In 1799, under the supervision ofMajor Thomas Freeman, Fort Adams in Wilkinson County, Miss., was constructedatop a high ridge. Located on the county’s southwestern corner, the fort hadnational significance.
With the formation of MississippiTerritory a year earlier, the fort protected what was then the southwesterncorner of the United States. Across the Mississippi River was Spanish-heldLouisiana. Six miles below the fort a boundary line was under construction separatingthe territory from Spanish West Florida.
At Fort Adams, the U.S. Army waspositioned to defend the U.S. in case foreign naval forces with evil intentionsmoved up the Mississippi River. The fort was the first line of defense.
Over the years the number oftroops stationed at the fort varied.
1801: Captain Richard Sparks(known for his hunting and survival skills) commanded with 76 men, includingone artillery company. That same year the U.S. and Choctaw nation negotiated atreaty at Fort Adams to build a road (the Natchez Trace) through Choctaw land.
1803: At the time of theLouisiana Purchase, when rumors of war were spreading, there were 378 troops atFort Adams early in the year, including an armory for spare arms and militarystores. Mississippi Territory's second governor, William C.C. Claiborne, calledFort Adams a “barrier post on our extreme frontier, and consequently not in afit position for a large military deposit.”
Before Louisiana became part of theUnited States, scores, if not hundreds of men – militia and regular Army troops– left Fort Adams with Claiborne for New Orleans, where the transfer wasofficially made as Claiborne became Louisiana’s first governor. By the end ofthe year, Fort Adams was home to 54 troops, including one infantry company andone artillery, all led by a first lieutenant.
From 1801 to 1803, dutiestotaling $60,000 on cargo from ocean going vessels moving up river from SpanishWest Florida and French New Orleans were collected at the fort.
1804: After Louisiana becameAmerican, the importance of Fort Adams as a strategic defense post waslessened, although it continued to serve as a staging area for the movement oftroops. The Secretary of War wrote commanding general James Wilkinson: “It willundoubtedly be requisite for a time to keep a Guard at Fort Adams, but whethera Military Post shall be continued at that place thereafter, may be subject offurther consideration.”
By late 1804, Dr. George Hunter,who along with planter William Dunbar from Natchez commanded the exploration ofthe Ouachita River in Louisiana and Arkansas following the Louisiana Purchase,passed by the fort. Wrote Hunter in his journal: “About 9 a.m. came to LoftusHeights, Fort Adams where a Corporals guard is kept. This is on a high Bluffcommanding the passage of the River.”
At that time, the fort was mannedby only four troops: a corporal and three privates. But rumors of war would multiplythe ranks.
August 1809: Fortescue Cuming (Sketches of a Tour to the Western Country,1810) traveled by horse from Natchez to Fort Adams along a "good road witha ridge of hills called Loftus's heights on the left, and the swamp which commencedat Buffaloe creek on the right." At Fort Adams, he observed "a fewplantations on both sides of the road, those on the right joining the swamp,and the left hand ones being on the broken land beyond the cliffs and hills”toward St. Francisville.
By 1808, the little town belowthe fort was called Wilkinsonburg, in honor of the general, for whom WilkinsonCounty is named. Cuming called it a "poor little village" of a dozenhouses "most of them in decay, hemmed in between the heights and the river.The fort from whence it derives its first name, is situated on a bluffoverhanging the river, at the extremity of the ridge of Loftus's heights."
Cuming provided the best knowndescription of fortifications, noting that the fort was 100 feet "abovethe ordinary level of the Mississippi, which is not more than three hundredyards wide here, so that the fort completely commands it, with several smallbrass cannon and two small brass howitzers mounted en barbette" -- highplatforms so the guns could be fired over the fort wall, which was brick, andnot through openings in it. The works had one bastion (tower), and a smallbarrack inside.
One hundred fifty feet above thefort was a blockhouse built "on the sharp peak of a very steep hill, whichin time of war might serve as a look out, as well as a post, as it commands amost extensive view over the surrounding wilderness of forest, as well as themeanders of the river for several miles."
Cuming looked down from the peakand spotted "two gunboats moored a little above the fort” as well as adozen or more transport boats capable of carrying 30 men and cargo.
A path descended from theblockhouse along "a very narrow ridge" to the town of Wilkinsonburg,later called Fort Adams. Midway down this path was a military cemetery, whichincluded the graves of officers and privates. Officer plots were distinctivebecause they had headstones listing the name, rank and the time of death of thedeceased. Also buried in the cemetery were "two or three men" who hadbeen killed in duels, which Cuming called "a barbarous custom," towhich "they are much addicted in the American army."
