Archaeology and Archives: A Complimentary Approach to the Past

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 16

Marsha Welch
Tennessee Department of Transportation

One of the first projects to land on my desk at TDOT was the Bolivar Bypass, which, as its name suggests, is intended to create an alternative route around the West Tennessee city of Bolivar in Hardeman County. Like all TDOT projects, federal historic preservation laws required that the right-of-way for the Bolivar Bypass had to be studied to determine if any archaeological sites important to our understanding of Tennessee’s history or prehistory will be affected by the construction of this project.

My research on this project began by reviewing archaeological site records and maps at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. There I learned that Hardeman County and its county seat of Bolivar were founded in the 1820s and played a critical role in the Civil War due to its location between the Hatchie River and the Mississippi Central Railroad. Union forces captured Bolivar in 1862 due to its strategic importance and fortified the city with picket stations and rifle pits to defend it against Confederate attack. I also learned that a previous TDOT archaeological study of one of the alternatives for the Bolivar Bypass had identified a large Civil War campsite north of the city, and that early 20th century maps showed the location of a “fort” south of Bolivar, very near our project right-of-way. Knowing this, I expected there to be a significant possibility that we would encounter archaeological sites related to the Union occupation of Bolivar during our field survey of the Bolivar Bypass.

1923 map of Bolivar, Tennessee. Source: Tennessee State Library and Archives.

1923 map of Bolivar, Tennessee. Source: Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Late last year, TDOT retained the services of New South Associates of Stone Mountain, Georgia to conduct an archaeological survey of the proposed right-of-way for the Bolivar Bypass. New South identified two Civil War sites, one of which was very close to the location of the fort. While we think this site is related to the fort, no direct link was identified. Because the archaeological record at this location was so ephemeral, we turned back to the archives to help us learn more about the fortifications in and around Bolivar.

The archival research turned up more than we could imagine. It not only provided historic context, but it also provided site-specific information that helped us connect Civil War sites in the field with places recorded in archival records. Working back and forth between the archaeological and archival records, we think that the site New South identified was most likely related to a Union picket station south of Bolivar. While there isn’t much left of these sites archaeologically, we did learn that many of the fortifications around Bolivar were likely built by contraband – enslaved African Americans who fled to Union lines.

Enslaved African Americans at a contraband camp during the Civil War. Source:,_formerly_used_as_a_Female_Seminary.jpg

Enslaved African Americans at a contraband camp during the Civil War (Source)

Contraband camps were set up across the state in the vicinity of Union occupations to care for escaped African Americans. Some African American men in these camps took up arms and were enlisted to fight for the Union, but most contributed by helping to construct fortifications to defend cities and other sites of occupation from Confederate attack. For example, according to a letter from then General Ulysses S. Grant, 300 contraband were helping to build fortifications around Bolivar. The “Landscapes of Liberation” GIS database indicates that there were two contraband camps in Hardeman County, one in Bolivar and another in Grand Junction. You can learn more about contraband camps in Tennessee by reading Zada Law’s Day 13 post for the “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” project.

Archaeologists often say that archaeology helps fill in gaps in the historical record, but, in the case of the Bolivar Bypass project, it’s just the opposite. On a practical level, the archival records were used to help us understand the location and distribution of different kinds of Civil War sites that were difficult to identify and differentiate on the basis of archaeological evidence alone. The larger and, arguably, more important contribution of the research conducted for this project is furthering our understanding of the role African Americans played in the Civil War in Tennessee and beyond.