Fort Duffield Sentry Started Battle That Never Was

By Leslie A. Smith - 2000

On September 9, 1861, the simple lives of the citizens of West Point (now Hardin County), Kentucky, had changed almost overnight. The early risers saw a cloud of dust in the direction of the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike at the west end of town.

It appeared that a large group of mounted men in gray uniforms were coming up the street. These soldiers, under the command of Capt. Mitchell Lapaille, were reconnoitering the area for General Simon Buckner's Rebel forces. The CSA cavalry came to West Point in an attempt to capture several store boats owned by Venne P. Armstrong.

General William Sherman was the commander in Kentucky for the Union Army. In order to supply his men inland in Kentucky, Sherman decided to establish his supply base at West Point, the nearest place on the Ohio River. Steamers could unload war material, and supplies could be easily transported down the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike to his men. He established his headquarters at the Judge Fisher home, located at present-day Fourth and Elm Streets.

Gen. Sherman ordered five regiments into town to protect his supplies, also to protect Louisville from attack via the Louisville and Nashville Turnpike: the 9th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the 37th Indiana Volunteer Regiment, the 1st Wisconsin Regiment, and the 16th and 28th Kentucky Infantry Regiments.

Of the units mentioned above, the one which stayed the longest and did the most work was the 9th Michigan Regiment. It came into service on October 15, 1861, in Detroit. In one night, West Point had gone from a small, booming town to an army camp.

Construction on Fort Duffield began November 3, 1861, with the 9th Michigan in charge. The regiments spent 70,000 man-days building the fort. Once the fort was completed, the men built log cabins for shelters.

The back of the fort faced West Point. A wagon road was made on the opposite side of the hill to carry supplies and cannons to the fort. Fort Duffield was very unique in that it wasn't laid out like most other forts, which were either octagon or square-shaped with four sides. Duffield was laid out shaped like a "home plate" with sides, but no rear wall. This design was used, since a 300-foot shear cliff was at the rear of the fort.

The fort was active all through the war. There were no battles or skirmishes on the hill, except for one. On the first night of encampment at the fort, Companies G and E of the 9th Michigan Volunteer Infantry were assigned to protect the fort with ten pieces of artillery. A sentinel claimed he saw something by a stump, aimed his gun, and began firing. The drummers heard the bullets and started beating their drums. Reinforcements came down from the hill and started firing, also.

It wasn't until the next morning that someone figured out they'd been shooting at an axe, sticking out of a tree stump. A few animals had lost their lives, but the only human casualty was that of a sergeant, who ripped the seat of his britches. What makes this even more ridiculous, today, is that the nearest Rebels that night were miles away at Bowling Green.

Although there was much construction at Fort Duffield already in progress, many little camps had already been established around West Point. The 9th Michigan and the 37th Indiana were encamped on the east bank of the Salt River. This regiment remained true to Fort Duffield, while the 37th Indiana was located at Camp Holman or present-day Kulmer Beach.

Both regiments soon moved across the river. The 37th Indiana moved into some open fields near the town and called it Camp Hazzard. When the 1st Wisconsin arrived, it placed its camp adjacent to that of the 9th Michigan, near Bee Branch Bridge. They named it Camp Buell. At that time, General Buell had command of the area.

The main body of Gen. Buell's army came marching into West Point on September 25th, after eight days of crossing the Salt River. Buell's 40,000 men were tattered, hungry, and in rags. Thousands of supply wagons, broken down horses, six gunboats, and supply boats were tied up to the unloading wharf. Needless to say, they were very happy to see the fort. Buell himself did not stay very long at West Point. After his arrival, he had insulted one of the residents, then boarded a steamboat for Louisville.

There is a cemetery adjacent to Fort Duffield called Memorial Hill, where 61 members of the 9th Michigan Infantry are buried. These 61 men died during the winter of 1861-62, but none of them were killed in battle. After epidemics of typhoid, measles, and pneumonia killed dozens of soldiers, the colonel ordered that each man be given a full military funeral. The burials took place at the parade grounds on the western side of Pearman Hill.

In September 1895, veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic held their 30th annual reunion at Louisville, the first one ever held south of the Ohio River. Almost 150,000 men attended the many balls and receptions during the week-long celebration.

When Louisville officials started planning this event, they asked the city of West Point to share in the activities. West Point formed a small committee to organize it, and every man who had served at Fort Duffield was invited to attend the reunion. All units were invited, with the exception of the 37th Indiana.

Leslie Smith, 1 University Drive, UPO 388, Campbellsville, KY 42718, originally submitted a longer version of this story as a research paper for her Kentucky History class at Campbellsville University. We appreciate her kindness in sharing it with our readers.