When you're a Civil War historian, it's not unusual to find history in some of the most unexpected places, which is exactly what happened to me in the summer of 2022. My family and I were driving home from a Clarksville, Tennessee movie theater after we'd finished viewing one of the most popular new releases (yes, it was Top Gun: Maverick). There, right along the roadside, we spotted a sign for a site called Fort Defiance. Of course, we pulled over and stopped.
While I was expecting a small historical sign and perhaps a historical map, the hidden historical gem I uncovered was even better than I'd ever imagined. In fact, I believe that Fort Defiance is one of Clarksville's best-kept historical secrets. Before we delve into the modern day historical site, let's discover a bit more about the Fort Defiance of the 1860s.
A Note on Fort Defiance's Name: Fort Defiance was originally named Fort Sevier, reportedly after area pioneer Valentine Sevier (1). When the Confederates surrendered to Union Flag Officer Andrew Foote in February 1862, Foote referred to the fort as "Fort Defiance" (2). However, in December 1862, Colonel Sanders Bruce took charge of the fortification, and it was renamed "Fort Bruce" until the Civil War drew to a close (3). Since Fort Defiance is the most popular name, it is continually referred to in that manner, save for the discussion of the fort prior to Union occupation and/or quoted information.
For Civil War historical sites, it's not unusual to discover that the area boasts history that pre-dates the 1860s. The same is true of Fort Defiance, as the fort, situated atop a 200-foot bluff, was once used by Native Americans and white settlers during the 1700s (4). Many of these pioneers had received land grants for their service in the American War for Independence, making Fort Defiance's history multifaceted and multigenerational (5).
As the Civil War loomed heavy in the Western Theater, Confederates--with the aid of 360 African American men--began building Fort Sevier in the latter part of 1861 (6). The construction of Fort Sevier was the Confederates' move to protect the area's rivers and railroads from the Union's presence on the west's waterways and land (7). The site of Fort Sevier was strategic, as it allowed for "'plunging fire' upon Union ships" (8). As the Confederates worked on building Fort Defiance, they did pay attention to various details that would aid them in their fight. For example, the fort featured parapets, ditches, and "a large trench with a wooden and dirt roof" intended to shelter troops carrying ammunition (9).
Unlike Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson, however, Fort Sevier was equipped with fewer cannons that required smaller ammunitions. In fact, Fort Sevier and Fort Clark (located elsewhere in Clarksville) had a mere six heavy guns total (10). Fort Sevier did use wooden carriages, or barbettes, for the bigger guns, as well as iron carriages. Even so, this equipment was flawed, as these carriages had a tendency of breaking during battle.
While Fort Sevier, in comparison to Forts Henry and Donelson, was poorly outfitted, the opposing Union's ironclad gunboats featured more equipage. The North's "City Class" ironclad gunboats were 175 feet long by 51 feet wide, "initially costing $89,600 each" (11). While $89,600 is a large sum regardless of the era, that price is equivalent to a whopping $3,229,594.22 today (12). The Union's ironclads were also more heavily fortified and featured varied cannon sizes, including 32 and 43 pounders (13).
By February 1862, the same month that Confederate Forts Henry and Donelson fell into Union hands, Fort Sevier faced the same fate (14). Some of the reasons Fort Sevier was unable to put up a successful defense is the fact that the fort's angle was too steep to "fire upon that portion of the river," while the shape did not even "comply with military guidelines" (15). Upon being captured by Union troops, Fort Sevier was renamed Fort Defiance and will hereafter in this article be referred to by that name.
As a Union fortification, Fort Defiance became a beacon of hope for area African Americans who sought refuge among Union troops. When African American males were allowed to serve in the military, Fort Defiance created a space for them to transition from slaves to soldiers, freedmen to fighters. In fact, the 16th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) and a company from the 9th United States Colored Heavy Artillery (USCHA) hailed from Clarksville (16). Other Clarksvillians served in different African American regiments, like the 12th and 13th USCI (17).
Although Fort Defiance became what Lieutenant Elihu Wadsworth (16th USCI) called a "recruitment station," enlisting was anything but easy for African Americans in the region (18). Confederate guerrilla fighters worked to hamper the ability of Black males to enlist, but it was to no avail (19). Determined to fight for the freedom of African Americans, these men continued enlisting and serving with African American regiments, regardless of the costs.
Black soldiers in the 101st USCI, a regiment organized in Nashville, Tennessee, were a vital part of Fort Defiance. As the fort became a "contraband" camp (a safe space for formerly enslaved refugees), there were threats that these men, women, and children might be recaptured and reenslaved. Thus, the African American troops of the 101st USCI, considered too unfit for traditional military service, took up the task of guarding these "contrabands" (20). The role of the 101st USCI at Fort Defiance was valuable, ensuring that recently freed African Americans were not brutally forced back in to bondage.
Clarksville's Civil War history is a rich one, spanning multiple aspects of the Civil War--from Secessionists and Unionists to African American combatants. Today, the stories of Fort Defiance have been carefully preserved and curated, offering visitors a glimpse into the fort's importance during the 1860s. Now that we've discussed the fort's history, let's get an idea on what to expect during your visit.
