Fort Negley was a Union Civil War fort, part of a series of fortifications that sat on the hills that ringed Nashville like a wooden and stone necklace. It was built in the last five months of 1862 by 2,771 African American laborers, many of whom — some estimate up to 800 — died while working on Nashville’s fortifications.
Fort Negley sits next to the abandoned Catholic Cemetery and just across the railroad tracks from the Nashville City Cemetery, where there’s dirt deep enough to bury folks in, which is not easy to come by in a place that was at the time nicknamed “Rock City.” Because that deep dirt sat along railroad tracks, the Army turned much of the land to the east and south of the fort into more cemeteries.
Union dead were brought in by train and temporarily buried there until the National Cemetery north of Nashville opened. Confederate soldiers were buried there. “Refugees,” likely meaning white people from the countryside, and “contraband,” meaning enslaved black people from the countryside, were buried there in mass graves. And those workers who built the fort were buried there, too.
“William R. Cornelius, a local Nashville undertaker, was commissioned by the federal government to serve as the Union’s undertaker for the region. In total, Cornelius buried 13,561 federal soldiers and government employees during the Union occupation of Nashville. In addition, he interred 8,000 Confederate soldiers and 10,000 contrabands and refugees. … Between October 1857 and January 1858, the remains of 8,592 individuals in the Due West and South West cemeteries [the additions that had been made to the city cemetery for the purpose of holding all these dead bodies] were exhumed and reinterred in the Nashville National Cemetery. It appears that a number of graves were left behind, and an 1867 newspaper article describes a dozen ‘lonely, sunken graves, probably of as many Confederate soldiers.’ ”
This is a mess for Nashville. Cornelius buried over 30,000 people around Fort Negley, and fewer than 10,000 of them were ever dug back up. So, we have two large temporary cemeteries that, oops, turns out weren’t that temporary and, oops again, we let development happen on much of them and almost developed the rest.
There are also problems for the nation as a whole. We didn’t reinter all the Union soldiers. Cornelius put 13,561 soldiers and government employees in the ground. Only 8,592 of them were dug up and moved. So there are almost 5,000 people who gave their lives to the United States lying in unmarked graves in a city park or under the neighborhood surrounding that city park.
And then there are the workers who died building those fortifications. I’ve been trying to find someone from the Army or a historian specializing in this era to explain to me the Army’s relationship to those workers and thus its obligations to their remains. I’ve gotten no answers.
But here’s what it looks like: To come up with a labor force for Nashville’s fortifications, the Army went into black neighborhoods, and often into black churches during services, rounding up black men (and a few women) at gunpoint. These workers slept out in the open air, near the forts they were building. They weren’t allowed to return to their homes in the evenings. They were supposed to be paid, but most weren’t. And then, when the fortifications were complete, many of the men served in the United States Colored Troops.
If the workers could later join the Army, that suggests that they weren’t service members while they were building the forts. But if they were merely civilian workers, why couldn’t they go home at night? Why weren’t they paid?
We have a word in the United States for a black man who is stolen from his home and forced to work for free, even to death, for a white man: slave.
If these people belonged to the Army, even if only for five months, the Army owes them something. We, as a nation, owe them something. We can’t just snatch people out of churches, work them to death, throw them in an anonymous hole and forget it ever happened.
Because here they still are.
These workers deserve to be found, identified and buried with honor. It would be a difficult task, and it probably wouldn’t be 100 percent successful. But it wouldn’t be impossible. Fort Negley has the Army’s list of names of those workers. We have census records and city directories from after the war. We have, at least until the gentrification of South Nashville is complete, black neighborhoods where people have lived since the Civil War. And we have DNA we could pull from the remains. These weren’t people without families. They don’t have to be people without identities.