The following excerpt is from a chapter in a forthcoming book on the Knoxville Campaign
By James R. Doncaster
While most of the major action in and around Knoxville occurred north of the Tennessee River—the Battle of Campbell’s Station on November 16th, Sanders’ delaying action on the Kingston Pike on the 17th and 18th, and of course the climatic assault on Fort Sanders on the 29th—the areas south of the river were not without conflict. As Longstreet and Burnside maneuvered above the river, General Joseph Wheeler with portions of four brigades of cavalry was dispatched by Longstreet to approach Knoxville via Maryville in a southern approach to the city. Contesting their advance were elements of Sanders’ cavalry who fought delaying actions near Rockford and Stock Creek before being driven back into the city on the 15th. All that kept Wheeler from crossing the pontoon bridge in pursuit were Union infantry supported by artillery placed on the hills south of the river. Heavy skirmishing on the 15th and 16th occurred on the lower heights of what would soon become Forts Dickerson and Stanley and in the valley in between them.
The most significant action south of the river occurred on November 25th when Robertson’s and Law’s Confederate brigades, the same brigades that had fought at Gettysburg’s Little Round Top less than five months before, clashed with Cameron’s blocking brigade of Union infantry. After scores of casualties were inflicted on both sides, the attacking force of Confederates returned to their lines on Cherokee Heights. Burnside and Poe examined the field and assessed the continuing threat the next day. The result was the creation of a battery position with supporting infantry trenchwork on a neighboring hill christened Fort Higley.
Due to the topography of the land south of the Tennessee River, sites important to the contending armies generally have not suffered the fate of those north of it. The rugged hills opposite town rise from the southern riverbank to eminences more than three hundred feet in height, stymying development. Not all the land of historical significance there has been preserved, but much of it has thanks to the ongoing efforts of the City of Knoxville, the Aslan Foundation, and the Legacy Parks Foundation, with support from the American Battlefield Trust and the Knoxville Civil War Round Table. Because of the varying involvement of the different groups in the preservation efforts, the hills and crowning forts and fortifications will be addressed individually. Moving from west to east, they are Cherokee Heights, Armstrong Hill, Fort Higley, Fort Dickerson, and Fort Stanley.
Cherokee Heights (Cherokee Bluff)
The lower slopes of Cherokee Heights on the eastern side from which Law and Robertson launched their attack on Cameron’s brigade is as rough and wooded now as it was in 1863 and is totally undeveloped. The flat top of the bluff above where E. Porter Alexander, the Confederate First Corps artillery commander, trained the guns of Captain William Parker’s Virginia battery on the federal lines across the river, sadly was lost to development in the late twentieth century. A gated condominium village now occupies this once lofty Confederate position.
Drury Armstrong owned the parcel of land that bore his name and became the site of the largest fight of the Knoxville campaign south of the river. The land, accessible by the Cherokee Trail today, remained in private hands for the next 150 years until it was purchased by Legacy Parks Foundation in 2009. Legacy Parks raised $1.5 million, including a $10,000 donation from the American Battlefield Trust, to acquire the River Bluff property which encompasses Armstrong Hill. Legacy Parks then deeded the property to the City of Knoxville in November of 2015 for inclusion in Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness. Hiking trails and interpretive signage on the Armstrong Hill fight are currently under study by the city and the foundation.
After the fight at Armstrong Hill Poe thought it expedient to strengthen the western edge of the city’s southside defenses. Thus, guns from Fort Stanley were emplaced and infantry trenchwork in a figure 8 pattern were dug in what soon would be called Fort Higley. No significant action occurred in this sector after these defensive moves were made. Fort Higley remained in private hands well into the twenty-first century. When the prospect of condo development loomed, however, the charitable Aslan Foundation in 2008 intervened, purchasing a 39-acre tract that held the fort. After archeological work was conducted at the site, Aslan developed the area into a public park that opened in 2013. Today, High Ground Park, which remains under Aslan’s stewardship, contains abundant signage and well-maintained trails that lead to the old earthen fort, an old Military Road, and to overlooks with sweeping vistas of the area. The park is accessible via the Cherokee Trail and is open to the public daily.
By far the best-preserved remnant of the Civil War in Knoxville is Fort Dickerson. Begun in the days leading up to the siege to protect the southern approaches to the city and completed in February of ‘64 after the siege was lifted, the fort remains the best example of a Civil War earthen fort in East Tennessee. The fort remained in private hands until it became an 85-acre city park in 1957. Fort Dickerson was the site of a large centennial reenactment of the Battle of Fort Sanders in 1963, and it has been the site of annual reenactments and living history weekends conducted by the Knoxville Civil War Round Table for almost forty years. Over the years, the fort has been gradually restored by the Round Table and the City of Knoxville. Trees and vines have been removed, viewsheds opened, and three artillery pieces were purchased and placed in the fort’s embrasures by the Round Table to approximate the look of the fort in war time. The Aslan Foundation in 2017 created a beautiful new Fort Dickerson Gateway to welcome visitors entering the park at 3000 Fort Dickerson Road off Chapman Highway. Aslan also has been funding kudzu removal in the park and is making plans to build boardwalks beneath the ramparts of the fort to protect its earthen walls.
The hill upon which Fort Stanley sits is just to the east of Fort Dickerson across present-day Chapman Highway. Together the two forts commanded the approaches to the city from the south. Union trenchwork and rifle pits defined Fort Stanley during the siege, and afterwards tents covered hillsides cleared to provide fields of fire. Today, little of Fort Stanley remains, and that which does exist is vine-covered and overgrown. Nevertheless, the Aslan Foundation purchased 22 acres of the hill in 2011 to protect the site and is considering purchasing additional acreage to protect the viewshed from the city.
One of the most enticing features of life in Knoxville today is the development of the Knoxville Urban Wilderness. According to the Visit Knoxville website, “Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness is a spectacular outdoor adventure area where you can hike, bike, climb, paddle, or just wander in the woods—all within the heart of the city. Over 50 miles of trails and greenways connect you to a beautiful nature center, pristine lakes, historic sites, dramatic quarries, adventure playgrounds, five city parks, and a 500-acre wildlife area.”
The Urban Wilderness master plan calls for the forging of a new series of trails called the “Battlefield Loop”. The loop trail as proposed would link the Armstrong Hill battlefield with Forts Higley, Dickerson, and Stanley–in effect connecting all the extant Civil War sites south of the river. Much of the trail already exists, though some connecting links are yet to be defined. Still, thanks to the visionary thinking of leaders in city government, area foundations, and local civic organizations the future for historic preservation, restoration and interpretation in Knoxville never looked brighter. The Battlefield loop was not even a pipe dream twenty years ago. Soon it will be a reality.