According to one source, Fort Defiance is "one of the few intact earthen works forts in the U.S." (21). Although Fort Defiance is rather small--especially in comparison to historical sites that boast thousands of preserved acres--the visibility of the earthworks is impressive and lends historical interpretation to the site by illustrating the sizes, heights, and styles of 1860's fortifications.
What's more, Fort Defiance offers visitors easy walking on paved trails, although one could always head off trail to get an even closer view of the earthworks. Since Fort Defiance is accessible via walking or rolling, it allows everyone to enjoy history: even those with physical impairments or the elderly. If you're interested in some light exercise, Fort Defiance's short walking trail lets you enjoy nature, get your steps in, and immerse yourself in the area's rich heritage...all at the same time!
Fort Defiance also offers numerous interpretative markers that share the role of Fort Defiance and Clarksville in the Civil War, while also providing details about the conflict in general. During your visit to Fort Defiance, you'll likely notice that there's plenty of information about African American combatants, since the fortification was vital to USCTs and Black refugees. Much of the information found on historical signs discussing Black soldiers is derived from primary sources, which enhances the details provided. Especially for those unfamiliar with Fort Defiance, USCT, and the Civil War in general, these historical markers located throughout the park offer up information that will enhance one's knowledge of Clarksville's Civil War heritage.
One of my favorite parts of my Fort Defiance visit was the USCT statue. I appreciate that the statue pays homage to the role of African Americans in the conflict while also exposing visitors to a Civil War soldier's uniform and accouterments. Although I've seen plenty of statues at battlefields and historical sites, the USCT statue at Fort Defiance was the most detailed one that I've personally viewed. The statue showed the etching of a soldier's breastplate, the design of a sergeant's stripes, and even the folds and stitching of the soldier's uniform. Even the combatant was lifelike, with stubble, smile lines, and veins visible. It felt like at any moment the soldier would step off the platform and continue the fight--he seemed that authentic.
If you plan to visit Fort Defiance with a group that isn't as history-minded as you, they'll likely still enjoy the scenery. With a stunning view overlooking the city of Clarksville, plus trees, plants, and wildlife nearby, photo opportunities abound. I would suggest planning your visit so that you can tour the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center. Unfortunately they were closed during my visit, but I'm sure there are even more opportunities to learn about the fort's history inside. Find the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center's address, phone number, and hours by heading here.
If you're a history enthusiast who enjoys finding those lesser-known but still-important historical sites, then I'm sure you'll love your Fort Defiance trip just as much as I did. From cannons and signs to earthworks and statues, this historical gem offers something for every Civil War enthusiast. Since Fort Defiance is so well preserved, one can almost hear the “slow beating of a drum from the grand old Fort Sevier” over 150 years later (22).
Unable to explore Fort Defiance on your own or maybe want to see some photos before your visit? No worries! I snapped plenty of pictures during my trip and you can view a sampling of them in the gallery below. To view the photos in a larger format, please click on the images.
Please credit photos to: Kassidy Cobb
(1) Nannie Haskins Williams, The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams : A Southern Woman's Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863-1890, eds. Minoa D. Uffelman, Ellen Kanervo, Phyllis Smith, and Eleanor Williams (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 207.
(4) “Fort Defiance Civil War Park & Interpretive Center,” Clarksville Parks and Recreation, accessed March 10, 2023, https://www.cityofclarksville.com/461/Fort-Defiance-Civil-War-Park-Interpretiv.
(5) Historical Sign at Fort Defiance.
(6) “Black Clarksvillians During The Civil War,” Ft. Defiance Clarksville, accessed March 10, 2023, http://ftdefianceclarksville.com/history/black-clarksvillians-during-the-civil-war/.
(7) Historical Sign at Fort Defiance.
(12) “Value of $89,600 from 1860 to 2023,” CPI Inflation Calculator, accessed March 10, 2023, https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1860?amount=89600.
(13) Historical Sign at Fort Defiance.
(14) “Fort Defiance Civil War Park & Interpretive Center."
(15) Historical Sign at Fort Defiance.
(21) "Fort Defiance Interpretive Center and Par," Visit Clarksville Tennessee, accessed March 10, 2023, https://www.visitclarksvilletn.com/listing/fort-defiance-interpretive-center-%26-park/135/.
(22) Nannie Haskins Williams, The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams, 79.
About the Author: Kassidy Cobb graduated with her Associate in Arts degree in December 2021 and is a college senior currently pursuing a Bachelors of Science in History from Liberty University where she also minors in creative writing. Her efforts to preserve the past have been recognized by Congress, DAR, SAR, SUVCW, DUVCW, and more. Kassidy first became obsessed with history in eighth grade through a unit on the American Civil War. She began researching her family's heritage and discovered that she is a direct descendant of eleven Civil War veterans, ranging from an "excellent soldier" and Andersonville Prisoner of War to a "patriotic Kentuckian" and United States Colored Infantry soldier. Kassidy is passionate about sharing the stories of United States veterans, specifically those who fought in the Civil War. One of the ways she does this is by obtaining grave markers for veterans. When Kassidy isn't busy giving historical presentations, preserving cemeteries, volunteer record transcribing for NPS, or researching her family's past, you'll find her antique collecting, studying her Bible, reading, exercising, and enjoying nature on her family's farm where pets outnumber people.