Curious Nashville: How An Unusual Flag Helps Tell City's Civil War History | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: How An Unusual Flag Helps Tell City's Civil War History

Aug 1, 2016

Eagle-eyed visitors to Nashville's Civil War-era Fort Negley may have noticed something a little bit different about the United States flag that flies near the visitor's center. As Topher Fleming asks:

Why is there a 35 star flag flying over Ft Negley?

The simple answer is the 35 stars represent how many states there were at the time of the Civil War — just as the 50 stars on today's flag stand for the 50 states.

But Krista Castillo, the museum coordinator at Fort Negley, says the flag tells a deeper story about Nashville during the conflict.

"I think it's a great example of psychological warfare. You know they put this huge flagpole on top of a hill that looms down on the city. The fort was bristling with cannons. And then they top it off with the biggest American flag they could find."

No one knows exactly how big the flag over Fort Negley was, but sketches and photographs taken during the Civil War show that the flag was huge, says Castillo. It flew atop a flagpole that soared 80 feet in the air.

The flagpole itself was sited at the highest point in Fort Negley, and the fort stood 260 feet above the Cumberland River.

The flag would have been one of the most visible sights in Nashville. Only the Tennessee State Capitol would have rivaled it. And it, too, flew the American flag.

"There was no misconception about who was in control," says Castillo.

There were actually only 34 stars on the American flag when Nashville surrendered to Union forces in January 1862, less than a year after the outbreak of the Civil War. The number didn't go to 35 stars until 1863, when West Virginia was added to the Union, and it increased again to 36 stars two years later with the addition of Nevada.

All three flags likely flew over Fort Negley.

Strategic Importance

Nashville was the first Confederate state capital to fall, surrendering to Union forces in January 1862, less than a year after the Civil War began. But all was not peaceful after that. For the next several months, Nashville was a besieged city, says Castillo.

A map at the Fort Negley visitors center shows the fortifications around Nashville during the Civil War.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Union and Confederate troops skirmished frequently outside Nashville's borders, prompting the Union to build a chain of forts around the city's perimeter. Construction on Fort Negley began in August 1862.

The fort was placed on a hill near three of the major roads into Nashville — Murfreesboro Pike, Nolensville Pike and Franklin Pike — and overlooking the convergence of several railroad lines, as well as a large depot. The location also gave Union forces a clear view to the south.

"Between the two bastions, at least I'm told by our signal corps historians, on a clear day you can 30 miles," says Castillo, "and it's a pretty impressive view to the south."

Confederate commanders recognized the Union would have a much firmer grip on Nashville if Fort Negley were completed. While the fort was still under construction, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attempted in November, 1862 to retake the city with about 1,000 cavalrymen. They were beaten back — thanks in part, Castillo says, to the artillery already in place at Fort Negley.

The fort was finished the next month and named after commander James Scott Negley. Its opening would usher in a period of relative calm. Confederate forces wouldn't threaten Nashville again until December 1864. In a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war, General John Bell Hood marched on the city, setting up camp in what is now Green Hills.

But Hood had no intention of trying to conquer Fort Negley directly. He was badly outnumbered and hoped to lure Union forces out in the open. And after a two-week standoff, Union soldiers finally did march out of the city, setting off the fighting that would come to be known as the "Battle of Nashville." The Union won handily, driving the rebel forces back.

An early sketch of the layout of Fort Negley shows the compound would bristle with heavy artillery. Much of it was shipped upriver from naval vessels.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

"The Battle of Nashville gets most of the hype. In my opinion, the narrative, the story is the occupation of Nashville, and the battle is that exclamation point," says Castillo.

"We often hear from visitors: Well if the fort wasn't attacked, what's the point? But that's exactly the point. The fort was meant to look so frightening that people wouldn't want to attack the city. And it worked."

In Civil War-era Nashville, Fort Negley was the ultimate embodiment of force. And the big American flag at the fort's top was the ultimate reminder that the Union called the shots.  

Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN