Living history lesson: Local man builds Civil War equipment for Fort D

Sunday, May 30, 2010
Jerry Kasten, left, and Scott House discuss the ordnance rifle which they use in Civil War re-enactments. (Fred Lynch)

The cannons have long been silent at Cape Girardeau's Fort D, but thanks to local volunteers, the fort's history lives on through re-enactment.

Four forts protected Cape Girardeau during the Civil War, but only Fort D remains. Most of the original fort has been lost to time, but one feature is still intact.

"Just the earthworks are original to this fort, but they are survivors because there were a lot of these built [in Missouri] during the Civil War and there's relatively few remaining," said Scott House, re-enactor and volunteer with the Friends of Fort D.

House said fort re-enactors help give guests insight into the fort's past.

"The re-enacting here is to provide living history so people will come here and try to understand what went on here and gain an appreciation for Cape's history in the Civil War," he said.

Scott House, left, and Jerry Kasten stand with a limber that Kasten built. It is attached to a cannon at Fort D. (Fred Lynch)

A new limber will help re-enactors further illustrate the fort's history. A limber was used to pull a cannon into battle. Six horses would be hitched to the front of the limber and a cannon would be hooked to the back. Limbers also contained a box that held ammunition and various supplies needed to fire the canon.

A reproduction limber would have cost more than $5,000, but Cape Girardeau resident and re-enactor Jerry Kasten built one for Fort D. It took Kasten a year to complete the project, and he tried to use materials that were authentic to the time.

"I built the wheels with period wood," he said. "It's white oak, which is what all the wheels were made out of. Luckily I had a friend who supplied me with this white oak. Otherwise it's kind of hard to find, and it's very expensive. Then I wrote to a place and I got the original plans for the limber itself."

He did, however, use pine to complete the framework of the equipment. He said because he had never made anything as large and complex as a limber, it was easier for him to work with pine.

Kasten said the limber will make an excellent teaching tool for re-enactors because spectators always want to know how cannons worked and how troops transported them into battle. During the war, Fort D had as many as five cannons.

While he has only been re-enacting for three years, Kasten said his connection to Fort D goes back to his family's involvement with the fort during the Civil War.

"My great-grandfather, who lived in Burfordville, moved to Cape Girardeau because the Confederates and the renegades ran him off his farm," he said. "He started work when the forts were built and helped build these forts. After the forts were built, he joined up with Battery F, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, under the direction of John Wesley Powell. Their first battle was Shiloh. He went on for three years and was involved in 22 major battles of the Civil War in the western theater."

Kasten and House said wearing heavy wool uniforms in the summer can be a little suffocating but is nothing compared to the reality of a soldier's life during the war.

"They wore the same uniform until it turned to rags, especially in the western theater," Kasten said. "They were barefoot. They had to sleep on the ground. When it rained, they were miserable. When it was hot, they were miserable. They were always miserable."

For Kasten, being able to bring history to life for a new generation is the real reward for any re-enactor.

"We don't want our young people to forget about what has been sacrificed by a lot of families and a lot of people in the past," he said.

Fort D is four blocks south of the intersection of Highway 74 and Sprigg Street. Grounds are open from dawn to dusk daily for self-guided tours.

Volunteers will be at the fort, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today and Monday for presentations.

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