Fort Massac is an American Civil War era fort located in Macoupin County, Illinois. The state park preserves the site of the former Fort Massac, which was active from October 1864 to July 1865. Built as part of a mid-term response to the Union’s need for defenses during the postbellum period, it was designed by engineer Colonel William A. Welch and architect Major General Robert S. Garnett.
Fort Massac has been preserved as a historical landmark and is open to visitors in season. Visitors can tour the fort grounds, meet with guides, learn about the history and present day activities at the site, picnic on the grassy areas, and camp in the large group tenting area. There are eight miles (13km) of hiking trails leading up to various lookout points around the perimeter. An equestrian entrance leads to additional camping and picnicking facilities as well as allowing access to miles of horseback riding trails.
Park staff answer questions, provide interpretive information, and sell souvenirs like t-shirts, hats, and bumper stickers. The visitor center is open daily except Tuesday through Friday. Outside, hiking trails lead to scenic overlooks and monuments. Campsites range from full hookup RV campsites to walk-in tent sites. Half of the campsites are available on a first come, first served basis, while the remainder require reservations. The large group tenting area accommodates groups of 40 people or more. Picnic tables are scattered throughout the park, along with charcoal grills and drinking water. Modern restrooms and showers are provided. Horses may be brought onto the half mile long loop trail that passes through woodlands, prairie, hills, and valleys.
Construction began on June 27, 1864, at a cost of $500,000; however, its completion would not be possible without the thousands of men who served in its construction. At least 12 different companies were assigned to the fort with over 200 officers and men in each. In addition to fighting off attacks by cavalry units belonging to Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s Army of the Tennessee, Fort Massac also had to defend itself against raids by bands of Kiowa and Potawatomi warriors. These raids became so frequent that troops stationed there could only patrol the area while on duty, leaving no one man behind the walls when they went out on these “scouts.” As a result, two soldiers were killed and three others wounded before the end of September. After this series of events, the army decided to abandon Fort Massac and move all supplies and artillery to St. Louis where they could more easily be shipped south.
On October 23, 1864, orders were received to cease fire operations and remove all guns and men. This order was given even though most of the garrison was still fit for combat. All hands but those needed to guard the sick and elderly departed within four days, leaving just six men to care for the health and safety of the remaining residents. With the departure of the last soldier, Fort Massac was officially closed on October 28, 1864. It remained unoccupied until May 1865 when Maj. Gen. John Logan visited and inspected the facility. He then ordered that the buildings be used for quartermaster purposes. Following his death, the military usefulness of the property came into question. Although some of the structures were re-purposed for other uses (for example, housing for employees of the newly created Veterans’ Bureau), most of the facilities deteriorated and were eventually demolished. Only one building remains today, a small cabin serving as park office and visitor center.
The park includes several historic resources related to the U.S. Cavalry: Company E, 4th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers by Native Americans because of their dark complexion; Company M, 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment; and Troop D, 1st United States Dragoons. Companies E and M fought at Fort Massac, and Company E returned to the fort after being mustered out of service in December 1865. They were later called back to active duty between March and August 1871 when tensions with Russia caused concern of another war. Once again returning home in late summer, they were called back to active duty in early September 1877 when yet another crisis arose with Spain. Their final muster out took place in April 1879 following the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.
Fort Massac is notable for its association with African Americans who played significant roles in its defense. During the week preceding the battle of Gettysburg, July 13, 1863, five black soldiers from Fort Massac were murdered by a mob in nearby Johnsonville. The victims included Privates James Berry, Henry Brown, Samuel Edmonds, Jeremiah Green, and Charles Hawkins. Outraged by the murders, twenty-five white soldiers from the fort joined forces with local citizens to form what became known as the “Company of Heroes,” dedicated to protecting themselves and the community from further acts of violence. Led by Lt. Alfred Thompson, the unit successfully defended the town against attack by Confederate raiders under the command of Maj. Gen. Frederick Dent. For their bravery, each member of the company was awarded the Medal of Honor, which was presented to them by President Abraham Lincoln. Following the murder of four more blacks at Rock Island Bridge, nine members of the company were court-martialed and seven were dismissed from the service.
Later, twelve members of the company were granted honorable discharge for reasons of ill health or age. Three died before the end of the year, including Alfred Thompson, who succumbed to wounds sustained in the Battle of Antietam. However, the actions of the Twenty-fifth Illinois helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Union. Following the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the surrender of Arkansas, Missouri, and Kentucky, the Confederacy realized that continuing the fight was futile. Upon hearing this news, members of the Fort Massac company felt that their services were no longer required. Many of them chose to return to their homes in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois rather than continue serving in the confederate army. Sixteen deserted and never returned. Only five men stayed on and were paid. Those men were allowed to apply for discharge, which was granted in January 1866, when only four years of service remained instead of the usual three. Discharged veterans were permitted to take up residence anywhere in the Union. Hundreds of ex-soldiers found employment in northern states, many settling in southern Wisconsin. Others moved west to Colorado, California, and Nevada. One hundred and thirty-three settled in northeast Iowa, near the village of Tabor, where they worked on farms and ranches. Five men chose to stay in Macoupin County, IL, and started new lives as businessmen.
Among them, Alfred Thompson opened a general store, married, and father to a son named Sherman. His son grew up speaking both French and English, learned to hunt, fish, farm, and drive cattle. He attended school, got a job working for a doctor, and eventually owned his own ranch. When he too grew old, he sold the land to a neighbor and retired. Shortly thereafter, Alfred Thompson moved to Carlinville, IL, where he spent the rest of his life. He died in 1923 at age 87, having seen the world change around him. Today, few traces remain of Fort Massac. Most of the stone work has been eroded away by wind and water. What stone walls and gates survive are mostly modern reproductions. Even the original barracks have been rebuilt twice since their construction in the 1860s. But one structure stands undisturbed, a small cabin serving as park office and visitor center. Inside, displays include photographs, artifacts, books, maps, newspapers, and personal mementos.