ECW Weekender: High Ground Park (Fort Higley)

Have you heard of High Ground Park in Knoxville, Tennessee? You’ll definitely want to add it to your list of must-see Civil War site near that city. It’s a well-preserved and interpreted tract of thirty-nine acres which also serves as a wonderful example of how a community can use battlefield land as “community green space.” High Ground Park offers Civil War enthusiasts glimpses of wonderfully preserved earthworks and features a walking/running trail and gathering area for all to enjoy.

When you plan to trip to High Ground Park, prepare for walking an incline. It’s a relatively steep hill down and you’ll come back up that hill too as you return to the parking lot. Follow the trail, looking closely as directed by the ten interpretive signs to see the remainders of the trenches, rifle pits, and other defensive features. It’s a nice walk in any good weather, but the views might be clearer during the late autumn or winter months when the forest foliage is not so dense.

The area preserved as High Ground Park in the modern era was Fort Higley during the 1860’s. Situated on one of the hills across the river from Knoxville, Union troops occupied it in 1863 in a successful attempt to seize high ground points to reduce the siege points available to Longstreet’s Confederates. Union General Burnside, commanding the troops in Knoxville, had his chief engineer examine defense points across the river and this hill became one of three sites for earthwork forts. Historically, during the war, the mostly barren hills would have had clear lines of sight to the city, and the other forts. As the fort was constructed on November 27 and 28, 1864, Union troops worked secretly at night or risked fire from Longstreet’s sharpshooters. Eventually, the fort—named after Captain Joel P. Higley of the 7th Ohio Infantry— had a ring of outer defenses and then an inner line; remains of both are still visible.

The fort had rifle pits for the infantry and protective works for artillery. On the night of November 27, 1863, artillerymen from Battery D of the 1st Ohio Artillery wheeled their cannons into place. The earthen ramp they used to push, pull, and heave the big guns into place on that rainy night can still be seen. When the Confederate sharpshooters could see the fort the next morning, the work was finished and they were staring at Union cannons.

Local research has discovered that the last Union troops to man Fort Higley were African American soldiers of the 1st United States Heavy Artillery, USCT. The unit had been raised in Knoxville and the surrounding East Tennessee area in 1864, allowing freedmen and former enslaved to strike a blow for freedom. Though they did not see battle action in this part of Knoxville’s history, the unit had the important task of guarding the fort and the city. The designation as “heavy artillery” can be a little misleading; the big guns used in fort defense along the coastline in near other large cities were not hauled to Knoxville, so the 1st U.S. Artillery used smaller artillery pieces at Fort Higley and the other defenses.

The trail leads to an open, high ground, meadow area which historically would have offered a view toward Knoxville and the other forts in the area. Today, foliage blocks most of the view, but there is a comfortable seating area here to relax and take-in this historic piece of the great outdoors. Historical reminders have been added here. In addition to interpretive signs, an inset of pavers memorializes the words of Union officer and engineer Orlando Poe: “From these heights artillery fire can be delivered…” It’s a grim reminder that once upon a time this park-like area served a martial purpose with deadly weapons. It’s a place to contemplate the past of war and hope for a future of peace.

High Ground Park

1000 Cherokee Trail, Knoxville, TN

Directions: Take I–40 to US-129 S/Alcoa Hwy and take the Cherokee Trail/UT Medical Center exit. Stay right on Cherokee Trail and go approximately 3 miles. Park will be on the right immediately after the blue watertower.

Open daily from dawn to dusk

Trails Website: http://www.outdoorknoxville.com/places/trails/south/high-ground-park-trails

High Ground Park is special to me because I really learned to explore and “read” earthworks while visiting with a local battlefield guide from the Knoxville CWRT. (Spring 2019)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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2 Responses to ECW Weekender: High Ground Park (Fort Higley)

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    So I am loving those red chairs!

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      I know, right? This is a really splendid way place and so neat to see battlefield preserved and made interesting/accessible for the community.

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