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VOL. 35 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 22, 2011

Capitalizing on the Past

Nashville remains outflanked in Civil War tourism efforts

By Tim Ghianni

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Re-enactors fire cannons during last weekend's encampment at Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro.

Standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue North and Lower Broadway, tourists Dean and Pamela Roberts pause when asked to name the closest historic Civil War site.

They’re stumped, as are other tourists posed the same question on a near-record steamy day in the heart of the city’s tourist district. They don’t know that within eyeshot, just a few feet from where they stand, is a building where the spirits of dead Yankee soldiers are said to rattle and hum.

Plenty of tourists go inside that building to finger through the racks for hard-core country CDs and vinyl, as well as other mementos at Ernest Tubb Record Shop. But they don’t know what took place inside almost 150 years ago.

“I guess the closest Civil War site is where they had the battles in Franklin and Murfreesboro,” says Dean Roberts, unable to mention any nearby historic sites or even that there was a bloodbath in Nashville.

It’s a problem Jim Hoobler wrestles with daily. The chairman of Mayor Karl Dean’s Sesquicentennial Committee – a part of the Metro Historical Commission exploring ways to help this city participate in and even make money from the 150th anniversary of the Civil War – thinks Nashville’s role in the Civil War is underplayed and underutilized as a tourist draw.

“We should really play this up and get tourists coming to our city,” says Hoobler, a Civil War scholar who works as senior curator, art and architecture, at the Tennessee State Museum.

The red-brick building that houses ET Record Shop and other businesses is a prime example.

It was a Union hospital where some of the 9,000 Yankee casualties from one day’s fighting at Stones River in Murfreesboro were brought to heal or die.

The Roberts, retired schoolteachers, are amazed this piece of history in the middle of the Lower Broadway honky-tonk district isn’t noted by a plaque.

“We’re more into the Revolutionary War,” says Pamela, pointing out how the City of Brotherly Love directs visitors to historic sites. “I’m used to all the plaques on buildings that tell such and such a Revolutionary War thing happened there.”

Store manager Steve Bowen and his helper, Victor Black, are ready to share it if anyone asks.

“We don’t get many requests for Civil War stuff,” Bowen notes. “And I’m guilty as well. I don’t know Nashville’s Civil War history. I should.”

There’s even an old photo of the Union Hospital over on the wall – surrounded by pictures of country music’s big stars and above a display for small poster-sized photos of Elvis with his friend Johnny Cash.

That photo was among 350 Tennessee images discovered by Hoobler in research at the National Archives in Washington. They were shot by photographer George Barnard, who followed Sherman’s March.

Black, a Civil War enthusiast, laughs as he stomps his right foot on the ancient hardwood. “Some say that this building is filled with spirits of the soldiers who died here.” He doesn’t question that.

Thomas Starn, a visitor from Lansing, Mich., has been to Nashville three or four times. He not only knows nothing of the ghosts, he is unaware of the proximity of Civil War bloodshed.

“I thought the closest Civil War site was the Alamo,” he says, as he ponders purchasing a Merle Haggard CD. “Can’t beat the Hag.”

When told the Alamo wasn’t a Civil War site, but that this building was, his eyes twinkle.

“That’s cool,” he says. “I love history. And I love Nashville. I’d like to know more about the Civil War here.”

Civil War spirits aren’t just walking the floors of ET’s record store. Downtown Presbyterian Church, a couple blocks away, also served as a hospital. As did the state Capitol building, which became Fort Andrew Johnson during the war. Many of those 9,000 Union casualties from Stones River bled out on floors now trod by legislators, lobbyists and the governor.

Both Belmont Mansion and Belle Meade Plantation served as headquarters for various forces during the Battle of Nashville. Graves and markers for dead soldiers are at National Cemetery on Gallatin Pike, City Cemetery on Fourth Avenue and at the Hermitage.

For many years, the Battle of Nashville Peace Monument was isolated and ignored as it punctuated a lonely knoll across I-65 from 100 Oaks. It since has been relocated to a small park near Granny White Pike and Interstate 440. That interstate, by the way, pretty much outlines the Confederate forward line during the Battle of Nashville.

