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It's not easy to get the historical record right the first time

October 16, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

In 1990, I authored a small book, "Fort Loudoun," which was about a fort that was situated near the center of Winchester, Va., where the Loudoun Apartments now stand. It was one of three forts in North America named in honor of Lord Loudoun, who commanded British forces for a period during the French and Indian War.

The only remaining evidence of the site is a well in the backyard of a home next to the apartments. Over 100 feet deep, it was blasted out of limestone by black powder. Of interest at the moment is the determination of the kind of walls enclosing the fort that was used as Washington's base of operations.

At the restored log cabin that Washington used as an office and which is now a museum, there is a model of a stockade-type log fort that the local historical society has on display. It is, they say, a correct representation of the one constructed by Washington in 1756.

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Although I was aware of other possible types of walls for forts, there seemed to be no reason to doubt their choice and used an artist's sketch on the front cover of my publication. Further reflection and study shows that this might have been a wrong call. This is understandable when it is remembered that wooden forts suffer from rot and have a short life span. The problem is compounded by the different bits of information available.

One sketch of the plan of the fort drawn by Washington shows a wide, flat top that is at variance with the pointed tops of the vertical logs used in the typical log fort wall. In addition, a report made in 1760 indicates two parallel rows of upright logs with the space between filled with dirt and rocks. This was said to be needed because there was only a thin layer of dirt over the limestone - not enough to plant the logs in an upright position in a single row about 3 feet deep.

Another possible design can be seen in Pennsylvania at Fort Ligonier. It also would have been suitable for a situation where a rock undersurface prohibited upright logs. Built three years after Fort Loudoun, Fort Ligonier was constructed during the Forbes campaign to capture Fort Duquesne. Part of its wall was made of large, planed, rectangular logs placed horizontally on the ground. A triangular shape, rising about 8 feet high, was achieved by reducing each layer of logs from four or five at the base to three, then two, and then one. Pointed barbs then projected outward to complete the wall. This design was certainly available to Washington and would explain the flat design shown in his sketch and what was described in 1760.

Locally, we are fortunate to have a stone fort that has become a historic treasure and tourist attraction. Then-Gov. Horatio Sharpe had the prescience to build a durable fort even when critics complained about the cost.

The concern about getting the historical record straight, on the first writing, is made evident by a comparison of the accounts of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. The details of the Lincoln tragedy were gathered and fitted together in a straightforward account. There were enough gaps in the Kennedy assassination to open the door to conspiracy stories that still capture the imagination. The first account of the Lincoln assassination was rightly written on the first try; the Kennedy assassination is still being debated.

International conflicts make more confusion because of deliberate distortions. As is often said, "History is always written by the winners."

The case of the walls, which actually existed at Fort Loudoun, is still unclear and might never be discovered until a concerted effort by interested researchers emerges. This is the penalty for not getting the record straight on the first try.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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