On Jan. 5 I continued my history tour of the West Point area. I enjoyed my guided tour of the West Point History Museum with Monie Matthews, accompanied by Gerry Fischer. There is a lot more in the West Point area that I would like to visit when the weather warms up. I would like to stroll down by the Ohio River at the Veteran’s Memorial Park and imagine what it was like when Lewis and Clark stopped by there. This was their starting point for the expedition that took them through the major waterways of America and culminated with their travel down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.
As we left the museum, Gerry and I followed Monie to Fort Duffield. We stopped on the way at the old school building that had once housed the high school and most recently the West Point Independent School for Pre-K through 8th grades. At this time the building is still in use for local students to come in and utilize the computers for virtual learning sessions. Monie said that Hardin County owns the school campus but has no long-term plans for its usage. It would be awesome if they could turn it into a community center; however, right now it is not financially feasible.
When we reached the lower parking lot at Fort Duffield, Gerry parked his truck and we joined Monie in his car for the trip up to the fort. Because he is a volunteer at Fort Duffield, Monie Matthews has a key to the padlock on the chain across the road up to the fort. It is quite a steep drive up to the fort, so I was glad we did not have to hike up.
It was a raw day—overcast, cold, and windy—but I was dressed warmly and wore sturdy shoes, so I was prepared to walk around the fort. My interest in the Civil War history of the fort precluded any discomfort I felt from the weather, or the fact that I have a lame foot. I eagerly followed Monie and Gerry as they explained details about the fort.
West Point was a strategic town during the Civil War era. A major supply depot was established there by the Union Army. Supplies were shipped down river from Louisville and distributed to points south. Also important to the commerce of the area was the Salt River, which converged with the Ohio River in West Point. The Louisville/Nashville Turnpike (now Dixie Highway) ran from Louisville to Nashville, and West Point was a hub for that road.
When the war was ramping up in 1861, the Union forces had to consider the defense of major cities. It was determined that West Point would need a fort to protect Louisville from an attack from the west. General Robert Anderson, commander of Union forces in Kentucky, ordered the construction of fortifications around West Point in September of 1861. Not long after that, General Anderson was relieved of his command due to poor health and was replaced by Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman then saw to it that a fort was built above the town of West Point.
Fort Duffield was built on Pearman Hill, 300 feet above the town of West Point. Construction of the fort began in early November 1861, with much of the work done by men of the Ninth Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment was commanded by Colonel William Duffield and he named the fort after his father, George Duffield, who was a Michigan clergyman. It was no small task for the men to clear the forestry from the hill and dig into the hard Kentucky red clay to construct the earthen fort. According to a letter written by Captain Charles Victor DeLand of the 9th Michigan, “the distance from the top of the wall to the bottom of the trench was 17 feet and the top of the wall was 9 feet wide.”
By December of 1861, the cold and damp conditions and hard work digging into the frozen ground was taking a toll on the Michigan soldiers’ health. Between October of 1861 and March of 1862, measle and typhoid epidemics, with complications of pneumonia, claimed the lives of 48 men. A cemetery was built atop Memorial Hill and 38 soldiers were buried there. In 1868, the Michigan soldiers were reinterred in the New Albany, Indiana National Cemetery. Today a memorial cemetery stands on Memorial Hill with a handsome granite monument that reads: “Fort Duffield 1861-1865. In Memory of Our Civil War Dead.” It is not believed that there are any remains of the Civil War soldiers who perished while building the fort left in that cemetery. Following our tour of the fort, Monie drove Gerry and I to the memorial cemetery. I felt a sense of reverence there.
We explored the grounds of the actual fort on the top of the hill. Fort Duffield is Kentucky’s oldest and best-preserved earthen fortification. The hard work of the men of the Ninth Michigan Infantry paid off because the walls of the fort remain virtually intact. The hard red clay they had to dig into has solidified and preserved the fort. Gerry and Monie walked deep within the cuts of the fortress walls while I walked across the top to the center of the redoubt. There has been a lot of restoration of the fort since it became the property of West Point in 1992. The Fort Duffield Heritage Committee has supervised volunteers as they reclaimed the fort from the forces of nature and built some replicas on the property of buildings that might have been part of the original fort. One such building was a stick and mud replica of the headquarters of Colonel William Duffield of the Ninth Michigan Volunteer Infantry. They also constructed boardwalks out to observation areas where you could look down onto the town of West Point and view the Salt and Ohio Rivers. We walked a short way down one of the boardwalks but deemed it too risky to walk down to the main observation point where the American flag was whipping in the wind. The boards were wet and slippery from recent rains.
The most common cannon used at Fort Duffield was the 6-pound smooth bore. At least one cannon would have been positioned behind each of the ten angles of the fort walls for all around covering fire in the direction of many back roads to the south of the fort. You can still see indentations in the fort’s walls where cannons would have been placed.
Fort Duffield was never attacked during the Civil War. It appears that the Confederates had no desire to challenge the Union Army at this fortification. It was evident to them that this fort was virtually impregnable. By 1863 the fort was no longer garrisoned on a regular basis.
Following the Civil War, Fort Duffield was abandoned by the Army and was used as a quarry, a farm, and even a hunting lodge for a group of wealthy men from Louisville. At the start of World War I the U.S. Army purchased the property on which the fort lies and it became part of the Fort Knox property. Around 1978 the U.S. Government declared the land surplus and deeded it to the City of West Point to repurpose as a park. In 1992 a group of volunteers began the laborious task of reclaiming Fort Duffield from nature and began allowing visitors to tour the park.
Every year since 1994 there has been an encampment planned at the fort with a Civil War reenactment on Memorial Day weekend. During that time there would be a wreath laying ceremony at the cemetery and living history programs held inside the fort. Living history events have also occurred during West Point River Days in July, or during special occasions in the fall. The events planned for 2020 were cancelled due to the pandemic. Hopefully they will be able to hold a living history event there once again in 2021.
Inside the fort in the redoubt near a replica of a stick and mud log cabin there is a wooden platform that is surrounded by benches, with a firepit in the midst. During the living history programs special presentations occur there that might include lectures about weapons and uniforms, and a performance by the Kentucky Home Guard Band. I would love to be there at night, warmed by the fire, listening to tales of Civil War soldiers who once manned Fort Duffield. My imagination could run wild and I could hear a sentry call out.