...Memphis'  Historic Civil War Fort



Fort Pickering was built as a strategic command post for the Union army during the Civil War, and stretched nearly 2 miles along the south Memphis bluffs from where DeSoto Park (Chicasaw Heritage Park) is located, all the way to Beale Street.  It was outfitted with 55 guns and included structures needed to serve the large number of troops living in Memphis and those passing through.  The Indian mounds were hollowed out and artillery was placed there, along with an ammunition bunker which was dug into the side of the mound.  Buildings included a hospital, rail depot, water works and a saw mill.    The fort was decommissioned and demolished in 1866.


Fort Pickering

Sherman's Lookout 1865

Wm. Sherman 1862

Ulysses S. Grant 1863




The location of Fort Pickering .  There is no trace of the Fort, today.



In June of 1862, a fleet of Union gunboats quickly defeated the Confederate fleet in the Battle of Memphis.  From then on, Memphis became an occupied city during the Civil War.  As such, the first order of business for the Union army was the construction of a new Fort Pickering on the Memphis bluffs.  It was a major fortification which included a number of structures needed to serve the large number of troops who would be passing through.   However Fort Pickering defenses were never put to the test and the Union army held Memphis throughout the war.  After Fort Pickering was demolished in 1866, all traces of the fort were removed and  Memphis forgot about it - until 2007, when there was interest about the possibility of finding Civil War remnants still around.  Trenches were excavated and archaeologists were able to identify two cisterns, brick foundation piers, and particularly, evidence of the defensive parapet and ditch.  Further excavations found very few actual Civil War items.  They had been thorough in the demolition of 1866.  The items that were found were mostly  evidence of an earlier residential area of  a young Memphis.


The "Dig"






Pickering Marker




During the Civil War, 275,000 slaves abandoned farms and towns at news of the Union Army’s approach. In the summer of 1862, as General Ulysses S. Grant’s army entered slaveholding territory around Memphis, hordes of hungry. poorly clad fugitive slaves surrounded them. Grant ordered Chaplain John Eaton to requisition surplus tents, blankets, rations, and tools to establish a camp for the fugitives, who had been supplying forced labor for the Confederate army.  Runaway slaves were considered contraband property under the Confiscation Act—thus the name “contraband” camps - one at Fort Pickering..


1862 Contrabands


Memphians were not happy with Fort Pickering, especially when a "colored" regiment was established at the fort.  The regiment was  made up of ex-slaves and free-men.  Suddenly here were some of their ex-servants ordering them around.  Not the best of times!  Indeed, an African-American soldier from Fort Pickering figured prominently in the beginnings of the Memphis Race Riot of 1866.  It's no wonder that when the Fort was decommissioned in 1866,  Memphians wanted all traces of it removed - brick by brick.  And they did a good job.


From the Website:  "African American Military History of Memphis"

On April 15, 1863, orders were issued to recruit and muster into service eight companies of colored men for service as heavy artillery at Fort Pickering, Defenses of Memphis. Lieutenant I. G. Kappner was appointed recruiting officer, and the instructions were that each company should have one captain, two lieutenants and an orderly sergeant, who were to be white men. The other non-commissioned officers were to come from the colored recruits. The commissioned and non-commissioned staff officers for the battalion were to be white. The pay and allowances were to be the same as in other artillery organizations in the U. S. Service.


Adjutant General L. Thomas, in a report dated December 24, 1863, listing the colored troops which had been organized since April 1, 1863, listed the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery Regiment (A.D.) with an aggregate strength of 1153 men. His report continued: "The majority of the freedmen manifest a partiality for the military service, and are undoubtedly happy and contented in their position in the army. The sanitary condition of the colored troops has materially improved of late. As far as practicable all the men have been quartered in log huts, and in many cases in comfortable buildings. Every care has been taken to render them efficient as soldiers, and with success.  The 1865 document on the right is signed by Col. William D. Turner, Commander of the Colored troops for receipt of 5 barracks buildings, 11 kitchens, and 1 stable, to be used by the 11th division which was made up mostly of freed slaves.

