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HomeArts/LeisureClarksville's Rich Civil War History on Display in New Fort Defiance Interpretive...

Clarksville’s Rich Civil War History on Display in New Fort Defiance Interpretive Center

Fort never fired a shot, City surrendered twice by Confederates, once by Union Troops.

Clarksville, TN – The City of Clarksville held an invitation only grand opening for the newly redesigned Fort Defiance site on Thursday. The public opening is scheduled for this morning with a gala event that aims to bring the history of the fort to life. Fort Defiance never fired a shot in anger, however the Fort and the city it guards looms large in the history of the Civil War era.

In November 1861, Confederate troops began to build a defensive fort that was strategically positioned on top of a 200′ high bluff overlooking the confluence of the Red River and the Cumberland river, and was intended to guard not only the river approaches to Clarksville, TN, but to protect Nashville Tennessee as well which lays further up river.

After the fall of Fort Donelson, Fort Defiance was abandoned prior to the capture of Clarksville. On February 19th, 1862, Federal gunboats including the Conestoga and Cairo; and according to some reports the Steamer St. Louis; came up river from Fort Donelson, arriving around 4:30pm. When the Union Gunboats  were sighted Confederate troops set fire to the two railroad bridges in Clarksville.

Image of surrender of Clarksville headline from a period newspaper (Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers)
Image of surrender of Clarksville headline from a period newspaper (Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers)

A telegram sent from Clarksville in February 19, 1862.

Gunboats coming; they are just below point; can see steamer here. Will try and see how many troops they have before I leave. Lieutenant Brady set bridge on fire, but it is burning very slowly and will probably go out before it falls. W. H. ALLEN.

As the Union gunboats rounded the bend in the river below Clarksville they sighted the two forts that defended the city.

In mid-afternoon  the gunboats rounded a sharp bend in the river opposite Linwood landing, several miles below Clarksville. Directly ahead loomed a high bluff, its crest scarred by a recently erected earthwork-Fort Defiance. As the bluejackets manning the Cairo’s bow battery trained their guns on the fortification, the lookouts saw a white flag snapping in the breeze.  The Stronghold had been evacuated the day before. On the boats steamed passing the forts’ silent guns. As they approached the confluence of the Red and Cumberland Rivers, the federals sighted a second earthwork, Fort Clark. Here no flag was flying. As the Cairo and Conestoga were heaving to, a “very dirty white flag” crept slowly up the staff. Flag officer Foote sent a party lead by Lieutenant Phelps to take possession of the fort and to raise the Stars and Stripes. From the townspeople the sailors learned at Fort Clark a strong wind had blown down the white flag and it had been soiled by the heavy rain of the previous evening.

Admiral Andrew H. Foote, the Flag-Officer Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters
Admiral Andrew H. Foote, the Flag-Officer Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters

“White flags are flying in every direction.” said Admiral A.H. FOOTE, the Flag-Officer Commanding Naval Forces, Western Waters.  Here is the report by Admiral Foot.

Report of Flag-Officer Andrews H. Foote, U. S. Navy.
U. S. FLAG-STEAMER CONESTOGA, Fort Donelson, February 20, 1862.

SIR: I have the honor to inform the Department that I left Cairo with the Conestoga, Lieut.-Commander Phelps, on the 18th instant, having previously dispatched the gunboat Cairo, Lieut.-Commander Bryant, and six mortar boats, in charge of Lieut. Bishop and Lieut. Lyford as ordnance officer, for Fort Donelson.

Yesterday (on the 19th instant) I came up the river on an armed reconnaissance with the Conestoga and Cairo, having Col. Webster, of the Engineer Corps, and chief of Gen. Grant’s staff, on board. On nearing Fort Defiance, near Clarksville, we found a white flag displayed, and on landing found the fort deserted. Lieut.-Commander Phelps and Col. Webster took possession of the fort, the former hoisting the American flag. There were three guns mounted on this fort, three in the fort near the City, and two in a fort a short distance up the Red River.

The Conestoga (1861-1864)

On reaching Clarksville I sent for the authorities of the City, and soon after the Hon. Cave Johnson, the mayor, and Judge Wisdom came aboard, stating that the rebel soldiers had left the City, and with the portion of the defeated army which had escaped from Fort Donelson, had fled to Nashville, after having wantonly burned the splendid railroad bridge near the City, against the remonstrance of the citizens. I further ascertained that two-thirds of the citizens had fled from the place panic-stricken. In short, the City was in a state of the wildest commotion from the rumors that we would not respect the citizens either in their persons or their property.

I assured those gentleman that we came not to destroy anything but tents, military stores, and many equipments. With this assurance they earnestly importuned me to issue a proclamation embodying my views and intentions to the citizens, that the confidence and quiet of the community might be restored. I was constrained, contrary to my predetermination of never writing such a document, to issue the proclamation of which the inclosed is a copy.

I leave this morning with the Conestoga to bring up one or two ironclad gunboats with the vessel and six mortar boats, and then proceed with all possible dispatch up the Cumberland River to Nashville, and, in conjunction with the army, make an attack on Nashville. The rebels have great terror of the gunboats, as will be seen in their papers. One of them a short distance above Fort Donelson had previously fired an iron-rolling mill belonging to the Hon. John Bell.

