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A night at the fort ... and thinking back 250 years

May 21, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

BIG POOL - It's a recent Thursday evening, a night I would usually be home eating a hot meal and watching the ballgame.

Instead there is no TV, no radio, no hot meal and no cushioned chair.

There is a hard wood bench made from a split log and a dark wooden table in a room bookended by huge stone fireplaces.

I know because I saw them not long before the sun set.

With only two candles lit in two wooden lanterns with punched tin tops, I can only make out those things within a foot and a half of the candlelight now. The darkness amplifies every sound and movement in the shadows.

I can make out the outline of the chimney stacks in the building across the grounds from this one.

I'm inside one of two enlisted men's barracks at Fort Frederick and, for now, I'm alone.

The remnants of a fire in the fireplace permeate the air, and the only sounds are the scribbling of pen on paper and the occasional dripping of rainwater off the building into a grassy puddle.

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Friends of Fort Frederick State Park Inc. and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Fort Frederick this Memorial Day weekend, and my editor suggested I spend a night at the fort to get some sense of what it was like to live inside these huge stone walls in the middle of the woods.

Construction of the fort began in 1756 to protect local settlers from French and Indian raiding parties. More than 700 settlers sought refuge there in 1763, after the war, when Ottawa Chief Pontiac led a massive assault against frontier settlers, according to park historian Steve Robertson and Allan Powell, author of "Fort Frederick: Potomac Outpost."

The fort was put to use by the military again during the Revolutionary War to shelter settlers and imprison British soldiers.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers used the fort as an outpost.

During the French and Indian War - the fort's heyday - there would have been more than 200 enlisted men and officers garrisoned here at times, Robertson said.

Any apprehension I might have at staying at the fort would pale in comparison to what those soldiers must have felt. They were out here in the middle of the frontier, far from any city, with who knows how many Shawnee or Delaware were in the woods surrounding the fort.

They must have been scared, or so I thought.

"They would have felt pretty secure. ... Once the fort is established here and it's garrisoned, it's pretty safe," Robertson said.

Especially Fort Frederick because it was far more powerful than a typical frontier fort due to its massiveness, its manpower and its stone walls, rather than wood ones, Robertson said.

There was never a battle here, nor should there have been, he said.

Between the strong fort and militia patrolling the area to check on local settlements and look for American Indians, the enemy - French and Indian war parties - would have been encouraged to stay away, he said.

Robertson knows of two accounts of Indian attacks within sight of the fort.

A man was scalped within sight of the fort and another time an American Indian fired a musket at a soldier standing outside the gate on guard duty, presumably while the fort still was being constructed.

Life was precarious at the time, with all sorts of diseases, including smallpox and scurvy, on the frontier, said Powell, who lives east of Hagerstown.

An outbreak of smallpox occurred at Fort Frederick in early 1758, Robertson said.

Not the coziest bed



It's almost 9:30 p.m., and I'm up writing by candlelight, but 250 years ago the soldiers encamped here probably would have been sleeping by this time, Robertson said.

Like farmers, there wouldn't have been much to do without sunlight. There was no city night life nearby.

Life at frontier forts meant dealing with boredom and rough military justice, Powell said.

With a full garrison, the men would have slept two to a bunk - each bunk being about 6 feet 2 inches long and about 4 feet wide, and the bunks are slanted.

In the 18th century the thought was it was healthier to sleep with the chest elevated, Robertson said.

The bunks are lined up head to head with no space between them.

The floor is wooden, there are windows along the front wall, and the ceiling beams are 6 feet 5 inches from the wooden floor, giving me the feeling I should duck when I don't have to.

Each two-story clapboard-covered barrack accommodates 50 men per floor.

There are four chimney stacks per barrack allowing for eight fireplaces per floor. Each squad, about six to seven men, would have a fireplace to cook and keep warm.

"They would live together, sleep together, eat together," Robertson said. They would limit how often a fire was going, depending on how much firewood the squad had been issued.

While there were plenty of trees, firewood would have been rationed due to military protocol, plus hundreds of men would have gone through wood quickly, and they had other duties to perform, Robertson said.

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