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.

At the post headquarters, on the far corner of the parade ground, I dropped in on the commandant’s office, whose spareness was warmed by a white cloth over the worktable. Posted on the wall was the transcript of an actual court-martial held here in 1843: Pvt. Thomas Fraser deserted while a prisoner, was caught and brought back for a thirty-dollar reward two days later and sentenced to “fifty lashes on his bare back, well laid with a raw hide,” plus forfeiture of pay, six months’ hard labor, and repayment of the thirty dollars that had bought his recapture. It was a trying life guarding a disappearing frontier.

From there I went next door to the officers’ quarters—later the Free State Hotel, but first the home of Capt. Thomas Swords, the quartermaster who built the fort. It is a warm, comfortable, roomy place, with none of the military spareness of the rest of the fort. In the dining room a woman was arranging things on a table set lavishly for eight, with lace tablecloth, silver flatware, fresh flowers, and nineteenth-century Christmas decorations. This was to be part of the town of Fort Scott’s “Homes for the Holidays” tour of local interiors. She asked me where I was from and warmed at once when I told her. “Captain Swords was from New York,” she said, “and he tried to make these quarters as much as possible like the elegant homes there.” He did surprisingly well. Not long after he arrived at the site for the fort in 1842, Swords wrote, “We are going to make it the crack post of the frontier.” And he did.

By the time I left the fort, after a turn through the well-supplied quarter-master storehouse, the little bakery, and the guardhouse, I felt not only instructed but immersed in the texture of post life. Then I squinted at the twentieth-century community next door and began to adjust. Over the next couple of days, I got to know the town a bit too. The crowds are almost all out at the Wal-Mart a mile off now, but as Main Street hangs on, the town obliges the tourism that the fort pulls in by offering trolley-bus tours of all the local sites.

I took the bus—the last one of the season, as it happened, since this was December—and as we rolled around, the driver imparted bits of information, many of which seemed to reflect more historical misfortune. “George Washington Carver lived here once for a few years, but he pulled out after two other black citizens were lynched. . . . On the west side of the tracks”—a Burlington Northern line runs parallel to the highway—“the streets are all named for Free-Soilers, on the east side for pro-slavery men. Here’s the town’s Civil War blockhouse. It’s a replica. The original was sold off for fifty dollars.”

Up at the national cemetery, built on the hillside, the driver pointed out a handful of graves marked “USCT” for United States Colored Troops, thirteen of Confederate soldiers who died in prison camps, and sixteen of Indian scouts with names like Set-Them-Up and Stick-Out-Belly: “We don’t know how any of them died.” As we drove down one of many brick streets, he said, “This town had a big brick industry once; Fort Scott made the original bricks for the Indianapolis Speedway. In the 1930s the WPA could find so little useful to do here that it turned over every brick in every street.”

I came to like this desultory, very friendly town. It has just one remarkable thing about it, but that thing is truly amazing: Right at the end of Main Street you can step across and into a time and place balanced forever on the nervous edge between a young United States and no-man’s-land.

—Frederick Alien TO PLAN A TRIP