Overton Brooks VA Medical Center
Overton Brooks VA: From fort to hospital
Editor’s Note: The following story provides a historic account of the origin of Overton Brooks VA Medical Center and how the Civil War determined its location on the banks of the Red River. April 9, 2015 marks the 150th Anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. The VA is joining the National Park Service’s “Bells Across the Land,” which commemorates this day in honor of the more than 750,000 Americans who perished during the Civil War and the continuing efforts for human rights today.
“I was at Shreveport first with Kirby Smith…I don’t have to hang my head to say it.”
The line comes from the 2010 film “True Grit,” starring Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld; a reboot of the 1969 original starring John Wayne. Damon plays Leboeuf, a Texas Ranger and former Confederate soldier who claims to have served under Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Had Leboeuf actually lived and served with Smith, he would have done so at what is now Overton Brooks VA Medical Center.
“Smith was what I like to call a ‘mud mover,’” said Dr. Gary Joiner, Chair of the History and Social Sciences Department, Louisiana State University in Shreveport. “He loved forts— loved making them, loved being in them. Every flat area at that facility was a defensive position.”
Overton Brooks VA shares the original site of Fort Turnbull, more commonly known as Fort Humbug, with a National Guard Post bearing the commonly held name. The original site served as Smith’s main fort and “anchor” of a complex system of fortifications that spanned both sides of the Red River as well as elevated points within the Shreveport city limits, according to Joiner.
“He actually directed William Boggs, an engineer, to make a system of forts along the Red River and gave him a year to do it,” Joiner said. “It was amazing. He actually got it done in a year to the day.”
The purpose of Fort Turnbull— to bombard Union ships navigating the Red River with “enfilade fire,” or fire directed along the ships’ longest axis. Also known as “flanking fire,” it would have been carried out by a variety of bronze and iron cannon mounted on the flat areas of what is now Overton Brooks VA as well as smaller forts in the surrounding area. These fort sites also contained “bomb proofs,” or earth-covered shelters, and rifle trenches for Confederate soldiers.
But the ships never came, and after its founding the fort never saw action for the duration of the war. Cut off from the rest of the Confederacy after the Battle of Vicksburg, Fort Turnbull became a part of a region that was largely independent from the rest of the Confederacy.
Among other historical tidbits regarding the original grounds, five Confederate hand-cranked submarines, and one ironclad, The Missouri, patrolled the river directly below the fort and were docked at a port belonging to the original complex. According to Joiner, these submarines may one day be found in the river.
“They were built by the Singer Submarine Corporation,” Joiner said. “They built one, got bored, then built four more. They’re the same company that built The Hunley, but back then if it was manmade and underwater it was considered a submarine. That included diving bells.”
The submarines also contained “torpedo spurs” or long spikes designed to punch holes in enemy ships. Confederate sailors would use a hand crank to move the submarine forward and reverse to maneuver the spur. However, the Red River changed course after the war. Not only does this prove challenging in locating the submarines, it also means that many of the smaller forts are now on the opposite side of the river.
The artillery and other emplacements are also long gone. Most if not all of the cannons that remained were melted down during the World War II metal drive to be used in more modern military equipment, according to Joiner.
“They had everything from 12-pound Napoleons, to thirty-twos and Navy sixty-fours. The Navy measures their artillery differently than that of the Army so a ‘sixty-four’ can actually fit in a ‘thirty-two,’ but not the other way around.”
However, not all of the fort’s cannon were iron and bronze, some were made of wood.
“They were called ‘Quaker guns,’” Joiner said. “They were large tree logs, imagine telephone poles, strapped to an iron carriage with wheels and painted black,” said Joiner. “To ‘Yankee spies’ across the river, they looked like actual cannon, which was kind of the point.”
These decoy cannon were meant to give the impression of an even greater arsenal. One such cannon can be found near the medical center at the Louisiana National Guard post adjacent to the facility.
Because of the Quaker guns, Fort Turnbull became known as “Fort Humbug” as the fake cannon were said to be a ‘humbug’ meant to feign Union forces. The name stuck, and the National Guard Post near the hospital is known today as Fort Humbug as well as the original fort site in its entirety.
The last of the last
According to Crisis in Confederate Command by Jeffrey S. Prushankin, Smith eventually left his fort complex in Shreveport to launch an attack on Houston, Texas. With Confederate forces surrendering throughout the south, Smith’s move was meant to force the Union to offer better terms of surrender. However, when he arrived, he found that most of his men had deserted him on the way. Finding himself alone, Smith gave his now-famous quip, “I am left a commander without an army— a general without troops.”
On May 26, 1865, Smith surrendered the last land command of the Confederacy. This makes Fort Turnbull, the site of the medical center, the last Confederate fortification in Louisiana. The last photograph taken of Confederate officers was taken among officers from his command; however, Smith was not among them. The photograph may have even been taken within the fort complex, according to Joiner. “Smith was also the last living Confederate general at the time of this death,” he added.
However, what served as the last for Smith and the Confederacy meant the first for others. According to a Jacksonville Historical Society website, Alexander Darnes, who had served as Smith’s slave during his time in Louisiana and before, went on to become a medical doctor, becoming the first black physician of Jacksonville, Fla. and the second in the entire state. When Darnes passed away, more than 3,000 people attended his funeral, both white and black. Smith’s sister, who encouraged Darnes after he received his freedom, had remained loyal to the Union despite her family’s Confederate service and also despite being married to a Confederate officer.
Eventually, The Daughters of the Confederacy acquired the land of Fort Turnbull because of its historical significance as well as other Civil War battle sites in the local area including the site of the Battle of Mansfield.
“It was simple; they were able to buy any land that wasn’t farmable,” Joiner said. “Suffragettes and all-female community groups were very common back then. They were the primary ones who established monuments and memorials.”
As those who have visited the medical center can probably attest, the approach to the hospital on foot is probably not the easiest. With more vertical acreage than horizontal, the climb would more than likely prove difficult for attacking troops as well, yet another reason why it was an ideal location for a fort.
“Awhile back I spoke to an elderly woman who was at least 90 years old and she says that she remembers the fort being graded by mules,” Joiner said. “She said that much of the fort still existed at that time.”
“That time” would have been between 1920 and 1940. The Daughters of the Confederacy donated the land not long after. Overton Brooks, a Louisiana congressman and the medical center’s namesake, brokered the agreement that resulted in medical center’s establishment on the fort site.
Other hospitals in the area were also built on sites that were a part of Smith’s fort system. From their positions, these smaller forts could maintain “interlocking fields of fire” with Fort Turnbull, with many of the forts able to fire on the same target. Small outcroppings that resemble hills can still be seen along the river; many of those are manmade and served as smaller emplacements during the conflict.
Overton Brooks VA may not resemble its Fort Turnbull counterpart, but it has added to the history of the location by serving Veterans who have made history themselves. Generations of service members, representing almost a century’s worth of service receive treatment here.