APSU students join area historians in exploring Fort Defiance
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Located on a bluff some 200 feet above the meeting point of the Red and Cumberland Rivers, Fort Defiance served a significant role in Clarksville’s participation in the Civil War. Viewed by Confederates as an ideal site to defend the river approach to Clarksville, the fort eventually was captured by Union forces, who occupied the site for the remainder of the war. Under Union control, the fort and its surrounding area served as a beacon for freed and runaway slaves, who found employment, education or safe passage through the site.
After the war, the site was abandoned and mostly forgotten, until recent efforts led to its rediscovery and the construction of what is now the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center, a 1,500-square-foot memorial and education center located on the former site of the fort and its surrounding area.
Still, there are many stories of the Fort and its surrounding area left untold, and Austin Peay State University History Club students recently spent their summer researching various aspects of its history. At a recent event, students joined area historians in presenting their findings as a part of a collaboration between Austin Peay and Clarksville Parks and Recreation.
“Over the summer, I met with (history club members) and we hammered out some different research topics that they could work on,” Dr. Kelly Jones, Austin Peay assistant history professor, said. “There weren’t any grades, credit or money involved in the work the students were doing over the summer – it was just people being nerds about history in their free time.”
The topics covered by current Austin Peay students and area historians focused on the communities and individuals that made up Civil War-era Clarksville – many of which, like the site itself, had become lost to history.
Kate DiStefano, a current graduate student working toward a master’s degree in military history, presented the research she and fellow Austin Peay student Aricia Broadway had conducted on the all-but-forgotten Green Hill Cemetery in the former community of New Providence. Although New Providence was absorbed into what is now the city of Clarksville, the gravesite itself has fallen into disrepair and many of those buried onsite are unidentified by current records.
“This was a chance for Kate and Aricia to really do some detective work,” Jones said. “Green Hill Cemetery is a historically African American cemetery, and is now a site filled with unmarked graves and a lot of overgrowth. Documents suggest that the site was once one church’s property, then became another church’s property and no one is sure who is responsible for that plot of land.”
The two Austin Peay students spent their summer building a database of those buried at the site. Using what little information was visible on the remaining headstones, as well as historical records including birth and death records, DiStefano and Broadway were able to build a spreadsheet that identified many internments that were previously unknown to historians.
“There ended up being a lot of genealogical value in the spreadsheet Kate and Aricia compiled, and we had people coming up to them after their presentation asking to get their hands on that information,” Jones said. “What was really great was that their findings helped to stir up a small preservation society of the Green Hill Cemetery that are starting to talk about getting together to preserve that property.”
A senior history major and current president of the History Club, Sara Alexander presented her general findings on New Providence. Although Alexander was still early in her research, the presentation began the event and set the stage for the remainder of the speakers.
“In terms of development, Sara’s research is still early, but it was a nice way to start off the event because it discussed the community of New Providence and talked about the historical processes of that area,” Jones said.
Jones said that events like the one at Fort Defiance serve a number of important roles for both students and historians. While it produces real work that benefits the understanding of the people, places and things that defined sites like Fort Defiance, it also gives students a chance to step outside of the classroom and gain an understanding of what could await them in their professional careers.
“I want students to get an understanding of what it’s like to interact with their professors, as well as historians, in a professional setting,” Jones said. “These students are all budding historians in their own way, and getting a chance to present their findings in a setting like this gives them a chance to interact with people as a colleague and not a student. That brings a difference in mindset, and I thought that our students really carried themselves well.”
For more information on the Austin Peay Department of History, visit www.apsu.edu/history. To find out more about the Fort Defiance Interpretive Center, visit www.cityofclarksville.com/index.aspx?page=161.