Protecting the fort: Commission works to put Civil War spot on national register

Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Turner Brigade members fire the cannon Monday at Fort D in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

For Jerry Kasten, Fort D is more than a significant piece of Cape Girardeau's past. It's a part of his family history.

The Cape Girardeau resident's great-grandfather, John Christian Sperling, served three years in the Civil War. The 35-year-old Union soldier fought in several skirmishes, including Shiloh, one of the war's major battles.

But, for Sperling, it all began at Fort D, the place where he first enlisted and a place he helped build.

"I had no idea about that until we were over at Shiloh and there was a monument there that had his name on it," Kasten said. "All of that has made me feel a real attachment to Fort D. It's a real special place."

Others think so, too, including Cape Girardeau's Historic Preservation Commission. The commission is working to have the city's only remaining Civil War fort added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the Labor Day weekend, about 50 people went to the fort for an end-of-summer celebration to see the cannon fired, hear about the fort's history and see the earthwork walls that protected the city from Confederate attacks.

Friends of Fort D sponsored the event and dressed in period garb to give the fort the feel it had when it was constructed in the summer of 1861.

Commission chairman Scott House, also a Civil War re-enactor, is perhaps the staunchest supporter of getting the fort on the national register. The earthwork walls remain intact, and important people -- who went on to do even bigger things -- spent time at the fort, including Ulysses S. Grant and John Wesley Powell.

Grant, who later commanded the entire Union Army, of course went on to become U.S. president. Powell, whom House says met Grant in Cape Girardeau for the first time, is famous for the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition, a three-month river trip down the Green and Colorado rivers that included the first known passage through the Grand Canyon.

"Fort D needs to be on the register, and it's been overlooked for years," House said. "Sometimes, there's a tendency by people to think of only buildings that need to be on the national register. But this is perhaps the most historic site in Cape Girardeau."

The commission is working on an application, and House hopes that Fort D is on the national register within the next year. He said he believes it has an excellent shot.

But not everyone is so sure. Steven Hoffman, coordinator of the historic preservation program at Southeast Missouri State University, serves in an unofficial advisory role for the commission. Hoffman called Fort D a "challenging property" to get listed.

That's because the site also contains a limestone building that was constructed in 1937 as a federal Works Progress Administration project. The building was meant to look like a fort and is said to be in the vicinity of a powder house that stood there during the war.

Another drawback, Hoffman said, is that one corner of the fort's original property was removed in the early 1900s to put in a residential neighborhood.

"It's not intact," Hoffman said. "Really, putting that stone structure on there mucked things up. The commission is aware that it's been looked at in the past and the state is hesitant to say they think it's eligible."

Not to say the commission couldn't change its approach and draft a nomination differently this time, Hoffman said.

For example, House points out that Fort D is the last of Missouri's urban forts, a point that wasn't made in the previous draft that was done by a student at Southeast. At the Civil War's outset, there were Missouri fortifications in Cape Girardeau, St. Louis, Jefferson City, Rolla and Springfield. Now, when it comes to forts around urban areas, all but Fort D are gone, House said.

"This is the only one left of those urban forts," House said. "All the rest got obliterated by the growth of the cities."

House isn't suggesting that Fort D is the state's last Civil War fort. There are still forts, such as Fort Davidson at Pilot Knob and Fort Benton at Patterson.

"But those were outposts in more rural areas," House said. "Don't get me wrong. They were important. But as far as forts designed to protect cities, this is it."

House also suggests that the unique limestone structure built by the WPA could be a selling point. It was built in the 1930s and has a historic feel all to itself, he said.

Not to mention that most other forts -- even those with much less historic significance than Fort D -- have made the register, House said. And House doesn't think the relationship between Grant and Powell, who lead the troops from the Cape Girardeau forts into battle, should be sold short.

"They met here in this city, quite possibly here at this fort," House said.

Because the two men met here, later Grant's secretary of war signed the order to let the financially strapped Powell buy supplies from the government at cost, House said. Those supplies would be for Powell's famous Grand Canyon exploration.

"That's one of the most famous trips of exploration in American history," House said.

As a result of that trip, Powell became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and designed the entire irrigation and basin plans for the western U.S. and became one of the most powerful people in the country, House said.

"Powell didn't even have a college degree," House said. "He wouldn't have done any of that if he hadn't taken that trip down the Grand Canyon. That trip would not have happened if his buddy, Ulysses Grant, wasn't president of the U.S. And where did they meet? Here."

Hoffman, however, believes the application would be better received if it stuck to the rare nature of the fort, specifically that it's the last of its kind in Missouri.

"I hate to use the word 'long shot,' but it's certainly an uphill battle to get the fort on the national register," he said. "If it is the last of its kind, as far as urban forts, he might have a more compelling argument."

Linking Powell to Fort D in a meaningful way, as it relates to what he did later in his career, could prove difficult, Hoffman said.

"Scott is pretty enamored with the Powell thing, and I understand that," Hoffman said. "But I think it would be hard to really make a successful argument that this is a site that really conveys something about Powell. But proving it's the last of its kind is something you can easily document."

Making the Powell connection, at least as far as the state is concerned, might come across as lore or tradition, Hoffman said.

"It's not going to get listed on that basis," he said. "That's not an argument that's going to fly."

Regardless, House said he is determined. He intends to get to work documenting the importance of the fort on a local, state and national level.

For Kasten, whose great-grandfather worked to help build the fort, it's important to get the site on the register to honor those who served there.

"I think it's very important to remember people like my great-grandfather for what they had done," said Kasten, a re-enactor who was at the fort Monday. "We're standing in the middle of a Civil War fort. That's reason enough."


Pertinent address:

920 W. Fort St., Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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