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Fort Pickering

Memphis’s strategic position on the Mississippi River made it an early target of Union forces following the outbreak of the American Civil War. A fleet of Union gunboats, fresh from their victory at Island Number 10, steamed toward Memphis in early June 1862. They met and decimated the Confederate fleet on June 6, and Union forces quickly took control of the city and turned in into a strategic point of command.

Most Memphis residents were sympathetic to the Confederate cause; holding the city securely would mean being able to both control the local population and repel any Confederate attacks from the south. As such, one of the first orders of business for the Union army was the construction of a new Fort Pickering.

The Memphis bluffs had already been home to a number of military fortifications, including French Fort Assumption, Spanish Fort Fernando de las Barrancas, and early American Fort Adams. The first Fort Pickering, a frontier station and trading post, was built in 1798 and remained in operation until 1814. A small town grew up around the fort and was later incorporated into Memphis during a period of rapid growth in the mid 1800s.

The new Fort Pickering dwarfed these earlier constructions. Built largely through the labor of freed and escaped slaves, or contrabands, the fortification spanned a length of nearly 2 miles along the south Memphis bluffs. The main line consisted of an indented earthen parapet and ditch outfitted with 55 guns of various types and calibers. Within this fortification the Army built or adapted the numerous structures needed to serve the large number of troops living in and passing through the fort; these structures included a keep, hospital, railroad depot, ordnance depot, water works, and saw mill, among others.

The Fort Pickering defenses were never put to the test, and the Union army held Memphis throughout the war. The fort was decommissioned and demolished in 1866, and a vibrant residential area grew in its former location until it too was demolished during an urban renewal project in 1960.

For uncertain reasons, Fort Pickering has received little attention from the historical community. It was not until recently, when the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) designed a series of interchange improvements near the I-55 Mississippi River bridge, that the site drew the attention of archaeologists and cultural resource specialists.

Under contract with TDOT, Weaver & Associates initiated an extensive Phase I survey in 2007 designed to determine if remnants of the Civil War era Fort Pickering still remained intact within the project right-of-way. Staff members excavated 12 trenches and one large rectangular block with the aid of a backhoe. Once the excavations were cleaned, archaeologists identified 46 subsurface features, including two cisterns, brick foundation piers, and numerous post molds. The most significant discovery, however, was evidence of the Civil War period defensive parapet and ditch. This indicated that intact Civil War period deposits still existed in the area once occupied by the fort, and researchers recommended that Phase II testing be conducted before construction activities began.

Weaver & Associates staff used the results of the Phase I investigation to generate an excavation plan and a series of research objectives prior to initiating Phase II field excavations. Once the Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office and TDOT signed off on the plan, our staff returned to the site in the summer of 2009 with a large crew and began thoroughly testing the site.

Three loci of activity were investigated during the Phase II investigation. Locus 1, located in the center of the site, included the area where the ditch and parapet were identified during the Phase I investigations. Specific goals within this area included further delineation of this outer fortification, including a salient shown on historical maps of the fort. Ten 10-x-10-m blocks were excavated in this area, and more than 100 subsurface features identified. Of particular interest were three Civil War period post alignments located interior to the parapet. By examining historical military manuals, researchers were able to determine the probable function of all three alignments. Two of the alignments ran parallel to the outer fortifications and probably served to hold a retaining wall. The other, which ran perpendicular to the parapet, was likely a traverse built as added protection for troops.

Locus 2 was located within the western portion of the site within an area interior to the fort’s outer fortifications. Sketches of the fort indicated that this area may have been used as a living area by troops manning the fort’s outer defenses. Four 10-x-10-m blocks were excavated and nearly 90 cultural features identified. Analysis of the artifacts from these features revealed that many of them dated to a turn-of-the-century residential occupation, not the mid 1800s. Some intact Civil War period features were identified, however, including a hearth, three shallow basins, and four linear stains that may represent drip lines.

Locus 3 was located within the eastern portion of the site and exterior to the fort. Historical records indicated that this area would have been cleared of any structures, trees, or other obstacles in order to minimize available cover if the fort was ever attacked. Two 10-x-10-m blocks were excavated in this area, and 14 cultural features identified. None of these features dated to the Civil War occupation of the site.

The investigations at Fort Pickering were largely successful in addressing the research objectives generated through the Phase I investigations. By clearly defining several anchor points that could be tied into both historical maps of the fort and modern satellite images of Memphis, researchers were able to superimpose a footprint of the fort and the location of the keep, various batteries, and other fortifications on modern maps. In doing so, future researchers will be able to better direct their investigations at areas with a high potential for intact Civil War era deposits. More importantly, these investigations helped researchers reconstruct the history of the fort and its impact on Memphis and the surrounding region—a chapter in history that had long been overshadowed by other events in local history.

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