Little Fort On The Prairie

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Poor Fort Scott. The Kansas military post and the town beside it had their share of bad luck from the very beginning, in 1842, when the site was picked for a fort just west of the Missouri border. The garrison’s purpose was to protect something called the Permanent Indian Frontier, but the notion of a Permanent Indian Frontier was already fast growing obsolete. And when the famously vain general-in-chief of the Army Winfield Scott learned that the little outpost had been named for him, he was insulted; it had been done, he complained, “without my knowledge and against my wishes.”

The most recent major indignity, except for a devastating flood in 1986, came in the 1960s and 1970s, when the rural equivalent of urban renewal condemned some of the fine nineteenth-century buildings on Main Street. Nothing replaced them, and there are sore empty spots in the quiet town center. But at the same time, Fort Scott had its best stroke of good luck. After a century of disuse the fort itself was reclaimed. The federal government bought up its old quadrangle and removed, refurbished, and reproduced buildings to roll back time and duplicate the fort as it had been in the 1840s. Named the Fort Scott National Historic Site in 1978, it became a very compelling place to step into the West of the 1840s and 1850s.

Fort Scott is about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Kansas City, and the trip down, on U.S. Highway 69, roughly follows an old north-south military road that marked the border of the Permanent Indian Frontier; the very gently rolling farmland it passes through was formerly tallgrass prairie. I came to Fort Scott on a chill day last December, driving up the hill from the highway to Main Street, down a block lined with two-story brick storefronts, to where Main ends at the fort.

Fort Scott is a spotless collection of very solid gray clapboard buildings surrounding a 350-foot-wide parade ground. Standing in that quiet, wind-swept yard where dragoons and infantrymen once drilled, and looking out between barracks and stables to the empty-seeming country beyond—which really was empty when the fort was new—you can easily lose sight of the present day. The restoration has been devised to paint as full a picture as possible of what life was really like during the brief moment when Fort Scott was exactly like what a fort was in the adventure movies of our youth—the place that was the violent brokerage between barbarism and civilization, as we then saw it.

The entrance and visitors’ center are in the fort’s hospital building, a two-story structure with a wraparound second-floor porch. Upstairs, above the bookstore and gift shop, are two large rooms: a reconstructed hospital ward and a theater where a slide show outlines the fort’s history.

As the slide-show narration tells it, the fort was a very peaceful place in its first years, sending escorts on occasional excursions West and troops to the Mexican War but seeing no action whatever nearby. In 1853 so little was happening that the fort was abandoned, its buildings sold. More bad luck: This happened just in time for Bleeding Kansas, the civil war that preceded the Civil War, when a fort here was truly needed. Federal troops returned periodically, but the officers stayed in hotels and the men in tents. When the big war finally broke out, the government had to rent the fort’s buildings for a supply base and refugee center. Afterward the fort was again deserted and (still more bad luck) again became needed, now for the unglamorous job of protecting railroad property from squatters. When it was abandoned after that, in 1873, it was finally finished for good. The town overgrew it—the parade ground became downtown Carroll Plaza—until local citizens began to push for its restoration in the 1950s. Their cause culminated in the National Historic Site.

After the slide show I crossed the hall to the hospital ward and found a uniformed park ranger there methodically lifting basins onto each bed as 30 he swept the floor and straightened the furniture. I could imagine him an enlisted man on lone duty in another time until we fell into conversation. He looked out over the parade ground and told me, “In the 1850s, after the fort shut down, that infantry barracks next door was the Western Hotel—pro-slavery—and the officers’ quarters directly opposite it across the quadrangle was the Free State Hotel. Sometimes there was shooting between them. John Brown stayed at the Free State. This was a scary place.”

I left him to his work, walked next door to the former infantry barracks, and found that it houses the fort museum. Beyond that, past long, low stables, I stepped into the dragoon barracks and entered post life. Here soldiers slept upstairs and ate downstairs, and the rooms are fully furnished to show what it was like: a mess hall with the table set, a clean but cramped barracks room where enlisted men slept in bunk beds two to a narrow mattress, head to toe, a sergeants’ room with marginally better furnishings, and a display room with all sorts of detail that made daily life here palpable—schedules showing the routine of drills and duties and eating and rest, a directory of bugle calls, a short history of the dragoons, who were a cross between infantry and cavalry. Downstairs in back was the laundress’s little room; soldiers had to pay her out of their tiny wages. All through the tour I felt alone with these long-gone people; I had their fort almost to myself.