If There Are Still Workers at Fort Negley, What Does the Nation Owe Them? - Friends of Fort Negley Park
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If There Are Still Workers at Fort Negley, What Does the Nation Owe Them?

If There Are Still Workers at Fort Negley, What Does the Nation Owe Them?

The Tennessean’s Joey Garrison got a hold of a preliminary report from the archaeologists who’ve been working at Fort Negley. They found a high likelihood of human remains on-site and Garrison reports:

Early judgments are based on ground-penetrating radar that captures images below the surface. The Tennessean obtained the report, dated Nov. 19, through a public records request.
This week, the archaeology team brought in digging machinery to carry out a process known as “ground-truthing” for a more thorough underground analysis.
A final report is expected by the end of the year.

I will continue to urge caution in our reactions to any news until the final report comes out — after all, like I’ve said, there are only so many places in Davidson County with dirt deep enough to put bodies in it, so even if the archaeologists have found remains, we have 13,000 years of human habitation here. If there are remains, they could be Civil War soldiers who didn’t get moved like they should have. They could be Native Americans. They could be early Nashvillians who wanted their people in the city cemetery or the Catholic cemetery, but for whatever reason, couldn’t put them there, and so put them as close as they could. And, yes, they could be those lost workers.

We won’t know until the archaeologists are done with their work. But, obviously, there’s a very strong chance those remains are the workers at Fort Negley. And if they are, I’m not sure this can remain a local discussion.

Here’s the question: what is the relationship between those workers and the federal government? The Army came into Nashville’s black communities and stole people — even out of their churches — and forced them to work building Nashville’s fortifications. They were supposed to be paid. Most weren’t. Even though many of them had homes in Nashville, they lived on the hillside.

They were, obviously, reenslaved by the United States Army. If they were civilian contractors, they could have gone home at night. Their remains would have been returned to their families. They would have been paid.

But we don’t now recognize the legitimacy of slavery. And at the very moment these workers were forced to build these fortifications, Abraham Lincoln was writing the Emancipation Proclamation. The war was shifting from merely a war to hold the Union together to a war to free enslaved people. Even if they were obviously enslaved by the Army, that makes it more important that the Army recognize its responsibility to these people, not less.

This is a tricky needle to thread. Acknowledging that the U.S. Army enslaved, even temporarily, black Middle Tennesseans is ugly and hard. It shows a hypocrisy at the heart of the Union — it was okay for the Union to have slaves, but not the Confederacy. It’s sickening when you think of the men and women who broke free of their enslavers out in the countryside and bravely made their way to Nashville, expecting to find people willing to protect their claims to freedom and instead found an army willing to steal them again and, in some cases, work them to death.

But it’s important to acknowledge that these men and women did belong to the Army. They were not free to come and go. They could not choose for themselves whether to live or die. They were the Army’s.

And it’s important to acknowledge that their race and social circumstances ensured that the Army could own them and refuse to pay them and duck out of any obligations they have to them for a century and a half.

So, how should the Army, and by extension America, view these workers now? They slept alongside soldiers. They worked alongside soldiers. When Nathan Bedford Forrest was making raids up Murfreesboro Pike, they went to their commanding officers and asked for weapons to go meet him. They were denied, so they went out with tools. They expected to fight.

They didn’t have government issued weapons or uniforms, but look at Ann Cockrill, buried on the other side of the tracks. She didn’t have government issued weapons or a uniform but her actions during the Revolutionary War were so obviously in service to the country in battle that she was issued a Revolutionary War land grant (which you can go stand on now, if you go to Centennial Park). Cockrill, as far as I know, fought in one battle (which she led and won, mind you), and that was enough for the federal government to say “OK, you were a soldier. Thanks for your service. Here’s your land grant.”

The Fort Negley workers worked for months on behalf of the Army, under the direction of the Army. They were in the Army. They had to be. Not in a formal way with paperwork and such, but they were a part of the Army. They weren’t regular soldiers, but they were soldiers in the same way as Ann Cockrill. And the workers who might be in the ground there died in service to the United States.

And, if that’s the case, then it’s not the city’s place alone to decide what to do with the remains. We don’t leave U.S. soldiers unidentified in a mass grave on foreign soil if we can help it. We damn sure shouldn’t leave them unidentified in a mass grave in a park in Nashville.

It would be hard, but not impossible to identify most of those remains, if they are the workers. Fort Negley has a list (which they’ve been tweeting out) of who worked on the Nashville fortifications. Williamson County historian, Tina Jones, has been augmenting the list with informations she has on the people on that list from her home county. Other historians could do the same. We have a list of names. We have census data from years later. Comparing the people we know worked on Fort Negly and other Nashville fortifications with the census data would tell us who lived through the war. Now, there are reasons beside death a black person might not show up on the 1870 or 1880 census — he or she might have changed his or her last name; he or she might not have had a last name when he or she were working on the fortifications; the census takers might just not have counted them. But we could still dramatically narrow down the possibly identities of the remains.

Once we have a smaller pool of possible identities, we could locate families — this would be nearly impossible with people who didn’t have last names, though, once we start the process, family members who have names might come forward — and some of them would know where their ancestor ended up and we might be able to further refine our list.

I think it would be very hard to get to a point where we had, say 351 names and 351 remains. But we might get to a point where we had the remains of 600 people and the names of 700. Acknowledging that black Americans might have damn good reasons for not wanting to share their DNA, we could still ask for samples that might help directly identify which set of remains go with which names. And again, we might not identify everyone, but we could identify more than none of them, which is where we’re at now.

But I think our ultimate goal should be to properly identify the remains and then return them into that ground, which they hallowed with their sacrifice. And, in that case, Fort Negley should become a federal cemetery — albeit very small one — with each person placed in his or her own grave, given his or her own marker, matching the markers of any other Civil War soldier.

Yes, the city owes them more than sticking a neighborhood on top of them, but the nation owes them something, too.

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