- The Sulphur Creek Trestle Preservation Project
On september 25, 1864, confederate troops under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked Union forces guarding the Sulphur Creek Trestle Bridge, located one mile south of Elkmont, Alabama, in Limestone County. The ensuing battle was the bloodiest in north Alabama, with more than 200 Union and forty Confederate troops killed. Forrest took as prisoners the remaining 820 Union soldiers. The Confederates burned Sulphur Creek Trestle Bridge, the tallest bridge on the Nashville & Decatur line, making rail travel from Nashville to Decatur impossible. The previous day, September 24, Forrest and his men defeated Union forces at Athens, Alabama, and destroyed an additional section of the Nashville & Decatur railroad line. Both engagements were part of a campaign to destroy Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s supply lines, which were necessary for his movement east through Georgia. The Nashville & Decatur railroad line connected in Decatur with the Memphis & Charleston Railroad which led directly to Chattanooga, Tennessee. These rail lines were essential for moving supplies for Union forces from Nashville to Chattanooga during Sherman’s [End Page 287] Atlanta Campaign. The Confederate victories at Athens and Sulphur Creek Trestle had less effect upon Sherman’s Georgia campaign than if they had been carried out earlier in the year, as Forrest had urged, when disarray and disagreement over the attacks’ necessity within the Confederate command structure resulted in delay. Nevertheless, the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle resulted in a welcome victory for the Confederacy. It also represents the first major engagement involving United States Colored Infantry (USCI) in north Alabama, as black federal soldiers serving in the 110th and 111th USCI regiments fought in close proximity to the plantations where they had previously been enslaved.
In the fall of 2013, the Departments of History and Geography at the University of North Alabama received a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program to expand and update a 1973 National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle. That 1973 nomination, submitted by the Alabama Historical Commission, resembles many National Register nominations from the early phase of the National Register process. After the National Register was created in 1966, preservationists hurried to nominate as many properties of historic significance as possible to begin the process of documenting the American cultural landscape. These early nominations were often very brief and lacked sufficient context, and sometimes they included only a fraction of the significant landscape.
The 1973 Sulphur Creek Trestle Fort National Register nomination is a case in point. It encompassed only the fort site itself and protected just 0.787 acres. The expanded boundaries of the recent nomination, submitted in 2015, covers 317.018 acres, including the former location of the Sulphur Creek Trestle Bridge, the Union rifle pits located outside the fort site, the Confederate artillery positions, and the probable location of Forrest’s campsite the night before the attack on the fort. The expanded historic context helps to place the events of the battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle within the larger narrative of the Civil War in north Alabama and middle Tennessee. Through the development of battlefield maps, story maps, and a [End Page 288] website, the research team has made significant contributions to the documentation of the battle and the dissemination of this information to the public.
The expanded National Register nomination helps historians understand how the landscape and topography of the battle site contributed to a Confederate victory. The original 1973 nomination does not explain how and why the Union troops were overwhelmed during the battle. What the original nomination tells us is that in 1864, the fort sat on a hilltop that is extremely steep on the north, east, and west sides, which would have made it difficult for enemy troops to launch a linear attack from any of these directions. The southern edge of the fort faced an open field on a plateau, which would have given Union forces a clear line of fire on advancing enemy troops. Rifle pits surrounded the fort’s perimeter, approximately 400 yards of which remain intact. Additional rifle pits were...