Saving History Saturday: Preserving One of Missouri’s Last Remaining Civil War Forts

Along the mighty Mississippi River in southeast Missouri is the historic town of Cape Girardeau, nicknamed “Cape”. Not only is the town known for its colonial French roots and as a river port, it has quite a bit of Civil War history, as well. Being at a strategic position along the river, Cape Girardeau fortified with earthworks early in the war and was the site of a small battle in 1863. Over 200 years since its founding in 1793, Cape Girardeau is home to 39 individual sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just this week, it was announced that the last Union fortification in Cape Girardeau – Fort D – awaits National Park Service approval to become the latest site on the National Register of Historic Places.

This detail of an 1865 map of the fortifications outside of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Fort D is shown towards the bottom. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Built under orders of Western Department commander Major General John Fremont, four Union fortifications were constructed in 1861 to protect Cape from a likely Southern attack. The forts were designed by the Corps of Topographical Engineers and built by engineer troops. Lieutenant John Wesley Powell, the future explorer of the American West and the Grand Canyon, supervised the construction of Fort D. By the end of 1861, Powell was given authority by Brigadier General Ulysses Grant to organize and train an artillery batter to man the fortifications at Cape. Though the troops at Cape were on the lookout for a Confederate attack, it was not until 1863 that the forts were tested under fire, including Fort D. That was the first and last true fight at the Union forts of Cape. Fort D is the last of the Cape fortifications, as well as the last of its kind protecting a major Missouri town.

Some of the preserved earthworks at Fort D. Courtesy of the Living New Deal.

Unfortunately, since the guns went silent in 1865, the forts of Cape Girardeau were neglected. Only Fort D has since remained. Though there was restoration work performed by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression Era, most of the preservation and interpretive work has been done by devoted preservationists. One of these preservationists that helped save this important site is Scott House, who has been instrumental in completing the application for the National Register. Though it will not legally protect the site, the National Register status will hopefully open the door to national and state funding, while also boosting its credibility.

As of June 1, Fort D Historic Site awaits final approval from the National Park Service, which is said to be decided within three weeks.

3 Responses to Saving History Saturday: Preserving One of Missouri’s Last Remaining Civil War Forts

  1. Would be a shame to ever lose this Cape Girardeau fort, with its connections to U.S. Grant and John Wesley Powell. Thanks for the excellent article bringing the “lack of status” of Fort D to our attention.

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