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common ground

The State of the States
Summer 1999

Online Archive

*  Seeking Sites: An Interview with Tennessee State Archeologist Sam Smith

(photo) Native American tribal member circa 1908.

"There were more battles, skirmishes, and troop movements [in Tennessee] than in any other state except Virginia. And that, of course, is reflected in the potential number of sites. "

Sam Smith

The Civil War came to Tennessee on a grand scale. Union forces, invading along the state's waterways, attempted to seize strategic rail hubs, forts, and supply centers. The stakes were high, the struggle fierce. Over a century later, archeologists examining the state's inventory of sites were puzzled to find few from the period. With grants from the Department of Interior, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology looks to change that. Here state archeologist Sam Smith talks about his approach, a departure from examining the big battles and generals to surveying the remains of camps, foundries, hospitals, and supply depots–in short, sketching a broad canvas for understanding the war's human dimensions.

Common Ground: Tell us a bit about the remains of the war in Tennessee.

Sam Smith: There were more battles, skirmishes, and troop movements here than in any other state except Virginia. And, that, of course, is reflected in the potential number of sites. Middle Tennessee, and particularly Nashville, was the main supply center for federal forces in the western theater. Consequently, starting fairly early in the war, it was one of the most heavily fortified cities, in some ways comparable to Richmond but still different in terms of being on the western frontier.

Common Ground: Why did you decide to survey these sites?

Smith: Their absence began to stick out like a sore thumb in our state site database. Around 1986, I had a crew member–Fred Proudy–who had literally grown up involved with the history of the war. He'd been a re-enactor for 20 years or as well as a collector of all kinds of memorabilia. During the first of our projects together, we started talking about Civil War sites. I knew we didn't have many recorded, but when I finally found an opportunity to check, I was really surprised there were so few. When we started our first regional survey, of middle Tennessee, we discovered that only about 8 or 9 sites had been recorded. Statewide, the total was less than 20. I knew that was a vast underrepresentation. Today, the statewide total is 443.

Our intent was simply to record as many sites as possible, with the understanding that some might become research candidates if they got in the way of a public project like a proposed interstate.

Common Ground: Were the surveys done with an eye towards getting these sites on the National Register of Historic Places?

Smith: As an archeologist, I find myself more interested in the potential for Register eligibility than in actually seeing a site listed. That's simply because listing doesn't really do anything to protect the site. And, I have to worry a bit about the increased visibility.

Common Ground: How many are eligible?

Smith: For at least half, I'd say, a case could be made for some level of significance, if not eligibility. In many instances, it would require archeological testing to answer that question.

Common Ground: Why didn't these sites come to prominence sooner?

Smith: Historical archeology only began to form in the 1950s and 60s, when the Civil War was barely a hundred years old. There was more interest in older things. By the time we started looking at the Civil War as a phenomenon, we were already so far behind the relic collectors it was almost embarrassing. The truth is, you have to really know a lot about the war and particular artifact classes to sit down and carry out an intelligent conversation with some of these people. Some are true authorities. It was a period of stand-offishness.

Also, we were purely driven, for the most part, by the underlying economics of what we do. I had relatively little control over where excavations were carried out. It was a matter of who had the money, such as a local organization managing a historic property.

Federal preservation law changed that. But the federal preservation program is not directed at specific kinds of properties. So far, excavations driven purely by preservation law have not hit that many Civil War sites. But, it is starting to happen here and in other states. Eventually, that's going to make a major change.

Common Ground: How does your approach, which focuses on establishing context, differ from one that focuses on individual sites?

Smith: Well, they aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. But from my perspective, in focusing on an individual site, the significance is going to come primarily from what historians have had to say about it. In focusing on context, however, something that may have little significance in the traditional sense may take on a great deal of archeological significance.

For example, in middle Tennessee we have what were called blockhouses related to the federal maintenance of the railway system. Most of the black troops were stationed at these sites, yet they are very poorly represented in the historical record. The only time they show up is when a famous figure like Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked one, and even then they appear only briefly. So, if we were trying to select one for its historical significance, we would probably pick one like that. When we look at these sites as a group, however, they can tell us a lot about the day-to-day life of these soldiers.

Common Ground: Did you talk to any of the descendants of these troops or find any letters or other documents related to them?

Smith: The Civil War is one of the most documented phenomena in American history, yet the written sources can be obscure and scattered about the country. It's at least possible that there might be some documentation out there but, in terms of the official histories, this kind of site has not been given much treatment anywhere.

Common Ground: Any other fruitful candidates for further research?

Smith: The numerous encampment sites we've surveyed. There's already been at least two projects dealing with camps in East Tennessee that used our survey as a blueprint to lay out the context.The archeological work, in turn, has further elucidated day-to-day life in the camps.

One site is where the federals camped just before General Longstreet's siege of Knoxville. The other, in a place called Loudon, was one of several federal outposts encircling the city, at a major crossing of the Tennessee River for the railway. We knew there were winter huts or constructions of some sort there, but nothing in the historical record says what they were like. Now we're getting some very specific information about how the troops were housed and what they ate, that kind of thing.

