Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Review - "Rediscovering Fort Sanders: The American Civil War and Its Impact on Knoxville's Cultural Landscape" by Faulkner & Faulkner

[Rediscovering Fort Sanders: The American Civil War and Its Impact on Knoxville's Cultural Landscape by Terry Faulkner and Charles H. Faulkner (University of Tennessee Press, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, source notes, cited reference list, index. Pages main/total:xxiii,343/414. ISBN:978-1-62190-481-6. $34.95]

While the Chattanooga railroad junction was more militarily and strategically significant during the Civil War years, Knoxville was then and arguably still is the queen city of East Tennessee. It was certainly coveted by both sides during the war. The Lincoln administration wanted possession of Knoxville to secure protection for the region's large pro-Union population, and the Confederates needed it to maintain the shortest rail and communications link between the eastern and western theaters. As it turned out, the Confederates held Knoxville for the first half of the war before abandoning it to General Ambrose Burnside's advancing Union army in September 1863. For the duration of the conflict, the city would remain in federal hands.

Though made vulnerable by an uncomfortably close patch of dead ground that a sizable attacking force could exploit, Fort Sanders was the key point in the line of Union fortifications surrounding Knoxville. It was the predictable target of General James Longstreet's Confederate forces during their failed attempt to break into the city in November 1863. Even with its flaws Fort Sanders was immensely strong, and Longstreet's 20-minute assault on its northwest salient on November 29 was a dismal failure. With Union relief on the way and no further hope of quick victory, the Confederate 'siege' was abandoned a few days later. Longstreet's small army withdrew northeast, ultimately going into winter quarters after the indecisive battle at Bean's Station.

For a long time, it has been assumed by historians and local residents that the steady march of Knoxville's post-Civil War urbanization completely wiped out all traces of Fort Sanders. However, according to Terry and Charles Faulkner in their book Rediscovering Fort Sanders: The American Civil War and Its Impact on Knoxville's Cultural Landscape, that is not the case. Through their meticulous interdisciplinary investigation lasting more than eight years, the authors claim a number of new discoveries, including both visible and buried evidence of fort remnants.

The Civil War importance of Knoxville and why so much time and effort went into building elaborate earthwork defenses are explored at some length in the opening chapters. Coverage includes fairly extensive discussions of what life was like for the city's Unionist population under Confederate rule, and the September-December 1863 campaigning in the region (the climax being the attack on Fort Sanders) is also addressed. There are a few factual mistakes scattered about the narrative and arguably some overuse of dated and partisan sources in these early sections, but the contextual overview is solid overall. Some readers will be disappointed in the brevity of the book's coverage of the November 29 assault on Fort Sanders, but others will find it to be of suitable length for a multi-focused work of this type. The best modern treatment of the battle of Fort Sanders and overview of Longstreet's Knoxville campaign can still be found in Earl Hess's The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (2012).

Union military engineer par excellence Orlando Poe is often credited with the design and construction of Fort Sanders, but the authors correctly note that the defensive works on White's Hill that would eventually become Fort Sanders originated as the Confederate Fort Loudon/Fort Buckner. After Burnside captured the city, Poe was made responsible for the city's entire line of defenses. Though improvements were made under Poe's overall direction, the fort was still unfinished when the Confederates attacked in November. Only later would the fort be fully enclosed and completed, and this final phase of its construction was conducted under the professional guidance of experienced artillery officer, Davis Tillson. A figure whose contributions during and after the war (he was also an Asst. Director of the Freedman's Bureau) have been largely forgotten, General Tillson had a distinguished career, the popular awareness and profile of which the authors hope to raise through this study.

Easily the book's most provocative conclusion is its determination through various investigative means that the true location of Fort Sanders is one block west of the long-held consensus position atop the former topographical crest of White's Hill. Through a combination of documentary research, photographic analysis, ground observation (most significantly the location the authors believe to be the oft-mentioned limestone sink), and targeted archaeological investigation, the detailed revisionist argument promoted by the Faulkners is presented through multiple angles. The authors feel that some of their strongest supportive evidence was obtained through their extensive aerial and ground-level photographic study. During their research, the authors obtained access to several photographs that have never been published before. They also bolster their case with a rediscovered fort image mislabeled in the archives as a visiting circus rather than the Fort Sanders veteran reunion truly depicted. While the often grainy reproduction of the book's collection of panoramic photos (from George Barnard's 1864 image through a 1922 aerial photo of the battleground) can often make it difficult for the reader to discern all of the essential features noted in the text, the authors do extensively label every image to correspond by letter to points of interest identified and discussed in both captions and main text.

Like many other historically significant Civil War sites, postwar urban sprawl claimed the former site of Fort Sanders. The book methodically documents in photos and text the steady, decades-long urban development—first as residential houses and streets and later hospital and University of Tennessee construction—completely remade the local topography (which was originally steeply graded and hazardous to road travel). The transformation of the urban landscape atop the grounds of the old fort is ongoing, though the university today is committed to upward expansion of existing buildings. Coverage of urban development around the old fort grounds is rendered in such detail that even non-Civil War oriented local historians and students of West Knoxville's nineteenth and twentieth century expansion will likely find the book highly useful for their own purposes. Still, it can be difficult for the uninitiated reader to fully appreciate the nuances of the Faulkners's arguments as presented in the book, and there is apparently local resistance to their theory regarding the fort's true location. One is left to wonder what the strongest arguments for the traditional interpretation of the fort's position might still be and how the Faulkners would specifically counter them.

Conflict archaeology has repeatedly proven itself useful as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to Civil War history and site study, and Rediscovering Fort Sanders thoroughly documents co-author and University of Tennessee anthropology professor emeritus Charles Faulkner's archaeological investigation of the old fort site. Through his team's modest-scale excavation and soil strata analysis, Faulkner believes he's uncovered enough probable buried fort remnants (to include the level of the fort's interior floor and possible location of artillery embrasures), to merit further investigation. In that determination he is persuasive. Along with the sinkhole already mentioned above, Faulkner also points to another area of above-ground subsidence that could well be indicative of the original trench fronting the fort. Both features are promoted as supporting evidence of the fort's new location. As a body, the archaeological evidence in more intriguing than conclusive, and one might well imagine that detractors will not be completely satisfied until further excavation conclusively identifies the locations of at least three of the four bastions (if that is even possible).

Rediscovering Fort Sanders is a frequently fascinating combination of historical document research, forensic photographic analysis, and archaeological investigation. If their work can gain official acceptance, the Faulkners plan to create an extensive walking tour that will hopefully secure Fort Sanders's legacy on a more visible and permanent basis and provide West Knoxville with long-neglected historical interpretation that will benefit both residents and visitors alike. Even if that highly laudable goal is never met, the book itself represents a significant contribution to local Knoxville history and the study of the Civil War in East Tennessee at large.

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