Knoxville Foundation Buys 70-Acre 1863 Battle Site
By Gregory L. Wade
(February/March 2010 Civil War News)

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Knoxville’s Legacy Park Foundation (LPF) recently purchased 70 acres of land known for the Nov. 25, 1863, Battle of Armstrong Hill. The non-profit that is dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of key Knoxville historical and wilderness areas.

LPF has raised $1.4 million of the total $1.5 million price for the Armstrong Hill 70 acres so far, according to executive director Carol Evans. The foundation plans to eventually turn the property over to the city park system.

stanley
Detail from March 19, 1864, panoramic photo showing the view from Fort Stanley, published by the Office of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army.
(Courtesy Civil War Alliance)

“We have also been given a year to raise $800,000 to buy 22 acres that once was part of nearby Fort Stanley as well,” Evans says.

In late 1863, Confederate troops under Gen. James Longstreet laid siege to the town and faced a series of works that included Forts Higley, Dickerson and Stanley, earthen structures thrown up to protect the city from Longstreet’s effort to free Knoxville from Federal control. 

The siege followed a series of failed attacks by Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler to take the high ground. From these forts the Union army could control the Tennessee River in their front as well as use their artillery to challenge Confederate positions in the area.

In between these defended hills was an area controlled by neither army, some say a no-man’s land, where the Battle of Armstrong Hill was fought.

These sites are directly across the river from downtown Knoxville and touch each other on a north to south series of ridges.

Standing on the Fort Dickinson crest one can get  a great view of the location of a different type of modern-day contest, the University of Tennessee football stadium. These lands have remained mostly untouched but are under constant development threat with some homes already on parts of the hilly ridges.

The Battle of Armstrong Hill was not well recorded but it was an important event in Knoxville’s Civil War history. Armstrong Hill was a two-hour fight involving hundreds of Confederates hoping to take the high ground and taking more than 100 casualties in the attempt.

“The fortified ridges and hills where the battle was fought were a major reason the Union was successful in ending the Confederacy’s siege of Knoxville,” says Steve Dean, president of the Civil War Alliance (CWA).

The CWA is a coalition of historical and heritage groups, including the Knoxville Civil War Round Table, that is contributing to the preservation efforts of these riverfront lands.

Much of the history of these forts comes from Ohio and Illinois regimental histories according to Dean. “There was a United States Colored Troop regiment on those hills from 1863 until the war ended,” he reported. A lot of the activity in this area remained relatively obscure until now.

The Armstrong Hill purchase comes on the heels of the preservation of 100 acres known as Fort Higley by the Aslan Foundation, a philanthropic group also located in Knoxville.

This ground had been slated to become a condominium development in 2005 and at that time was on the Civil War Preservation Trust’s most endangered battlefield list.

The recent economic downturn ended an Atlanta developer’s plans for more condominiums and Aslan bought the property in 2008 for $2.3 million.

“We were not thinking anything positive was going to happen before Aslan saved Fort Higley,” says CWA vice president and archeologist Joan Markel of the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum.

Since Fort Higley’s purchase, there has been an archaeological survey on site with funds provided by a grant from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and the Knoxville Civil War Round Table, of which Markel is a member.

Aslan is now determining how to best preserve and interpret the historical aspects of Fort Higley.

“How do we best protect 146-year-old earthworks?” asks Markel. “The spectacular view we enjoy today is part of what makes these locations so special and during the war these same views provided great strategic benefits.”

Aslan’s longterm goal is to turn Fort Higley over to a group that would continue to protect it as a historical asset.

“The preservation of Higley, Stanley and Fort Dickerson, already a city park, along with the Armstrong Hill battle site, is a key part of LPF’s Urban Wilderness and Historic Corridor,” Evans says.

LPF refers to the 1,000-acre historic corridor on its Web site (www.LegacyParksFoundation.org) as an effort to save all three forts along “with historic settlement sites, diverse ecological features and recreational amenities.”

Evans says they will eventually connect all the sites with a trail system that will become a vital part of Knoxville’s outdoor landscape.

Noting the cooperative spirit of several preservation groups such as the CWA, Evans says, “Give all the credit to the Civil War folks. They saw the potential of all of this before anyone else.”