Other than the name Fort D on a sign above the sidewalk entrance to the southside landmark, nothing at the site reveals that this is one of only three surviving Civil War earthwork fortifications in Missouri.
Nothing explains the grass-covered and rounded earthen walls built in August 1861 on a bluff overlooking what was then farmland south of the small town of Cape Girardeau.
Nothing details the construction by Union soldiers under the direction of Lt. John Wesley Powell of Illinois. The same Powell later lost an arm during the Battle of Shiloh and after the war led the first successful navigation of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
There is nothing about the Union soldiers who dug shelters into the hillside in an effort to escape the winter cold. The men referred to themselves as "temporary troglodytes," or cave-dwellers. The soldiers at Fort D passed the time bowling on the grounds with homemade wooden pins and 32-pound cannon balls.
Local historians and Civil War buffs lament the inattention. They'd like to see the site improved with the erection of interpretative displays and signs that would tell the story of the Civil War in Cape Girardeau and the history of Fort D.
The stone building on the site, constructed during the federal Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, has no connection to the original fort but would be preserved because it is historic in its own right.
Better lighting is needed to discourage vandalism, backers of the proposal said, and they want a directional sign erected at Highway 74 and Sprigg Street to show motorists the way to the fort. It is located at the corner of South Fort Street and West Fort Street, a few blocks southeast of the intersection and across the street from the old May Greene School.
"I think we have taken it for granted long enough," said Scott House of Cape Girardeau, a member of the Missouri Civil War Heritage Foundation and the Civil War Roundtable of Cape Girardeau.
House also serves on the city's historic preservation commission. Other supporters of the project include Dr. Frank Nickell, director of the Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University, and Clarence "Dub" Suedekum of the Civil War Roundtable group. They want the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau to spend an estimated $21,700 of the city's surplus motel and restaurant tax money on the project.
In all, it could cost more than $61,000 over three years to turn the three-acre site into a tourist attraction, project supporters estimate.
Private donations would be funneled through the city's parks foundation.
"Fort D is a great resource, and it's not being used," Nickell said.
Visitors bureau officials have embraced the proposal, including it among tourism projects it wants the city council to fund with some of the $1 million in surplus motel and restaurant tax money.
Chuck Martin, visitors bureau director, said the city should explore ways to capitalize on its Civil War heritage, particularly with the approaching sesquicentennial of the war.
"In the long range, we might be able to develop some type of Civil War museum," he said.
Also on the drawing board are plans to hold a "Fort D Day" with Civil War re-enactors.
With the council's approval of the spending plan, the first step will be to meet with local Civil War organizations and the city's parks and recreation department, which maintains the site, Martin said.
House and Nickell said Fort D is an important part of Missouri's Civil War heritage. Fort D is the only fort left of the many that were built by the Union Army around Missouri's major cities during the war, House said.
Cape Girardeau was guarded by four earthen-walled forts. Fort A sat on a hill just north of downtown Cape Girardeau. Fort B stood where Academic Hall now stands. Fort C stood near the intersection of Bloomfield Road and Ellis Street.
As many as 100 to 200 Union soldiers would have manned Fort D at any one time during the war. Most of the soldiers slept in tents.
Fort D was a triangular fortification, ringed by earthen mounds of dirt on two sides. Wooden planks would have been placed up against the mounds of dirt to further anchor the fort. A wooden wall closed off the fort on the Mississippi River side of the site.
During the war, the fort would have looked down on surrounding farmland. "In 1861, there were no trees around here," House said.
Any trees would have been cut down for shelter or firewood.
House said the fort and its cannons were designed largely to protect Cape Girardeau and its important Mississippi River port from possible Confederate Army attacks from land. But its cannons also could fire on enemy vessels in the river.
Included in its arsenal were three cannons that fired 32-pound metal balls as well as "Quaker" cannons, logs shaped and painted to look like real cannons to mislead enemy troops. The cannons were named for the Quakers, a pacifist religious group whose members refused to fight in the Civil War.
The proposed renovation of Fort D includes building and installing "Quaker" cannons.
The partially collapsed roof would be removed from the stone building, and interpretive signs would be placed on the walls and at various spots on the grounds.
Steel bars would be installed in the window openings and a steel gate on the front door of the building, which would be closed at night.
There currently are no plans to put a new roof on the building, but that would be an option in the future, House said. It was constructed under the federal Works Progress Administration program and completed in July 1936 with the aid of the local American Legion post.
Fort D was designated as a city park in 1937.
Over the years, the building served as a meeting place for the American Legion. Later on, the Girl Scouts used it as an office and recreation center.
In 1954, the building was used as headquarters for civil defense. From 1967 to the mid-1970s, it housed a senior citizens club. A leaky roof forced the group to move.
For a brief period in the 1980s, a Junior Optimist Club met in the building.
Fort D was never threatened in the war, Nickell and House said.
In terms of location, Cape Girardeau was a better place to be stationed than malaria-infested Cairo, Ill., House said.
It also proved a safe place to sit out the war, he said.
"You know you are in the backwaters of the war when you used your cannon balls as bowling balls," House said.
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