Fort Defiance defies history

There is always an interesting twist when it comes to history, but an ironic one surrounds Clarksville’s Fort Defiance. Built by 200 enslaved men with shovels and picks, this acre of earthworks would later serve as a place of shelter when the Union army occupied the city.  During my hosted visit to Clarksville, Tracy Jepson, the Associate Historical Interpreter shared, “This was built to protect the city from gunboats like the Cairo.”

The earthworks were not used because after the defeat at fort Donnellson, the battle that made Ulysses S. Grant famous, Tracy shared, “The City Fathers thought it prudent not to resist.”

At Fort Defiance, Tracy said they offer a rounded story.  “We show the viewpoint of men, women and slaves.”

While the city was occupied by Union solders, Tracy explained, “This site during and at the end of the war served as a safe place for slaves to go and it later became a freedman’s camp.”

The history of this area precedes the Civil War.  One of the first settlers, Valentine Sevier, a revolutionary war hero lived on the ground and nearby visitors can view the limestone building referred to as Sevier Station that still stands today.  “He was not the founder, but he was the brother of the first Governor.  He had 14 children and they had all settled in this area with there seven slaves.  Since the Revolutionary War government couldn’t pay their solders, they paid them with land grants.”

It was about this time that several Indian tribes, the Creek, Cherokee and Shawnee formed an alignment called the Chickamauga Confederacy.  “They were led by Chief Doublehead and he was leading raids.  He killed infants, anyone,” Tracy said.

Fed up with the ever-expanding white population and the broken treaties they were basically killing anyone when they came out to hunt or  get water.  Hundreds died up and down the Cumberland River. The Spanish were in Louisiana at the time, and they were helping the Indians. The Chickamauga Confederacy massacred the settlers two years before Tennessee became a state in 1796.  “There was a continual clash of cultures,” Tracy said referring to this land in both the Indians and settler’s time and the years of the Union and Confederacy and slaves and non slaves.

After the loss of several of the Sevier family, this area continued to grow and once the Indians were under control. Wealth came in the products of tobacco and pig iron.  “There were more millionaire’s per capita here than in New Orleans at one time,” Tracy shared.

Although most of the buildings are gone now, there are still remnants of the tobacco warehouses and a few mansions.  The Fort at that time was in an area called New Providence that later became Clarksville.  With the black freedman settling here, many of the white businesses moved onto Clarksville proper.  Tracy mentioned a church, Green Hill Church which exists today, but has a reference back to the Civil War times.  “Before the war, slaves couldn’t meet freely so the code word to gather to worship was to, ‘meet at the green hill'”

After the war, the freedmen built a church and school and the missionary Maggie Horton came and taught school.  “There were 80 children to one teacher.  There was a lot of hostility,” Tracy added.

Clarksville and Fort Defiance is a place of history and conflict. Two rivers meet, the Cumberland and Red River and today it is still an experiment to see if this melting pot we call the US can live in harmony.

While all you see at this site are earthen walls, walk inside and talk to the historians because as with many things, there is much more than meets the eye!