I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

A. H. FOOTE, Flag-Officer, Cmdg. Naval Forces Western Waters.]

P. S. -I write in great hurry, as mail-boat is waiting.



To the Inhabitants of Clarksville, Tenn.:

At the suggestion of the Hon. Cave Johnson, Judge Wisdom, and the mayor of the City, who called upon me yesterday, after our hoisting the Union flag and taking possession of the forts, to ascertain my views and intentions towards the citizens and private property, I hereby announce to all peaceably-disposed persons that neither on their persons nor in their property shall they suffer molestation by me or the naval force under my command, and that they may in safety resume their business avocations with the assurance of my protection.

At the same time I require that all military stores and army equipments shall surrendered, no part being withheld or destroyed; and, further, that no secession flag or manifestation of secession feeling shall be exhibited; and for the faithful observance of these conditions I shall hold the authorities of the City responsible.

A. H. FOOTE, Flag-Officer, Cmdg. Naval Forces Western Waters.
U. S. FLAG-STEAMER CONESTOGA, Clarksville, Tenn., February 20, 1862.

General Charles Ferguson Smith
General Charles Ferguson Smith

General Charles Ferguson Smith was placed in command of the city.

The Federals took over the fort and enlarged it so that it would control traffic on the Hopkinsville Pike.

Clarksville was left with a small garrison of Union Troops. In April 1862, this small garrison was made up of the 71st Ohio Volunteers commanded by Col. Rodney Mason. During July and August 1862, there was an increase in guerrilla activity around Clarksville. On August 18, 1862, Clarksville was re-capturered by Confederate Calvary. Col. Mason was cashiered for surrendering Clarksville so easily.

Union soldiers were sent from Fort Donelson to retake Clarksville in September 1862. Skirmishes were fought at New Providence on September 6, 1862 and at Riggins Hill on September 7, 1862. The town and fort were reoccupied by Federal troops who remained for the rest of the war. Col. Bruce was placed in command at Clarksville and Fort Defiance was renamed Fort Bruce.

The presence of Northern troops at the fort made it a safe-haven for freed slaves, who came there seeking the protection of Union forces.

After the civil war ended the property became overgrown and mostly forgotten.

Judge Sam Boaz with his wife Dee
Judge Sam Boaz with his wife Dee

In 1952 Judge Sam Boaz purchased the land Fort Defiance resides upon.  Years later, in 1982 Boaz asked the Dr. Howard Winn, and Dr. Richard Gildrie from Austin Peay State University to come take a look and see rumors the property had  an old Civil War fort on it were true, and if so was it historically important.

The professors hunted along the top of the hill overlooking the Cumberland River. What they found was a area with a dense wild tangle of bushes and sapling trees, some 10 to 12 feet tall, that blocked out the sun and made it nearly impossible to hike through without machetes and axes. They hacked their way through that mess until they located the old earthen walls and communication trenches.

Fort Defiance earthen walls.
Fort Defiance earthen walls.

Gildrie remembered telling Judge Boaz about the rediscovery, “We told him ‘Yes! It is very important’,” so in 1984 he deeded the property to the City of Clarksville.

That’s when the real work began. The terrain was so thick and impassable; it took the professors, APSU students, volunteers and Boy Scouts about five hours to hack a short path to the fort’s entrance.  And then there were the chiggers – little tick-like mites that attach themselves and chew on a person’s exposed skin. “I came out to clean this up that first day,” Winn said. “By the time I left, I was so covered with chiggers. And then, to top that off, we brought the mayor out. Mayor (Ted) Crozier called me up that night because he got all the chiggers I didn’t have.” Gildrie said they counted 106 chiggers on Winn while he and Kemmerly escaped with only about four or five bites.

Kemmerly joined the project that summer because it became clear to the history professors that they needed someone to help them identify what was natural and what was man-made at the site.“We figured we needed a geologist, someone who could do proper mapping,” Gildrie said. “Phil is an outstanding geologist. So he came out and so did students – some from (the APSU) geology and (the APSU) history departments. We all worked out here.”

Austin Peay State University professors Richard Gildrie (retired), Phil Kemmerly, Howard Winn (retired) and David Snyder stand next to a monument with their names engraved on it at the city’s new Fort Defiance Interpretive Center. (Photo By Charles Booth/APSU Public Relations and Marketing)
Austin Peay State University professors Richard Gildrie (retired), Phil Kemmerly, Howard Winn (retired) and David Snyder stand next to a monument with their names engraved on it at the city’s new Fort Defiance Interpretive Center. (Photo By Charles Booth/APSU Public Relations and Marketing)

Kemmerly and his students spent several long, hot summer afternoons clearing the land and trying to map out the environment.

“It was a lot of sweat,” he said. “The vegetation in places was 10, 12 feet tall. We literally, a couple of times, fell into some of those trenches.”