Common Ground: Were there any unexpected benefits of the surveys?

Smith: They helped point out the need for preserving these sites, which were not well known and whose destruction is serious and ongoing. Fred, who went on to do a regional survey for the western part of the state, was put in charge of the newly created Tennessee Wars Commission.

Common Ground: What qualifications do you need to do these surveys?

Smith: I didn't have expertise in the Civil War and that's where Fred was a big asset, because he had the knowledge and the contacts. It almost always needs to be a team effort where you've got people skilled in different areas, not just in carrying out survey work, but also in understanding the subject.

Common Ground: How did you work with the collectors?

Smith: There's a veritable army of them in this state, and they come in a wide range of personality types. Some have no use for us at all, others have made major contributions in a short period of time.

They tend to be territorial. In several counties we were quickly directed to the local authority on the war. Some spent a day or two riding around with us, pointing out the sites and telling us everything they knew.

Often you know from the documentation that the sites are there, but it can be extremely difficult to get to the spot on the ground where the action took place. These collectors, some of them spend their entire lives, almost, researching this phenomena. When they're willing to cooperate, that really speeds up the process.

Common Ground: You've mentioned a bias–because of proliferating metal detectors–toward interpreting the war using metal items. Have you been able to educate collectors to see more from an archeological perspective?

Smith: Many are quite receptive. Fred started out a collector and now he's in charge of an entire preservation program. It's just that they sometimes see things both ways.

A common argument is, if we don't collect these artifacts, they're going to be destroyed. Of course, that's a terribly false argument in a lot of cases. Some rural sites have no probability of being destroyed in the next 100 years. But, you know, there's a lot of variation in what collectors think. Some are good, some are in it strictly for mercenary reasons and they don't want anyone infringing on their rights. On the other hand, many appreciate that archeology provides more information than what they can get with a metal detector.

Common Ground: How aware are Tennesseeans of this richness of resource?

Smith: There's a great deal of awareness of the war. And we've got national battlefields like Shiloh. But I don't think there's much awareness of what's out there other than the battlefields.

Common Ground: You have a large Union imprint on what was once a Confederate state. Has that been a challenge in terms of interpreting the war to present-day residents, many of whom descend from the state's original inhabitants?

Smith: Tennessee is a state in transition. There's almost a humorous phenomenon at work here. The Union's Fort Negley, one of the country's largest inland fortifications, was reconstructed as a WPA project in the 1930s. Because of local sentiment I suppose, once the WPA era was over the whole thing fell into a period of abandonment. Well, just in the last 10 years, there's been a major effort to reconstruct it into a showcase for interpreting the war in Middle Tennessee. We've gone full circle on that one.

I don't suppose there's much opposition because there's general recognition that yes, this probably is the best feature as far as something to interpret the war.

Common Ground: What's the main obstacle to preserving these sites?

Smith: Well, the big one is that the vast majority are privately owned so there's no control over their continued existence. We've got cases where we know the landowner is dedicated to seeing the site preserved, and we've got cases where the landowner has already destroyed the site since we were last there. That lack of control makes preservation very problematic.

Common Ground: Earlier you touched on the problem that preservation inherently heightens a site's visibility. How do you handle site locations in the public record?

Smith: We simply list totals by county. That's as close as we come with a location. The problem is, it's almost a no-win situation, because the collectors, if they've been doing it for any length of time, know where the sites are anyway. If you don't put the information out in some form, you can't make the argument that there's something to be preserved. If you do put the information out, you're setting up some potential for problems.

Common Ground: Do you have computerized records?

Smith: We have a state site file with a curator whose full-time job is to administer it. Right now, the file is for people doing legitimate research or working for archeological contracting firms.

Common Ground: Why would a contractor–excavating a blockhouse site in advance of a new hospital, say–use one of your surveys?

Smith: Because of the time and money saved in understanding the relationship of the site to the larger whole. The surveys map out the context for them.

Common Ground: Exactly how does that work? Are the surveys in the form of an actual map?

Smith: Both of our Civil War surveys, published in report form, are sent out free to all interested researchers and archeology contractors. They are also available in university libraries and in Tennessee's archeological report repositories in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Memphis, and here in Nashville.

Common Ground: I'm sure our readers will want to know–how do you pay for initiatives like these?

Smith: With Department of Interior survey and planning grants [through NPS], allocated to the Tennessee Historical Commission for administering. We've been doing surveys that way since about 1957. They're match grants, Interior provides 60 percent, we kick in 40. The commission reports the survey results back to Interior for evaluation, that's the basis for subsequent grants. We've generally gotten good feedback from everyone over the years, and the money keeps coming.

Common Ground: Do you have any advice for other states looking to do these kinds of surveys?

Smith: I've never really understood why we have been so alone in this approach. Because almost every state has the potential to tap the grants. I assume it has something to do with the political environments in those states. Some have very small archeology programs, if any, and don't have the resources to attract the money. Or, they don't have very high priority in the state's system. We don't have a lot of priority ourselves. I guess we've been lucky in that, over the years, I've shared a lot of staff with the commission, which directs how the monies are spent. That's made it possible for us.