Shreveport's Civil War Defenses

By JOHN ANDREW PRIME

The defenses of Shreveport in 1864 are now obscured by modern city growth, leveling, paving and reclamation of boggy lowlands. But this 1864 defense map by Confederate cartographers clearly shows the formidable defenses of the city that was the capital of the Trans-Mississippi.

Three hilltop forts anchor a chain of low hills to the south and west of the grid-street layout of the then-small town. A boggy marsh called Silver Lake separates the town from the main defense point, Fort Turnbull. The forts on the western approaches are Fort Jenkins, facing south, and Fort Albert Sidney Johnston, to the north. On the eastern bank of the Red River, in what is now Bossier City, is Fort Smith, a fourth hilltop fort, and Battery Ewell. Approximately 17 batteries filled gaps between the forts, providing enfillading fire.

To the north of Shreveport in 1864 are marshy, malarial swampland and miles and miles of forest, largely impassable. Remnants of the famed "Red River Raft" cleared away by Army Capt. Henry Miller Shreve two decades before the war remain, making river transit from the north next to impossible. An attack from Shreveport from the east would force any foe to cross a 200-yard-wide river under fire, which the Battle of Fredericksburg showed to be suicidal folly. And there is Fort Smith to contend with also.

These are the defenses that have been described in accounts that have passed down to historians. But recent archaeological work has shown that a number of batteries and at least one large hilltop fort about the size of a football field provided a layered defense and warning network for the expected Federal attack up the Red River. These extended about a dozen miles south of what was then the town, with the southernmost forts a pair of hilltop gun emplacements on either bank of the river not far from the southern border of modern Caddo Parish. These forts are actually shown as notations on a 1907 U.S. Soil Survey map. The large unknown fort guarded a dam built to keep the Red River's waters from being diverted into Bayou Pierre via Tone's Bayou, and also controlled a turn in the river. Another small fort, or larger battery, was erected on a small knoll about midway between old Shreve Town and the Tone's Bayou fort, and also controlled a tight turn in the river.

Until recently, most of the defenses were believed to have been destroyed by the passage of time. Battery Ewell has fallen into the widening, meandering Red River. Fort Turnbull is now under the sprawl of the mordern Louisiana Army National Guard's Fort Humbug armory and the adjacent Overton Brooks V.A. Medical Center. Fort Jenkins is now the site of the Schumpert Medical Center (below, as it looked in 1927 from Maude Hearn-O'Pry's "Chronicles of Shreveport," printed that year.) A trace of a wall of Fort Smith remains on the grounds of Bossier High School.

The same research that showed the existence of previously unknown forts has also shown that one of the known defense of Shreveport, the northernmost and most western fort, Albert Sidney Johnston, remains today in remarkably good preservation under the streets of north Allendale, one of Shreveport's poorer neighborhoods. A lack of modern, destructive renovations, benign neglect and the existence of an old and relatively undeveloped city park on the site appear to have contributed greatly to the fort's long slumber. An example of what these forts may have looked like is shown by the battlements of a similar fort, Grand Ecore just north of Natchitoches, about 60 miles south of Shreveport on the Red River, seen in a view from 1928.

The purpose of these advance forts is clear if one remembers that any logical attack on Shreveport would consist of an advance upriver by gunboats and by soldiers walking on the driest land route protected by the guns on the river. Soldiers advancing on Shreveport without the protection of the Navy would face far greater risks of being destroyed in battle in the dense forests, dotted with occasional open fields, that was the setting of the period. Thus, it was expected that the Union advance on Shreveport would be on a narrow approach along the western bank of the river, and it was this the defenses were meant to hinder. A single fort with four guns, firing at pre-sighted points in the river, points where it could be expected gunboats would have to turn, with only their forward facing pair of cannons presenting a threat, could damage or sink one or more vessels at the head of the column, halting the upriver advance of the fleet. This would rob the infantry of their cover and force their leaders to halt the troops' advance, or lead the soldiers into enemy territory without necessary support. Under the plan that has been shown to exist for Confederate Shreveport, this stoppage could have been repeated at several points along the river, delaying the Union advance, possibly turning it back before it reached the final ring of batteries, and certainly allowing the precious commodity of time to bring all guns and troops to bear on points known to be threatened by a federal advance.

It is important to remember that this plan of defense would also allow the Confederates to use the small number of cannon available to them to best advantage. It is likely that at the best of times between 1861 and 1865 there were not five dozen large cannons in all of Shreveport. One can suppose there would be at least two guns in each fort and at least one field piece in each battery, but no others. It took months for the tiny Confederate naval force at Shreveport to fit three guns of varying designs on the ironclad CSS Missouri, and even then these were captured from the Union gunboat USS Indianola. It is a matter of record that so-called "Quaker guns," false cannon made of fire-blackened tree trunks mounted on wagon wheels, were used at Fort Turnbull. Confederate General John B. Magruder, visiting the Shreveport defenses in an 1863 inspection, told the fort's commander his defenses were "nothing but a bunch of humbug," which gave Fort Turnbull the name it bears to this day.

It was brilliant humbug, nonetheless. Quaker cannon fooled McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula in 1862, and caused many an attacker to pause in the Western theater of the war as well. Remember that this was an age without aerial observation, with only the most rudimentary telegraph communications, without photoimagery of any kind -- warfare largely fought by feel and within unaided-eyeball distance of an enemy.

For a look at what a well-equipped battery would possess, look at a typical Union structure, probably from the Virginia theater of conflict:

A commander of men and ships facing a dozen or more formidable-looking guns well-protected in a prepared hill fort might think they could be Quaker guns, but if one of them spits fire and shot, he must stop and ask himself "Is that the only gun, or was that just a ranging shot, and will a full barrage follow?" Even a commander of the caliber of Grant or Sherman would stop to ponder that and think hard before risking the success of a campaign on a hasty advance. That hesitation would allow the defender of Shreveport to use shorter interior lines of communication to advance working ordnance to the threatened front.


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