Fort Hill’s fort: City’s Civil War citadel mostly forgotten
Partially encircled by homes with picture-window views of downtown Charleston, the earthen walls of a Civil War fort where two U.S. presidents once served rise more than 10 feet above the pavement of Fort Circle Drive and form an elliptical ring.
A small sign at a pull-off area identifies the site as Fort Scammon, and informs visitors that the configuration of earthworks is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, open to the public from daybreak to dusk, and off-limits to those drinking beverages containing alcohol. There are no signs at the old fort site to tell its story, show what it looked like, or remember those who served there.
“I would say a lot of people in the Charleston area have no clue that it’s even there,” said Billy Joe Peyton, head of the history department at West Virginia State University. “I’d like to see something happen up there to change that — maybe some interpretive signs, at least. There’s not a lot of room up there for parking or much of anything else.”
Visitors to the grassy fort site owned by the city of Charleston can stroll the tops of the fort’s earthen walls, take in an aerial view of Charleston 1,000 feet below, and try to make sense of the alignment of inner walls that once contained, among other things, a powder magazine and emplacements for 12 cannons. Chances of encountering other visitors are slim.
But 150 years ago this week, the fort was a beehive of activity, as Union soldiers who had occupied it for the past year prepared to abandon it and its affiliated Camp White at the base of hill for what would turn out to be the duration of the war.
In late April 1864, about 6,000 troops under the command of Gen. George Crook gathered in Charleston to launch what they hoped would be a final spring offensive against the Confederates in their Virginia heartland. Crook’s Army of West Virginia was made up of three brigades, the first of which was led by Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, commanding officer of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, which had been stationed in Charleston since March 1863. Men under the command of Hayes, a former Cincinnati lawyer and a future U.S. president, had seen combat at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry in 1861 and the following year at the Battle of South Mountain in Maryland, where Hayes was shot through his left arm.
There was a lull in combat in the region in the months that followed Hayes’ arrival here, and the colonel felt it would be a good time to fortify the hilltop behind Camp White. Confederate artillerymen used the peak to their advantage the previous September, when they drove federal troops out of the Kanawha Valley during the Battle of Charleston.
“We are fortifying, partly to occupy time, partly to be safe,” Hayes wrote in a May 2, 1863, letter to his wife. By the end of that month, the fort was complete, and Hayes wrote that he and his troops “are in no danger here. We have built a tolerably good fort which we can hold against superior forces perhaps a week or two or more. We have a gunboat which will be useful as long as the river is navigable.”
“The fort was in a good location,” Peyton said. “It overlooked the Elk River bridge, the mouth of Elk River and the Kanawha River ferries” as well as the Parkersburg and Point Pleasant turnpikes and downtown Charleston, then a town of about 1,500.
The future president apparently enjoyed his time here, where he stayed in a cottage adjacent to Camp White that he rented from the Quarrier family. On several occasions, his wife, children and other relatives traveled by steamboat to Charleston to join him at the cottage.
“Drilling, boating and ball playing make the time pass pleasantly,” Hayes wrote, as the hilltop fort neared completion.
“This is a beautiful Valley from Piatt [present-day Belle] to its mouth. Make West Virginia a free state, and Charleston ought to become a sort of Pittsburgh.”
But Hayes would remember his family time in Charleston with both smiles and tears.
He enjoyed family activities like boating in the Kanawha and watching his wife, Lucy, go over school lessons with their children and others. “Lucy schools the larger boy [Birchard ‘Birch’ Hayes] and a young soldier” while the wife of his quartermaster taught the other children, Hayes wrote. “The young soldier is a good deal older than Birch, but not as advanced.”
When Gen. Crook was in camp, he made use of Charleston’s hills and streams to teach Birch’s 9-year-old younger brother, Webb (later Crook’s godson), the basics of hunting, fishing and camping.
But tragedy struck in June 1863. The Hayeses’ youngest son, Joseph, died of dysentery in their cabin at Camp White.
“Poor little darling!” Hayes wrote in his diary. “A sweet, bright boy. I have seen so little of him, born since the war, that I do not realize a loss” on the scale suffered by his wife.
In addition to having a cordial relationship with Crook, his commanding officer, Hayes was something of a mentor to a junior officer, William McKinley. McKinley, a fellow Ohioan, started the war as a private, but earned a battlefield commission to second lieutenant for showing courage and initiative during the Battle of Antietam. He rose to the rank of major by the time the war ended, and later, followed Hayes to the White House as the 25th president.
A few weeks after the 23rd Ohio arrived at Camp White, Hayes invited McKinley to accompany him on a horseback ride that took the two future presidents out Davis Creek Road toward the Guyandotte Turnpike, crossing the stream seven times before returning to camp.
“He is an exceedingly bright, intelligent and gentlemanly young officer,” Hayes wrote. “He promises to be one of the best.”
Just before leaving Charleston during the final week in April 1864, the enlisted men in Hayes’ regiment chipped in several hundred dollars to buy a specially made sword for Crook.
From Charleston, Hayes’ brigade, which included two Ohio infantry regiments and two West Virginia cavalry units in addition to the 23rd Ohio, passed through Gauley Bridge and Meadow Bluff in Greenbrier County, before crossing into Virginia. On May 9, in Pulaski County, Va., the brigade spearheaded the main assault on a fortified Confederate position on Cloyd’s Mountain, leading to a Union victory.
As it turned out, Fort Scammon, named in honor of Gen. Eliakim Scammon, the former commander of the 23rd Ohio, was never needed to fend off a Confederate assault.
On July 7, to celebrate the Union capture of Vicksburg and to give a belated tribute to Independence Day, the hilltop fort’s battery of cannons fired an extended salute.
“Fired 100 guns and had a good time,” Hayes wrote in his diary. It is believed to be the only time the cannons were fired during the war. The member of the Hayes family who left the most lasting impact on Charleston and its environs was Webb Hayes, Rutherford’s son.
“Throughout his life, Webb spoke fondly of his time here,” Peyton said. “He became quite an outdoorsman and went out west to hunt big game with General Crook.”
Webb Hayes joined the Ohio National Guard and was called to active duty to serve in the Spanish-American War, where he took part in the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, and in the Philippines, where he earned a Medal of Honor for a mission he undertook singlehandedly behind enemy lines to help free a group of American prisoners of war.
Before activation, Webb Hayes and three other Cleveland businessmen formed the National Carbon Co., which later became known as the Union Carbide Corp., which in turn developed into a huge presence in the Kanawha Valley. Hayes served for many years as vice president of that corporation.
During the century that followed the end of the Civil War, brush, trees and weeds partially reclaimed Fort Scammon. Aside from occasional memory-stirring newspaper stories about the fort, it was largely forgotten.
As home development began to creep toward the summit of Fort Hill in the 1960s, Charleston architect Robert Martens and attorney Paul Kaufman launched a campaign to save the remaining portions of the fort from development. In 1970, the hilltop site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1978, the city of Charleston bought the parcel of land containing the fort for $75,000.
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com or 304-348-5169.