Remembering Fort Duffield

I’ve spent part of this month visiting Civil War sites that are off the beaten path, or at least not as well known as the major battlefields. One of these sites, Fort Duffield, is perched on a hill in West Point, Kentucky, about 30 miles southwest of Louisville. Hastily built over the late-fall and early-winter of 1861-62 at the mouth of the Salt River where it springs out from the Ohio, the purpose of the fort was to defend Louisville and to protect Union supply lines vital to securing the Commonwealth as well as operations in Tennessee.

Fort Duffield Overview1

As the Union started to actively unravel in April 1861, the fate of the slave owning Border States was of particular concern to Washington. Kentucky harbored both passionate Confederate and Union sentiments, and so defense of key cities such as Louisville was as important as it was problematic. A number of fortifications were constructed in and around the city, eventually including a site on Pearman Hill, which provided good over-watch of the Ohio and Salt Rivers.[1] In the relative quiet following the first battle at Bull Run, however, there appeared to be disagreement on the severity of the Confederate threat. By 26 Sept, 1861, when Brigadier General O.M. Mitchell arrived in Louisville, he wrote that the city was in a state of excitement as rumor of attack by Confederate General Buckner had just reached them. Days later, the Daily Democrat ran an article indicating that rebel forces were rumored to the south of West Point, but proclaimed confidence in the growing Union presence in the vicinity of where Fort Duffield would soon be built.[2] And while General Sherman also believed Buckner could target some area near the mouth of Salt River, General Buell soon dismissed the need for it, informing General McClellan that he was not at all worried about threats to Louisville, although the “little work at the mouth of the Salt River…does no harm.”[3]

29Sep1861 Courier
The Daily Democrat, 29 Sept 1861.

Later, in 1862, Buell may have rued those comments as the Confederate army under Braxton Bragg maneuvered through Kentucky and appeared to threaten Louisville.  Although Bragg instead moved to Bardstown, Buell was compelled to rush to Louisville’s defense. Nevertheless, by the end of that year, Fort Duffield would be effectively abandoned.

20160717_143143.jpg
Earthen Wall, part of the remains of Fort Duffield.

No major battles were fought at Fort Duffield, although it may have helped shape how the war in the west played out, as its placement and soldiers (about a regiment in strength) certainly would have been taken into consideration by any potential rebel action. But the story of Fort Duffield is important, as it reveals the human cost of the rapid militarization that the states underwent in the first days of the conflict. To the west of the fort is an area that is believed to have been a parade ground used by the forces garrisoned there. Today, this patch of ground is a memorial to the 30+ soldiers from the 9th Michigan Infantry Regiment who died erecting Duffield. (Note that the official web site and early publications state that over 60 men perished. This number is evidently overstated, and updates are being worked into the official documentation). Disease and a harsh winter took a devastating toll. A look at the headstones there show the men dying between late October 1861 and February 1862, when the fort was completed.

I had the privilege of speaking with the man who has been tending to the site for 20 years. I’m omitting his name, since I forgot to ask permission to share it. But I was struck with the love he clearly had for maintaining this small corner of American history. I told him how impressive his work was, how pleasant the memorial for those who died building the fort. He simply said the most important thing is that “they aren’t forgotten.”

Take a look at the park’s website: Fort Duffield.

[1] James T.R. Jones,  A Brief History of Civil War Fort Duffield, West Point, Kentucky, http://fortduffield.com/A%20Brief%20History%20of%20Fort%20Duffield%20by%20James%20T.%20R.%20Jones.pdf, accessed 7/24/2016.

[2] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 275.

[3] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 Volume IV (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880 -1891), 336.

 

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The American Soldier Experience, from World War One to Vietnam

American Soldiers
Peter S. Kindsvatter explores the experiences of American soldiers from the First World War through Vietnam.

Book Review.

In American Soldiers – Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, & Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 2003), Peter S. Kindsvatter examines war diaries and memoirs to help understand the wartime experiences of U.S. soldiers over the course of half a century. Of specific interest are the individual soldiers and small unit dynamics. To further his analysis, Kindsvatter also incorporates the analyses of other social scientists and psychologists. Interestingly, he also uses literary analysis as he discusses the depiction of the soldier’s experience by wartime novelists such as Ernest Hemmingway. This mix of sources, contends Kindsvatter, allows us to search for a “collective truth.”  Although an excellent book, I found the author’s relatively seamless inclusion of fictional accounts in the midst of primary sources – as when discussing white soldier attitudes toward working with their black counterparts – somewhat distracting and unconvincing.

Kindsvatter delves into the formative collective experiences of American soldiers, such as the reasons which prompted the decision to enlist (if voluntary) or to not desert (if drafted), experiences through basic training, and ultimately through combat. The author finds that, contrary to broad-brush understandings of the motivations of soldiers during each war (e.g. soldiers enlisting in the First World War were naïve and gung-ho, the soldiers in the Second World War were more grim but determined, while those in Vietnam were largely disillusioned and unwilling), soldiers entering each conflict were driven by a mix of motives. His discussion on the “soldierization process” – the “tear down” and “build up” that transformed the civilian into a soldier, establishes how citizens from a multitude of backgrounds were brought to a common capability prior to being deployed for war. Following this the bulk of American Soldiers details the experiences of the Army and Marines as they experienced the reality of combat – from dull drudgery to “life-or-death struggle…”

A vital dynamic that gets attention throughout the book is the soldier’s identification with his unit and the Army (or Marines). Basic training laid the foundation for identification as a warrior, but one that existed as part of a larger group. This group psychology was essential to developing loyalty, and “[s]uch loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.” The relationship between soldiers, both horizontally with peers and vertically with leaders and subordinates, had a significant effect on performance and morale. Nowhere was this more evident than with the experiences of black soldiers. The American military was segregated until 1949, when the U.S. Marine Corps integrated, leading the way towards eventual full integration by the end of the Korean War (Kindsvatter points out that Executive Order 9981, signed by Harry Truman in 1948 and often credited with abolishing military segregation, only directed equal treatment of soldiers). Although the experiences of blacks and other minorities are brought up throughout the monograph, an entire chapter is devoted to analyzing race relations throughout these wars.

WEL

Lieutenant Jones’ Intelligence Network and the Evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, 18 April 1861

The burning of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M. April 18, 1861

“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”

First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.

Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]

Harper's Ferry, photographed immediately after its evacuation by the rebels. 1861Both the Union and the Confederacy would find defending Harper’s Ferry difficult. This photo was taken after Confederate forces found the position untenable as well.

Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.

It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.

WEL

[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.

Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.