Fort Duffield: Kentucky’s impenetrable Civil War stronghold

Since I was a boy I’ve relished the idea of traveling back in time and seeing what life was like for people in other eras. That’s why I like visiting well preserved historic sites, it’s about as close you can get to stepping into a time portal.

A few years back I found an intriguing Civil War base atop a hill. One that actually pulls back the veil of history, and provides a physical glimpse into the past.

Fort Duffield is located in Kentucky, just outside the town of West Point and to the South of Louisville. I’ve been to the fort many times and I thought it would be cool to share some amazing facts that make this Civil War fortress so special.

A walk through history

Before laying out the history of the fort, let’s begin by looking at the actual layout and few of the property’s notable features.

  • The 17 foot tall earthen walls were constructed in 1861 and stretch for almost an eighth of a mile.
  • Several replica cabins have been built at the fort.
  • The views of the river and town below are breathtaking.
  • A memorial cemetary sits on a hill adjacent to the fort.
  • ‘Court House Road’ was built in 1800 and it’s remnants remain off the main road to the grounds.

Entrance to the fort requires walking up a rather large hill to a fork in the road. To the left, the memorial cemetery. By following the road to the right you will find the former Union Stronghold, Fort Duffield.

Once at the fort your greeted by a sign and a couple of trails that that lead around the earthen structure.

On the north end of the fort two reproduced cabins are displayed for visitors. The cabins were built too look as accurate as possible to original dwellings. It’s ok to explore the inside of the structures as well. The inside of each consists of approximately 5 foot tall ceilings and a combination of dirt and wood planks for the floors. The walls of the cabins are constructed of cut timber and insulated with a mud and straw mixture. Two of the three cabins on the property have second floors accessible by stairs and a ladder.

A path leads from the pair of cabins up a hill to the top of the forts defensive dirt mounds. Standing approximately 17 feet tall and 9 feet wide in most places, the pictures fail to properly illustrate the scale of the earthen walls. In addition, the fortification sprawls for an estimated eighth of a mile. Building the walls in terrain this rough would be impressive at any point in history. But especially so when you consider that the fortifications are 150 years old and were built with simple tools.

The path then curls to the south and pauses at a clearing where a campfire site existed. After long days tending to duties soliders would gather to unwind in the evenings. Another replica cabin sits directly behind the gathering area.

The trail then twists towards the main entrance and down the hill to the cemetary. Along the way you can’t help but notice the breathtaking view of the small town of West Point Kentucky and Ohio River below.

Once up the hill your greeted by an American flag and a memorial cemetery. The memorial was setup in the 1990’s to pay homage to the 48 soliders that perished between 1861 and 1862.

After passing through the memorial it’s all downhill. A path winds a quarter of a mile through the woods back to the parking area where a replica section of wall exists for those who want to observe the fort, but might not have the stamina for the 1.5 mile round trip.

On the way down the mile long road back to the modern world you will encounter one last relic of a forgotten time. Just to the left of the main road lay remnants of ‘Courthouse Road’ built in 1800. The road ran from the Salt River all the way to the Hardin County Courthouse in Elizabethtown Kentucky and was used until the Louisville-Nashville turnpike was completed. The old trail can still be seen just across a freshwater stream. This road is possibly the oldest piece of history in the area, an impressive feat in itself.

Orgins of Fort Duffield

Now that you know your way around the place, the next logical question is why was the fort commissioned?

  • General William T. Sherman ordered the construction of Fort Duffield at the onset of the Civil War in 1861.
  • The Union stronghold took 45 days to complete.
  • The fortress was named after Colonel William Duffield’s father, clergymen George Duffield.
  • The base never had a battle during the Civil War.
  • 48 soliders perished while serving at Fort Duffield, mostly from various diseases.
Drawing of Fort Duffield by Charles Kelley, Colonel 9th Michigan Infantry Regiment circa 1861.

In 1861 at the onset of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman ordered the construction of the fort to serve as a buffer of protection for supply routes. The site was chosen atop a hill in West Point Kentucky overlooking the mouth of the Salt River. The primary objective was shielding the city of West Point, the Ohio River shipping routes and the Louisville-Nashville Turnpike from attacks from the south.

Work began in the fall when the 9th Michgan Infantry Regiment and 37th Indiana Infantry Regiment broke ground. The work was overseen by Colonel William W. Duffield who commanded the 9th Infantry. Colonel George W. Hazzard also assisted in construction and commanded the 37th Infantry out of Indiana. The fortress was later named after Colonel Duffiled’s father Reverend George Duffield a prominent clergyman from Detroit Michigan.

The soliders quickly constructed cabins, wooden gates and the trenches that still exist to this day. The earthen fort only took about 45 days to construct and could house over 1,000 troops once complete. The strategic location on top of a large hill and design of the base, made it impervious to would be attacks. Fort Duffield also had a cannon mounted on a turret that rotated 360 degrees and could fire in any direction if needed.

1861-1864: The Civil War

After Duffield’s hasty construction the 9th Michigan Infantry was stationed there throughout the conflict. During the war the Fort basically served as a deterrent and never came under or initiated an attack.

While researching Duffiled’s history I did stumble across one interesting unsolved mystery. A conflicting report of a sniper shooting. According to records at the base (see picture below) Emil Fisher was killed by a gunshot from a sniper on December 4, 1861. However, official records state that the base never came under fire.

Duffield’s War

A list of the names and cause of death of many of the soliders that perished at Fort Duffield. Click to enlarge.

Although the stronghold wasn’t involved in any direct conflict, the 9th Infantry Regiment suffered major loss of life from outbreaks of Typhoid Fever, Measles and Tuberculosis. The majority of deaths at the base occurred between 1861 and 1862, the picture above lists the soliders who died at the camp, date of death and cause of death. The list was compiled sometime prior to a more recent 2015 study, and doesn’t include the names that were added.

A sign near the cemetary updating official fatality numbers at Fort Duffield. Forensic archeological investigations continue to this day. Click to enlarge.

It was once believed that between 36 and 39 soliders lost their lives while stationed at Duffield, but the exact number was unknown for over 150 years. Unfortunately, a 2015 study revealed (see above photo) that the number was much higher. As of today it is believed that 48 soliders lost thier life during the Civil War at Fort Duffield.

Fort Duffield today

Today the base is just as popular as ever and serves mutiple purposes. Duffield’s illustrious past and preserved earthen walls make the fort on the hill a hidden gem amongst history enthusiasts. Every summer people still gather from all over to participate in a Civil War reenactment.

The area is also known throughout the region for it’s amazing hiking and mountain bike trails. One of the midwest’s more popular mountain bike competitions is held on the grounds annually. This competition draws participants from all over the nation.

There you have it, a walk through one of the Civil War era’s best preserved encampments in the region. If you’re ever in the area it’s well worth the hour and a half that it takes to explore the grounds. If you’re considering a trip to Fort Duffield and have questions or your interested in purchasing prints of any of the photographs in this article feel free to contact me here.

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