Imagine having to grow your own food, sleep in a tent and wait anxiously for battles that never came. That was the life of Confederate soldiers at Forts Randolph and Buhlow, located on the Red River in downtown Pineville. After the Battle of Mansfield in 1864 delayed the Union’s advance into western Louisiana, two earthwork forts were built on the banks of the Red River at Alexandria using local plantation slave labor. These forts were expected by Confederates to stop future Union attacks in north Louisiana, but the Confederate States Army surrendered shortly after the forts’ completion, and the site never saw action.
While the forts were under construction, Union forces were making their way down the Red River to meet up with additional forces near the Mississippi River. But the river was unusually low that spring, and the Union ships couldn’t get past Alexandria safely with Confederate snipers located along the river banks. Col. Joseph Bailey suggested building a dam that would raise the water high enough to float the fleet over the rapids of the Red River. With 3,000 soldiers, two dams were built in only eight days. Three days after, all the boats had safely passed the rapids and falls and continued down the river. Bailey’s Dam—called one of the greatest engineering feats of the Civil War—is commemorated by the site at a scenic overlook of the Red River. Looking at the river, it’s easy to imagine all the effort that went into getting several ships through those rough waters.
The boardwalk around the earthworks is nice and shaded, so we didn’t get too hot on the walk around the site. But we cooled off in the visitors center, which holds many interesting pieces found in the area including bits of uniforms, snuff cans and musket balls. Because the soldiers stationed there didn’t participate in any battles, they had a considerable amount of free time on their hands. Whittling was a favorite pastime—whether chipping shavings from a chunk of wood or creating tools and game pieces—and fun demonstrations are held often, with park staff using equipment the soldiers would have used. There’s a lot to look at in the visitor center: a cotton combing machine, exhibits on how rations were stretched with local roots and native fruits and nuts, cannon replicas and a very interesting video setup that you have to see for yourself.
In addition to the usual encampment activities, the soldiers cultivated a vegetable garden much like other established encampments. The site carries on this tradition thanks to the Rotary Club of Pineville, a partnership that gives back to the community and enables the site to demonstrate the daily life of a Civil War soldier.
The garden shows visitors how people produced vegetables for the dinner table before the arrival of supermarkets, and there is an area dedicated to teaching students about the importance of eating healthy. Students from local schools, 4-H clubs and scout troops often volunteer at the site and learn about gardening. In addition to self-guided tours, visitors will often see the garden highlighted during campfire cooking demonstrations. And on Saturdays, volunteers are welcome to help in the kitchen garden 9 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site includes a visitors center with exhibits on the Civil War Red River Campaign, an elevated boardwalk around the fort area with an overlook near the Bailey's Dam site and an open field for Civil War reenactments. For more information about Forts Randolph and Buhlow State Historic Site, follow the site on Facebook, visit LaStateParks.com or call 888.677.7437 toll-free or 318.484.2390 locally.