In the town below the fort,Cuming spent the night at Marsalis' tavern, the only such establishment in FortAdams. While there, he enjoyed "a tolerably good supper, according to thecustom of the country, of coffee, bread and butter, sliced bacon, and a finedish of gaspar-goo (freshwater drum), the best fish I had yet tasted of theproduce of the Mississippi."
While the fort was operated withone officer "with a platoon (company) being left in it, to guard the pass,and prevent smuggling," most of the garrison lived nearby in a militaryencampment known as Cantonment Columbia Springs.
At the time Cuming visited FortAdams in August 1809, in addition to the one company of men stationed at FortAdams, five companies were located at the nearby camp. Established in 1807 asquarters for the troops, it was abandoned in 1810.
Traveling from Fort Adamssouthward "on a good road,” Cuming traversed "the most broken andhilly country I had yet seen in the territory." This road west toPinckneyville, maintained by the soldiers, followed "high and steepprecipices."
Four miles from Fort Adams, aturn to the right led to the Columbian Springs military camp a mile away on ahigh hill. At the outskirts, Cuming met people "returning home from amarket which is kept there every Sunday morning."
From the plantations in theregion, the military was able to purchase poultry, beef, butter, eggs andvegetables for the troops.
Cuming was "much surprised”with the encampment, “differing from any I had ever before seen."Twenty-four huts "faced a wide open space cleared for a parade, in whichis held the market. In the rear of these, with a narrow street between" were10 "snug and well-furnished cottages" where the officers lived, somebachelors and some married men with families.
But most remarkable was that the"whole camp is constructed with cane (the large reed) in such a manner torender every dwelling perfectly tight and warm." Each cottage was floored"with plank, and the officers' quarters are glazed, and each a littlegarden."
The camp had "an air ofneatness" and "cleanliness," where everyone he met was wellbehaved and mannered.
1809: The most tragic militaryevent ever at Fort Adams occurred a few weeks after Cuming’s visit.
Events leading to the tragedybegan on December 2, 1808, as war with Britain seemed likely. Gen. Wilkinsonwas ordered to assemble 2000 troops in New Orleans to defend the city and theMississippi River. Troops began arriving in March. Wilkinson arrived in April.
Because there had been a drawdownof the army a few years earlier, a national recruitment effort had previouslybeen launched. Men from throughout the western and Atlantic states joined thearmy. Some were shipped to New Orleans on transports down the Ohio and theMississippi
On April 30, 1809, WilliamEustis, the Secretary of War, expressed concern to Wilkinson over the health ofthe troops. He had mulled over a March 24th report that revealed more thanone-fourth of the army at New Orleans was sick. With the summer months comingEustis wanted the troops removed from the city. In the hot Southern summers,sickness sometimes spread like wildfire through communities, especially inareas where there was a concentration of people.
Eustis told the general to leavea small force in New Orleans and move the bulk of the Army to Natchez country-- half to the "high ground in the rear of Fort Adams" and the otherhalf to the "high ground in the rear of Natchez" at the territorialcapital of Washington, six miles to the east. This dispatch did not arrive inWilkinson hands until the middle of June.
Once received, however, Wilkinsonlingered during the heat of summer until it was almost too late. As the sickestmen were transported up river in a flotilla of gunboats and flatboats, thehealthy men marched. Along the way, many died. Scores were wrapped in blanketsand buried along the riverbank. About 100 of the sickest on the boats were leftat hospital set up at Point Coupee.
At Fort Adams, 134 men wereplaced in a temporary hospital. More than half -- 68 -- died at the fort. Ofthe 2,000 men originally sent to New Orleans under Wilkinson’s command in thespring of 1809, some 686 died, 108 deserted and 58 were discharged.
Because of this calamity,Wilkinson was relieved of his command while in Natchez in mid-December of 1809.
By 1812, the fort was abandonedby the Army.
In the1830s, writer Joseph Ingraham passed the old fort site on a steamer heading upthe Mississippi.
Heobserved that a “striking eminence crowned by Fort Adams, appears in thedistance. It is a cluster of cliffs and hills nearly two hundred feet inheight. The old fort can just be discerned with a glass, surmounting a naturalplatform, half way up the side of the most prominent hill. The workspresent the appearance of a few green mounds, and though defaced by time, stillbear evidence of having been a military post. The position is highly commandingand romantic. The scenery around would be termed striking, even in Maine, thatromantic land of rocks, and cliffs, and mountains. A small village is at thebase of the hills, containing a few stores. Cotton is exported hence, andsteamers are now at the landing taking it in.”
After the Civil War, theMississippi River changed course, leaving the community of Fort Adams two milesfrom the riverbank.