1865 Document   


On June 30, 1863, the 1st Tennessee Heavy Artillery Regiment (African Descent) with lgnatz G. Kappner as colonel, was reported in Colonel Charles D. Murray's Brigade, Brigadier General James C. Veatch's Division, District of Memphis, Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut's XVI Corps. The regiment served as garrison troops at Fort Pickering, in the Defenses of Memphis, until July 14, 1865. During most of this time, Colonel Kappner was in command of all the troops at Fort Pickering, and the regiment was commanded at various times by Major Emil Smith, Lieutenant Colonel James P. Harper, and Major James E. Williams.

Merriwether Lewis and Fort Pickering - 1809

In September of 1809 Merriwether Lewis was traveling to Washington D.C. to settle accounts for Lewis and Clark drafts he had signed but which were denied by the President.  Upon reaching Fort Pickering, he was acting in a crazed state and had to be restrained for several days.  He was to depart on September 27, accompanied by Captain Gilbert C. Russell.  On the day of his departure, he signed an $379.58 IOU note to Russell for "value received".   It was probably the last thing Merriwether ever signed.  On the way to Nashville via the Natchez Trace ,he died, probably by suicide, October 11. 

Merriwether Lewis

IOU - 1807


The Promissory Note reads:  "I promise to pay to Capt. Gilbert C. Russell on order on or before the 1st day of January next, the sum of three hundred and seventy nine dollars and fifty eight cents for value received.  $379.58.  September 27, 1809.  Merriwether Lewis"  Below that is a notation:  "NVc lent the governor a saddle which he is to leave at Talbot's in Nashville."


Lewis was at Fort Pickering from September 10 to 27, 1809.   He had recurring bouts of malaria which caused a person to hallucinate and to appear crazed.  He was also a heavy drinker with a history of using drugs - all of which could have contributed to his demeanor.  Captain Russell did not accompany Lewis on his final journey, and it is not known what the "value received" in the note refers to.  There are as many people who think Lewis was murdered as those who think he committed suicide - although suicide is the official finding.  Talbot's in Nashville was a B and B Tavern.

Thanks to George Whitworth for sending us this 1809 Promissory Note signed by Merriwether Lewis

Chickasaw Heritage Park and Fort Pickering
Timothy Pickering

The site of Fort Pickering was once the fortress of Chickasaw chief Chisca and features two ceremonial mounds built by Paleo-Indians in the 1500s.  During the Civil War, the mounds were hollowed out and used for gun emplacements and munitions storage. This area, previously known as DeSoto Park, is believed to be where Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto first viewed the Mississippi River in 1541.

Several forts, built by the French, Spanish and Americans have been located in this area. The United States’ first was Fort Adams.  It was built too close to the river and was susceptible to flood and malaria.   In 1801, Fort Adams was renamed and moved to just above the Indian Mounds.  The new name was Fort Pickering, named after George Washington’s Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering.  It lost it's importance after the Louisiana Territory  purchase, and was practically  abandoned in 1806.


A Military Cemetery was officially established for Fort Pickering. The order was signed by William Sherman in 1862.  The location of this cemetery is not known.

Thanks to Thomas Palmer: 

"This document from mentions the location of the cemetery. It appears that the graves were exhumed and moved to Memphis National Cemetery."    12/7/2012   =>



1865 Prison Release  


Pickering Camp in the Summer

Your help in updating any information on this page is appreciated.  Please contact Gene Gill. 


CREDITS: The "Historic-Memphis" Team would like to acknowledge and thank the following organizations for their contributions which helped make this page possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Greater Memphis Chamber, Memphis Flyer, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tom Leatherwood Shelby County Register, Joe Spake, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, and many other individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on individual photos.


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