A large part of the problem in encouraging Civil War tourism is that there are no massive, wide-open sites to explore, as there are at Stones River National Battlefield in Murfreesboro and at Historic Franklin’s sites.

In Franklin, the Civil War industry booms, thanks to community fervor and preservation that has three historic battle-weary homes – Carter House, Carnton Plantation and the Lotz House – and the battlefield (formerly a golf course) to welcome visitors.

In Nashville, where residential development has pretty much covered the land that was soaked with blood from both sides, tourism officials are somewhat stymied.

At the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau headquarters on the lower level of the Bridgestone Arena, the Battle of Nashville isn’t ignored, but other than a map of a driving tour through Nashville neighborhoods and info about the old mansions and cemeteries, there’s not much information available.

Molly Sudderth, CVB director of communications, says the organization promotes Civil War tourism and even hosted a press tour earlier this year, but some of its greatest success comes from tying hotel rooms in Music City in with events at tourist attractions nearby.

“If Carnton Plantation is having a special event, we may take that and try and package it with a hotel room in Nashville,” she says, pointing out that the annual re-enactment in Franklin and other booming historic sites bleed cash into Nashville hotels and restaurants. “I will say that Franklin does a good bit more, being that the majority of sites are there.”

Terry Clements, CVB vice president of government and community relations, defines the truest problem of drawing Civil War tourism here: “Most of our visitors want everything packaged in a nice, neat little bundle, where they can just go there, see this; go there, see that.”

The hill out by Greer Stadium in South Nashville is a launching point, though. “The addition of the Fort Negley interpretation center has been the best thing that has happened as far as letting the visitor have a place to go,” Clements adds.

Krista Castillo, Negley museum coordinator, says the old entrenchment on the hill overlooking the Nashville skyline has opened some eyes – among natives as well as tourists.

“Most locals have no idea that the fort is here, and they know very little about Civil War heritage in Nashville, so they are very surprised to see a 4-acre stone fort sitting on the hill,” she says, noting visitation has steadily increased since the fort was rescued from urban obscurity in 2004.

Negley had 10,329 visitors in 2010, up more than a thousand from the year before. By comparison, Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro attracts more that 200,000 a year.

Some are visitors who just get curious and stop in as they drive past and see the historic marker or the visitor center.

Some stop as a part of bus tours that leave downtown hotels and travel to the few local sites before rolling out to Franklin. Hopes are for the fort itself to serve as a hub for such tourism.

She says this four-year sesquicentennial celebration is a prime opportunity for visitors to learn more about Nashville’s Civil War history, and the fort is taking advantage of the amped-up interest by scheduling encampments and demonstrations.

“For some reason the opportunity to see soldiers and campsites really draws people in,” she says. Nothing like a regiment of rifle-firing union troops and an Abe Lincoln or two to draw people off the street to see just what the heck is going on.

While praising state and city tourism efforts, she says “I think we could do a better job of publicizing Civil War tourism.” She’s particularly interested in cross-marketing with other, better-known tour sites.

The fact most area residents overlook the Battle of Nashville’s history could be sworn to by the thousands who commute to work daily from south of the city, zooming obliviously right past the site of perhaps the bloodiest part of the Battle of Nashville.

Once a part of the Overton family’s Travellers Rest Plantation, the easiest way to identify Peach Orchard Hill is to look up at Franklin Road Academy’s jumbo U.S. flag, waving high above the southwest corner of the intersection of Harding Place and Interstate 65.

The battle took place on that hill and in the area below, now filled by the interstate, a Cracker Barrel, Radnor yards and other asphalt development.

Harding Place actually cuts right through the hill, according to Brian Allison, interim curator at Travellers Rest.

“It’s one of the bloodiest, least-acknowledged sites” of the Civil War, Allison says. “It’s where the United States Colored Troops fought and took heavy losses taking the hill from the Confederate defenders.”

