Park System Preserves Civil War History

Murray, KY – The Civil War left behind many relics and battle sites in Western Kentucky and Northeastern Tennessee. Paducah, Kentucky, and Dover, Tennessee, are both locations of significant battles. Museums and historic parks chart the events at these places and educate the tourists who visit them. But as Angela Hatton reports not all Civil War sites are so well-known.

Standing in this section of woods in Calloway County, you might not realize you're in the middle of history. Tall deciduous trees have overtaken the area and grow on the dirt banks Confederate soldiers once used as battlements in their fight against the Union army. The manmade dirt barriers known as earthworks are just one of the features left here from the days of the Civil War, when this piece of forest was Fort Heiman, one of three Confederate forts along the Tennessee-Kentucky border.

Y'know, you'd have people that, 'Well, where is Fort Heiman, I've heard of it all my life, but where is it' and you'd tell em. And then 'I've never heard of Fort Heiman.' They didn't even know we had a battlefield in the county, and I said yeah, it's in the very southeast corner.

Sandy Forrest is a member of the local unit of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He and many others worked for nearly ten years to buy the land. Through grants and donations, they gathered a million dollars to purchase Fort Heiman for the National Parks Service.

In February of 2006 was when we turned it over to the parks system.

Since 2006, Fort Heiman has been the responsibility of Steve McCoy. He's park manager for Fort Donelson in Dover, Tennessee. He says the battles that took place in the area at Forts Donelson, Henry, and Heiman were critical to the downfall of many southern cities.

If this defense fell here it's open all the way to Mussel Shoals, Alabama, and to North Alabama. And they knew, they understood, that this was the opening to the Heartland of the Confederacy.

Forts Donelson and Henry were built to protect the south's river supply routes, but McCoy says Henry was badly located.

If you came from the landward side to Fort Henry, you'd be shooting down into the fort. Or if you crossed the river to the high bluffs on the other side of the river, you'd be shooting down into Fort Henry. And therefore that's what prompted Fort Heiman. They eliminated one of those threats and that was the high bluffs on the other side of the river.

But the confederate troops didn't start their fortification work early enough, having only a month before enemy engagement.

Construction began in January of 1862 and the battle for Fort Henry took place in February, February 6 of 1862.

Soldiers had just built the earthworks when the Union troops attacked. Fort Heiman had no heavy cannons and was outmatched in weapons. About three thousand soldiers evacuated to Fort Henry, and the Union army began a year and a half occupation at Fort Heiman.

Today, sunken places in the woods show wear Union graves have been exhumed and the soldiers' bodies moved to the National Cemetery at Shiloh, Tennessee. Farther on a dirty waterhole is all that remains of a powder magazine. McCoy hopes someday signs will help visitors make sense of the hidden history at Fort Heiman, but he has some paperwork to get through first.

There's never been any appropriated money to develop or plan or do anything with Fort Heiman yet.

Distance is also an issue, with Fort Heiman located twenty-two miles away from the park that manages it. With his main park underfunded as well, McCoy has had to be creative in how he uses some of the money from Fort Donelson to help get Fort Heiman up and running.

As positions are, people retire, positions are lapsed and not filled and we take that savings and we had entrance signs developed for Fort Heiman.

A public meeting in Murray, Kentucky, is another one of the small steps the National Park Service is taking toward getting Fort Heiman ready for visitors. At the meeting, local residents get to speak directly to those in charge. Ideas for renovation are recorded on a giant notepad. Residents want brush cleaned off the earthworks, they want walking trails, and they want Fort Heiman to be a destination for school groups. McCoy would like to see those ideas become reality too, but he's realistic about when they will happen.

With Heiman, I think we're doing all the right things, it's just a matter of time. And I think the more support we get from the public, I think that can help those things.

McCoy says grass roots efforts are essential to getting legislators interested in funding the park. He says once senators and representatives begin to realize how important this area is to the people, they won't hesitate to provide the money to preserve it.