peoples were self-emancipating and fleeing to federal protection in Nashville. There is a real sense that fleeing to Union lines was a gamble with no certainties, but enslaved people knew what the future held for them staying where they were.”

“The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 made a path for eliminating slavery in Confederate states but it didn’t apply to places like Tennessee since it was already under control of the Federal Army. However, the Emancipation Proclamation also provided for the enlisting of Black men into segregated regiment _ the United States Colored Troops (USCT). A year after construction started on Fort Negley, Black men were forming regiments in Nashville. In the Nashville area more than 11,000 Black men formed seven infantry regiments and an artillery company.”

Harris added that “white soldiers and officers often doubted USCTs were prepared and capable of the responsibilities of the position. They were often given the least desirable duties and most dangerous placement in battle. This was the case leading up to the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 15 and 16, 1864. USCTs suffered major casualties but emerged from the battle victorious in altering their fellow soldiers perceptions. Union General George H. Thomas after seeing the bodies of black and white soldiers together on the battlefield said to his aides ‘Gentlemen, the question is settled; Negroes will fight.’ “

In 1925, there were failed efforts to preserve Fort Negley as a national military park. The City of Nashville purchased the property. Later in 1935, 800 men working for Works Progress Administration, reconstructed Fort Negley. The fort later opened to the public in 1937. However, due to severe deterioration throughout World War II, the fort closed once again in 1945. 

In 2004, the park reopened to the public on the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Nashville. 

When entering the welcome center there is a 20-minute video about the fort that and the Battle of Nashville. In 2019 Fort Negley Park was recognized as UNESCO Slave Route Project site. In 2020 the park was added to the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom trail. 

According to Harris, development of a new master plan should start within the year. “I believe it is a fantastic opportunity to expand the interpretation on the African American experience and bring out a broader Civil War to Civil Rights story. The descendants of laborers and soldiers created the neighborhood right around the fort and built new lives here.”

For more information or to visit the Fort Negley Park, go to: FortNegley.nashville.gov.