Recognition Planned For Cape Girardeau’s Fort D
By Kelly Garbus
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — Considered one of the most fortified cities in the United States during the Civil War, Cape Girardeau was home to no fewer than four Union military forts designed to ward off possible attacks along the Mississippi River or by land.
This southeastern Missouri city, which today is home to 36,000 residents and Southeast Missouri State University, earned its military distinction because of its geography. It is the first high ground north of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and provided a strategic position from which to fire on approaching Confederate gunboats.
Now, 140 years later, all that remains of the four forts is one — Fort D.
Forts A, B and C eventually gave way to municipal growth. Fort D escaped a similar fate when the local chapter of the American Legion purchased it in 1936 with an eye toward preserving it. Of the numerous earthen Civil War forts that once existed in Missouri, Fort D is believed to the lone survivor. Today it is a three-acre municipal park owned by the city of Cape Girardeau.
But most people don’t have a clue about the history behind the triangular-shaped earthen works or know anything about the men who served there.
That will soon change.
Scott House, a retired teacher, and a member of the city’s Civil War Round Table, is leading an effort to interpret the fort’s history.
“I grew up in Cape Girardeau and as a kid I had no idea about it,” said House. “What we want to do is clean up the site and interpret it and advertise it as a tourist attraction.”
He said an estimated $20,000 provided by the city, the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce and the Convention & Visitors Bureau, would pay for signs interpreting the fort’s history. The money would be matched by donations and in-kind donations. House said he expected the signs to be in place by the end of the year.
The site includes a 1937 structure built by the Works Progress Administration that once served as a Civil War museum. House said it is unclear what happened to the museum’s exhibits. He said the artifacts were on loan and not donated. The building is basically a shell without a roof, but will be preserved because it is a local landmark.
Someday, however, there may be a new museum to interpret the fort’s history.
“We hope in the future we may be able to do some more things to re-create a flavor of it,” House said.
The forts were ordered built by Gen. John Fremont, the Western Department’s Union commander in St. Louis. Fremont dispatched a contingent of engineers to the town to lay out the forts. Assisting in the project was an officer, John Wesley Powell, who after the war would earn a name for himself exploring the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.
Built in the summer of 1861, the four forts formed a crescent along the outskirts of town. House said a copy of an 1865 map drawn by Army engineers, now in the Library of Congress, provided a period look at the forts‚ dimensions and their proximity to the town.
Fort D had a palisade on one side with cannon emplacements and rifle pits. It also included “Quaker cannons” — logs carved to look like cannons. House said the name came from the Quakers, “a religious group that generally declined to fight during the Civil War.”
House believes the faux cannons were probably the result of boredom and built for amusement, but he added that re-created Quaker cannons would be part of the new interpretation project.
According to House, Powell gained the admiration of local men in the area and received permission to form a company which became Battery F, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery. He remained with the men throughout the winter, training them before they went into combat under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Shiloh.
House, who also works part time for the National Park Service, said life for the men who served at Fort D was never too exciting.
“As far as we know, they never fired their guns in anger,” he said.
Soldiers at Fort D, trying to occupy the long hours, ended up carving bowling pins and used one of their 32-pound solid-shot cannon balls as a bowling ball. According to House, one of the soldiers, Benjamin Radford, noted the bowling ball “gave strength to our arms.”
“You know you’re in the backwaters of the Civil War when you are using your cannon balls for bowling balls,” House said.
The April 26, 1863, Battle of Cape Girardeau, was fought west of the city and did not involve Fort D. That battle was a four-hour artillery duel between Union troops under Gen. John McNeil and Confederates under Gen. John S. Marmaduke.