City workers even lost a bush hog in one of those trenches, Gildrie said, because they couldn’t see through all the trees how the land dipped down.

The overgrown nature of the site oddly protected it from eroding over the last 150 years. “We had a Civil War expert come out here, and he said he thought from his experience, this was the best preserved Civil War earthen works west of the mountains,” Gildrie said. “At points, those (walls) are 7 or 8 feet high.”

It became the goal of the three professors to see this forgotten landmark turn into a viable city park before they retired. They almost made it. Winn retired in 2005, with Gildrie followed him just three years later.

Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper speaking at the dedication of Fort Defiance Interpretative Center
Clarksville Mayor Johnny Piper speaking at the dedication of Fort Defiance Interpretative Center

The planning for the Park started under Mayor Ted Crozier, and was continued under Mayors Don Trotter, Johnny Piper, and Kim McMillan. The Initial planning for the new interpretative center and the Fort Defiance Historical Area was the responsibility of the Fort Defiance Committee, which was formed by Mayor Piper in 2002. The committee included Ann Alley, Dee Boaz, Sam Boaz, Jim Durrett, Richard Gildre, Anderson Grant, F. Evans Harvill, Bill Howard Sr., Phillip Kemmerly, Reginald Lowe, Paula Martin, Evans Peay, Hatem Shaw, Don Sharpe, David Snyder, Montgomery County Historian Elenore Williams, Thomas H. Winn, and Jerry Wooten.

Rufus Johnson & Associates were selected to design the new facility, McKinney Construction the general contractor, and Hatem Shaw  the project manager. The total cost for the new interpretative center and walking trails was $1,976,159 of which 1.6 million dollars was funded by grants, with the city contributing $395,249 in local matching funds.

In January 2009 the Tennessee Historical Commission objected to the orientation of the building and asked the city to relocate the building at least 50? from the breastworks of the  Fort. Based on their objection the grant the City was awarded to help fund the construction was suspended. “To relocate the building was not a simple process, Said Mayor Piper during the dedication of the building , and so the city needed to locate additional funds to allow them to complete the project. Once they were found, and the relocation completed, the original funding was restored, and the construction continued.

The contributions of all of the people who’s hard work and dedication made the new facility possible is recognized on a monument at the entrance to the new park. Which is quite beautiful. “The city has done a magnificent job,” Gildrie said. Winn, who walks with a cane, covered his eyes with his hand and surveyed the park. Through the trees, the Cumberland River was visible down below. It might have taken almost 30 years, but Winn didn’t seem to mind. He was happy to see it finally be completed.

“This is what historians do,” Winn said. “The effort Gildrie, Kemmerly,  and I were involved in out there is part of the public service role that all university professors are required to do. We teach, we do research and we do public service. Those are the three things a faculty is supposed to do.”

The Customs House Museum located artifacts for the interior, and worked together with 1220 Exhibits and to design the exhibits. Rick Goodwin and Frank Lott produced a documentary film that gives a historical view of Clarksville during the Civil War, with historical re-enactors playing roles of the various historical figures. The Clarksville Foundry cast a fully working replica of an 1847 six-pounder canon that was created by the from Civil War Era plans that is on display at the site. The carriage the cannon was placed on was used in the civil war, and is on long-term loan to Clarksville from the Shiloh National Battlefield.

Montgomery County Mayor Carolyn Bowers fires off the canon at the Sesquicentennial kick-off in Montgomery County on April 6th 2010.
Montgomery County Mayor Carolyn Bowers fires off the canon at the Sesquicentennial kick-off in Montgomery County on April 6th 2010.

At the Grand opening, Frank Lott served as the emcee for the ceremony. He was joined by Montgomery County Commissioner Lettie Kendall; Mayor Kim McMillan; Susan Whitaker,  Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development; The Friends of Fort Defiance, Students from the Tabernacle Christian School, members of the Greenhill Church, Porters Battery, and Red River Breeze.

The official ribbon cutting on Thursday
The official ribbon cutting on Thursday

This weekend’s event

Fort Defiance Interpretative Center OpeningThe Fort Defiance Interpretive Center opens to the public this weekend with a slew of special events  from 10:00 am-8:00pm on Saturday, and 10:00am-5:00pm on Sunday.

Parking:Visitors should park at the Two Rivers Business Center, 690 Riverside Drive, then ride a shuttle van to the center. Shuttle service will run every 15 minutes on opening weekend.

All-weekend events:

  • Stations with activities from the era — basket weaving, quilt-making, quill pen writing, cartridge rolling, toys and an herbal station.
  • Two companies of re-enactors, with a camp and musket-firings.

Saturday-only events:

  • Brush arbor exhibit by Greenhill Missionary Baptist Church. Brush arbors are outside churches made of limbs and brush.
  • Musical performance by Red River Breeze, noon-5 p.m.
  • Whit McMahan portraying Abraham Lincoln, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

There will be canon firings every two hours.

Photo Gallery

Bill Larson
Bill Larson
Bill Larson is  is politically and socially active in the community. Bill is a member of the Friends of Dunbar Cave. You can reach him via telephone at 931-249-0043 or via the email address below.

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