Civil War: Hundreds of Slaves May Be Buried Under Nashville Baseball Stadium

Greer Stadium. Wikimedia Commons

An abandoned baseball field in Tennessee might cover hundreds of Civil War-era slave graves. The Tennessean reported that an archaeological inspection of Greer Stadium in Nashville found a "high likelihood of human remains."

A preliminary review originally contracted in October by Megan Barry, mayor of Nashville, by Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research incorporated ground-penetrating radar to image underneath the stadium field. The Tennessean, which obtained a summary of those initial findings, completed in November, through a public records request, reported that a team is returning to the site with "ground-truthing" equipment. These tools, often used in map making and remote sensing, will allow them to dig beneath the surface and make a more detailed assessment. The researchers are scheduled to issue a final report later this month.

The mayor's office is considering the minor-league stadium, once home to the Nashville Sounds, for redevelopment. According to The Tennessean, the plan is contentious because Greer Stadium is situated just downhill from Fort Negley, which slaves and former slaves built during the Civil War. The mayor intends to replace the stadium with the proposed Cloud Hill development, a project co-led by music producer T Bone Burnett and that would include housing, retail, entertainment and park space. Opponents to the project suspected that the site held the remains of hundreds of buried slaves, according to The Tennessean. They are advocating for Greer to be repurposed instead as a public park honoring the fort's African-American builders. The redevelopment work is on hold pending the results of the archaeological review.

"Fort Negley is not a local treasure, not a state treasure, it's a national treasure," Doug Jones, attorney for the preservation group Friends of Fort Negley, told The Tennessean earlier this year. "And the mayor and a bunch of developers shouldn't be trying to cut some deal in a backroom to erase the history at Fort Negley."

Fort Negley. Wikipedia

The archaeological report noted a "near certainty of the potential presence of buried human remains" in the northwest part of the stadium under the parking lot, but didn't include any hypotheses about to whom they might belong.

"Based on our ground-penetrating radar results, we believe that there is a high likelihood of humans remains (northwest of the stadium)" Virgil Beasley, geophysical senior investigator at Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, wrote in the report according to The Tennessean, "if interments were made in this area historically."

Construction on Fort Negley began in 1862. According to Nashville Public Radio, the Union Army conscripted slaves and former slaves alike to build it. Historian Bobby Lovett told the station that African-American men and women, some as young as 13, were forced to build the stone fort whether they'd been born free or as slaves. Union officers often did this by ambushing worshippers leaving black churches.

"They just simply wait until the church services are good and loud and the cavalry surrounds the little building and they march every able-bodied person out," Lovett told the station of what transpired outside his own church, First Baptist Capitol Hill.

Federal soldiers at Fort Negley.

According to the non-profit African-American Registry, Negley became the largest Union fort west of Washington D.C. All of its laborers were black, and hundreds died from exposure and on-site accidents.

"To the credit of the colored population be it said, they worked manfully and cheerfully, with hardly an exception, and yet lay out upon the works at night under armed guard, without blankets and eating only army rations," Captain James S. Morton, the army engineer in charge, said upon the fort's completion on December 7, 1862, according to AAR. "They worked in squads military-like companies, each gang choosing their own officers; one was often amused to hear the Negro captains call out: 'You boys over there, let them picks fall easy, or they might hurt somebody.'"