Union troops eventually took the hill, but not until about 1,000 of them – half black and half white – fell.

“Hundreds of people drive over there every day and have no idea of what happened on that hill 150 years ago,” Allison adds.

A humble highway sign dubs the long stretch of Harding passing over that transportation gulch “Lee-Steedman Memorial Bridge,” named for Stephen D. Lee, the Confederate commander who fought the 13th U.S. Colored Troops … commanded by James B. Steedman.

Travellers Rest itself has a lot of Civil War History and is one of the few places people can actually walk ground trod by both sides of the Battle of Nashville.

“The house is restored basically to the time period of the 1830s, before the Civil War,” says Allison, adding there are many reminders of the Confederate occupation, including an autograph book containing the signatures of 12 Confederate generals, 29 other officers and the Confederate governor of Tennessee.”

“It’s important for people to come to this site because Nashville’s battlefield is lost,” he says. “Some of the heaviest fighting is where Green Hills is now, where the Girl Scout Center is on Granny White Pike.

“People come here from Minnesota. It is where Minnesota lost its most troops.” Many of those troops fell in the area now occupied by the Burton Hills commercial and residential development in Green Hills.

The State Museum’s Hoobler notes one Confederate redoubt – an artillery fortification – is preserved on Benham Avenue near Hillsboro and Woodmont. Another redoubt has been preserved in the Abbotsford development off Abbot Martin Road.

Shy’s Hill, another Confederate fortification, is accessible on Benton Smith Road, near Hillsboro and Harding Place.

While much has been lost, an upcoming display at Travellers Rest – “Voices from the Battlefield” -- renews focus on the Battle of Nashville. Allison says it will concentrate on the personal stories, correspondence, diaries and other written records by participants.

Allison says he agrees that the potential for tourism here is underutilized. While it’s no Gettysburg, filled with monuments and plaques, “it’s the location of one of the greatest and most decisive Union victories of the whole conflict,” he says.

Philip Duer, president of the Battle of Nashville Preservation Society, says his group aggressively attempts to inform Nashvillians and visitors about the role the city played.

“We’ve been involved with trying to get Fort Negley off the ground,” he says. “We are trying to get people interested in what happened here. Most people don’t know there was a battle here.”

His group stages events, is responsible for markers and plaques at some sites around Nashville, and also supplies tourists with maps for a driving tour.

The Battle of Nashville encompassed “one of the largest battlefields of the Civil War, and the fact there aren’t a lot of physical sites to send tourists is a detriment,” he says.

“Nashville sits on the battlefield. In Franklin, you have a concentrated area where the battle occurred,” Duer says. “It’s easier for people to see that battlefield because not much of that has changed. Here most of it is in subdivisions.”

The group is looking at a couple of pieces of open property to actually give visitors physical locations to plant their feet where the battle was waged.

And, like the CVB, he and his group want to piggyback on the success down in Franklin, trying to coax people who visit Franklin to “come to Nashville to get the whole picture.” He envisions a cooperative effort that creates a battle corridor from Spring Hill, through Williamson County and up to Nashville.

Nashville’s further participation is being spurred on by the mayor, according to Hoobler, who says “he’s interested in the Civil War and he wants us to have a commemoration of it.”

No, it’s not got the “oomph” of sites in Franklin and Murfreesboro, but there are things that can be done to turn Nashville into a Civil War tourist destination.

In addition to the historic sites people can drive by or visit, he encourages people to make use of his free resource in downtown Nashville.

“The State Museum has one of the finest collections of Civil War stuff and people don’t know about it.

“The CVB and the Chamber are driven by the bottom-line, the dollar. Because we are free, there’s not an economic incentive that’s perceived by them,” Hoobler says. “Even if they don’t pay to come in here, they are going to buy lunch; they are going to spend the night.

“If people came here and had a hotel room, they could spend two, four, five nights here,” he says. “They could stay here and go to Fort Donelson (in Dover) for a day, Franklin, Murfreesboro, Shiloh. There’s a number of day trips they could do from here.

“We can really play this up and get tourists coming to our city.”

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