Fort D provides historic picture

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fort D, one of four forts built to protect Cape Girardeau during the Civil War, is the only one that remains. The fort, located four blocks south of Rt. 74 and Sprigg Street, was ordered built by General John Fremont, Western Department Union Commander, in 1861, according to a plaque on the site.

The man chosen for the job was Lieutenant John W. Powell of Illinois, a self-taught military engineer who would later go on to name the Grand Canyon on his exploration of the Colorado River.

Scott House, a Sergeant in the Turner Brigade (a Union Civil War re-enactment group) and well-versed in local Civil War history said Lt. Powell arrived in less-than-desirable conditions.

"When the Civil War broke out, civil authority in Southeast Missouri broke down," House said. "Due to the conflicting sympathies of the area, the region was a hotbed of guerrilla warfare and people fled to safe places according to their views of the war. Cape Girardeau was a Union town, but in 1861 it was defended only by local militia."

"The Union Army had already fortified Cairo at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. They didn't fear an invasion up the Mississippi River. But they did want to fortify and defend towns in the District which were geographically important," he said.

Cape Girardeau was one of those places.

General Ulysses S. Grant was given command of the Southeast Missouri District including Southern Illinois in August of 1861.

"At that time Cape Girardeau was General Grant's temporary headquarters, and after an inspection of the progress he formally gave Lt. Powell the 'charge' of completing four forts to defend the city," House said.

The four forts were named A, B, C and D. Fort A sat on a high hill just north of the town. Fort B was located where Southeast Missouri States' Academic Hall now sits. Fort C was built near the end of what is now Bloomfield Road, east of Pacific, and Fort D in South Cape Girardeau.

With the help of local volunteers, engineers from St. Louis and parts of the 20th Illinois Infantry, the forts were completed before the end of the year.

"Fort D was manned with five cannon, three 32 pounders and two 24 pound smooth bore guns," House said. "They could throw a 32 pound ball over a mile."

"There were some raiding Confederate Armies coming up from Northeast Arkansas, but for the most part, the fort only had to intimidate local Confederate Militias from Secessionist areas in the region," he said. "Armed with pistols and shotguns and few long rifles, they were no match for a fully armed Union cannon battery."

The outlines of the actual fort can still be seen today from aerial photographs.

"It was a classic military fort made of earth and logs. Two long walls at an angle to one another and a substantially open back end that faced the river and the town," said House.

In the 1930s the site was saved from development by a local veterans' group and repaired by the Works Progress Administration. The stone blockhouse that sits in the middle of the Fort D site itself was built as a restoration project by the (WPA) in 1936.

Eventually, many of the men who manned Fort D would be mustered into what was called the 2nd Illinois Light Artillery under the command of Lt. Powell and joined General Grant at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. They went on to fight along side General Grant throughout the war.

The men who remained at Fort D never saw much action. In fact they occupied themselves by bowling their 32 pound cannon balls into homemade bowling pins, which helped with the boredom and "gave strength to their arms," according to the writings of one of the men stationed at Fort D.

During the Battle of Cape Girardeau, in 1863, Confederate General Marmaduke's progress was checked well west of the city, and the fort's guns did not fire in anger.

Fort D is now a historic landmark owned by the City of Cape Girardeau. Interpretive signs dot the site to explain the original construction, restoration and significance of the Fort D site. It is open to the public from dawn to dusk.

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