Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and Future

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Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureLocated on the Red River in Pineville, the Fort Randolph/Fort Buhlow State Historic Site serves as a regional hub for the historical interpretation of the Red River Campaign, Bailey’s Dam, the burning of Alexandria, and the construction of Forts Randolph and Buhlow. Visitors may learn about Bailey’s Dam, a marvel of engineering that saved the Union Fleet from certain destruction during their retreat down the Red River. The dam is no longer visible due to the elevated level of the Red River, but an overlook of the river marks the location of the dam.

Most familiar with local Civil War history know about the Red River Campaign and the subsequent burning of Alexandria.  However, many are unaware of the two large forts built to defend the cities of Alexandria and Pineville after the Red River Campaign.  Forts Buhlow and Randolph were two earthen fortifications reinforced by timber and stone that sat on the Pineville side of the Red River.  They were constructed and fortified to prevent another Union Naval attack on cotton-rich cities up the Red River beyond Alexandria.   The historical record of both forts is rich, but scant and uneventful because they never fired a shot in anger.

Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureThe Forts were named after the two officers responsible for overseeing their construction:  Capt. Christopher Meyer Randolph, and Lt. Alfonso Buhlow.  Construction began in mid September 1864 and finalized by January 1865.  Hundreds of Confederate soldiers, slaves, (many of whom consisted of conscripted labor from surrounding parishes) and free blacks worked feverishly to hasten completion of both forts.  The Confederate Garrison numbered between two hundred and three hundred men, and included engineers,  artillery and infantry personnel.  Existing records fail to reveal exactly how many cannons the forts had, but likely each one had between four to eight large guns.  Life in the fort for soldiers was typical of any other: garrison duty, drilling, repairing the fort, and the drudgery of camp life that dominated the day-to-day existence.

Visitors may also tour the earthwork forts built by the Confederate forces. Construction began on both forts in September of 1864 as a response to the Union Fleet’s Red River Campaign, and as a defense against the potential subsequent activities of the Union forces along the Red River. Both forts were completed in the early months of 1865, and were adequately armed with heavy cannons and field artillery, and manned by over 800 men. However, the war in Louisiana came to an end without a shot being fired from either of the forts. This facility will serve as a Central Louisiana destination for Civil War enthusiasts interested in exploring a currently unknown part of arguably the most important event in American history.

Word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox reached the forts on April 20, 1865; soon thereafter Confederate soldiers began to desert in earnest.  On May 10, 1865 the Chief Engineer of the Trans-Mississippi Department ordered Forts Bulhow and Randolph destroyed, including its guns, ammunition, bombproofs, and other equipment.  The remaining 86 soldiers garrisoned there would not carry out these orders, speculating that destroying the forts was connected to a scheme involving several high-ranking officers to sell cotton upriver to the Yankees.  Their commanders were not about to press the garrison to carry out the orders, fearing mutiny and violence.  The Trans-Mississippi Department officially surrendered the forts to Union forces on June 2, 1865; by that time only a handful of Confederate soldiers remained.

Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureWith a longstanding conviction for making Louisiana an even better place, Moore Planning Group started as volunteers on the Fort Randolph and Fort Buhlow State Historic Site project back in 1985. Along with other volunteers like Mike Tudor and Oberia Price, MPG worked toward the day when these jewels in civil war history would be open for all to enjoy. Starting in April 2002, Moore Planning Group researched other earthen fortifications, collaborated with the Red River Waterway Commission (RRWC), the Department of Health and Hospitals, the Office of State Parks, and worked with community and private entities to determine the value of the project. As part of the implementation strategy, MPG served the RRWC by pulling together $4.4 million for the project and by developing a master plan concept that expanded on the historical significance and preservation of the Civil War earthen structure. Lastly, MPG worked closely with Pan American Engineers on all the construction documents for the park.

 “The Forts Randolph and Buhlow project has been in the Commission’s project inventory for a long time.  It is gratifying to see this project come to fruition, especially since the Office of State Parks now has a foothold in Central Louisiana,” said Ken Guidry, Executive Director of the Red River Waterway Commission.  “This project originated in the mid-80’s and really took off in 2003 when the Capital Outlay funding was secured.  The local community deserves a lot of credit for not letting this project go by the wayside. Naturally, without Senator McPherson and the rest of the local legislative delegation, the project’s major funding source would not have been available.  The Red River Waterway Commission’s funding of its portion (about 25%) was possible because of the dedication of numerous Commissioners throughout this project’s lifetime.  Their steadfast support of the project through the tough times resulted in what you see today.”

There was a letter that was found written by one of the soldiers camped at Ft. Randolph that read, “Work is hard. Food is same every day. Conditions are cold. It’s a challenge – but we’re ok. What’s driving me crazy is the incessant snoring of thousands of men sleeping out under the stars.”   What an appropriate quote for this project where great partners worked together through a myriad of challenges to create something really outstanding and positive. There were many true community champions who helped make this project a reality.

Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureAll of these people and their passion for Louisiana have made our history and this project truly a magnificent element in economic development in our community for years to come. This connection between quality of life projects like this park and economic development and civic pride was summarized best by Ms. Elaine Brister in her book, ‘Once Upon a River’ when she wrote: “History is like a Beacon of Light shining from behind to the path of the Future.”

In 2006, Westerchil Construction Company was contracted to being construction on the site.  The awarding of the contract stirred excitement for the Westerchil staff about the challenges that lay ahead.  “At an early age, I embarked on a school project focused on the Civil War era of the USA,” explains Chuck Westerchil.  “Specifically, I studied several major campaigns , Battle of Chancellorsville, 1st Bull Run, and Gettysburg.  Although the military campaigns were the original focus of my school topic, I soon learned that the political climate, the debate over slavery, and hardship of everyday life molded the fundamentals of our nation forever. The lessons of this early high school assignment stirred a lifelong interest in the lessons of History. Thus, I became a ‘history buff’.”

The initial task that Westerchil Construction confronted was to transform approximately 26 acres of undeveloped land along the Pineville side of Red River into property with infrastructure such as roads, utilities, and drainage to support the  soon to be State Park highlighting the Red River Campaign of 1864 & 1865.  This became a bigger challenge because construction crews were restricted in certain areas from utilizing modern equipment to perform the improvements. The restrictions were an effort to maintain the area as close as they existed during the time period of 1864-1865.

Another requirement of the construction of the Park was to develop the  areas of the embankments at Ft. Randolph and Ft. Buhlow sites for tourist use. Once again, contract restrictions did not allow the use of modern equipment to accomplish the selected clearing. After researching the history of  the embankments, the design firms chose a unique concept to provide tourist access to the embankment areas.

Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureWesterchil constructed nearly 0.6 miles of elevated wooden walkways that wound throughout these areas at both fort sites.  Again, without the use of modern equipment, special precast concrete footings that were originally designed for use in wetlands and marsh areas were utilized.  In conjunction with the boardwalks, the firm constructed several wooden bridges (one which spanned thirty feet at a height of twenty five feet) inside the fort areas. “This type and technique is rarely seen in our modern era.  Hence, I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced the opportunity to ‘look back in time’,” explains Westerchil.

LSUA is assisting in the promotion of the newly-opened state park at Forts Buhlow and Randolph.  Several professors will be giving presentations at the park on the 2nd Saturday of every month from 1:00pm  to 3:00pm.  On February 12th, Dr. Don Yates will discuss Civil War earthworks, engineers and pioneering; and on March 12th, Dr. Christopher Stacey will give a presentation on Civil War Uniforms and equipment (in full Civil War regalia) of the western Union and Confederate Armies.  Other programs are planned which will feature music, local authors, and other local history.  The park features a walking tour and visitor center with a museum.  Don Fontenot, Director and his dedicated staff have worked hard to get the park up and running.

Forts Randolph & Buhlow State Historic Sites: Bridging Cenla’s Past, Present and FutureThis year, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development announced the beginning of construction on a new, $82.9 million four-lane bridge connecting Alexandria and Pineville on US Highway 71/US Highway 165 over the Red River, replacing the existing OK Allen Bridge.  The new bridge has been designated the Fort Buhlow Bridge.  The project will also incorporate service roads in the vicinity of Buhlow Lake to provide easier access to citizens going to the airport and the Red River park areas. The new bridge is being built to the south of the existing bridge. This is the final project in a $917 million initiative to widen 157 miles of U.S. 165 from two to four lanes between I-10 and Bastrop.

“This is a very important project for the residents of Central Louisiana,” said DOTD Secretary Sherri H. LeBas. “The new bridge will not only provide for a safer river crossing, but also will help to bring relief from congestion to the more than 21,000 drivers using the bridge each day.”  Work on the project is expected to last approximately three years.

The completion and opening of the Forts Buhlow and Randolph State Historic sites and the launch of the Fort Buhlow Bridge Replacement project represents the fruition of years of hard work, dedication and planning of Cenla visionaries, leaders and the business community.  Representing vital pieces of our past and working towards our growth and future, the Fort Buhlow and Fort Randolph projects are successfully bridging Cenla’s vibrant past with our bright future!

Pat Moore, Dr. Christopher L. Stacey, the Red River Waterway Commission and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development contributed to this story.

Historical References:

Bergeron, Arthur W. “Fort Buhlow and Fort Randolph: Confederate Defenses on Red River.” The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 32 (Winter 1991): 77-86.

Howell, Thomas.   “Forts Randolph and Buhlow in the Civil War.” The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 36 (Spring 1995): 197-204.