It was the end of the 1800s, when a gentleman in Mansfield saw the century and his youth and our country’s history slipping away. In 1896 it had been more than 30 years since the Civil War, and the men who bore arms for the Union Army weren’t getting any younger. Silas Parker looked at all the young people who had scarcely heard of the War Between the States, and he knew that it was going to take more than another statue in the Square to make them understand how it was that so many of his friends had been killed.
So he conceived of a unique landmark in Mansfield that would serve to remember the war, and to educate the young folks about what it was like on the front lines. He wanted to build a Civil War Fort in North Lake Park.
Like any good military strategist, he took the high ground. Next to the B&O Railroad tracks overlooking the lakes there was a wide shelf of hill that was easily defensible, so that was where he made his stand.
In those days it wasn’t that difficult to come up with Civil War cannons—they were stacked in piles back East, new and used. America had thousands of cannon that had been manufactured during the last year of the war that never even got fired: enough to decorate a thousand town squares across the states of the union.
Silas Parker—a local attorney who had once been Corporal Parker—had two 2,900 pound howitzers shipped to Mansfield, and set on the Fort hill aimed out over the North Lake rowboats. The site was impressive but Cpl. Parker was envisioning something even more formidable, so he ordered two more howitzers, and then put in a request for three more guns: a mortar, a heavy siege gun, and a “light brass piece to be used for firing salutes.”
Cpl. Parker had been a past commander of the McLaughlin Post, No. 131 veterans group of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic,) so he had no end of Civil War veteran pals who were all well experienced in the combat arts of devising a convincing model Fort. They met at the Memorial Building on Park Avenue West, under the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Museum, and drew out plans of where everything should go: the powder magazine, the cannon mounts.
By 1903, when the second pair of cannon arrived, they had constructed a number of permanent installations, including a “secret tunnel” where messengers and spies could sneak in and out of the Fort. The plans called for massive earthworks to be ‘thrown up’ between the cannon and the lake as a buffer to deflect incoming cannon fire and make the bulwark harder to climb over.
The Fort committee also envisioned a grand memorial arch at the entrance to a driveway leading through the Fort, so that when the veterans were too old to walk up the stairs they could come onto the grounds by carriage.
Every few years, back then, the veterans of the War of the Rebellion held a reunion—called an ‘encampment’—that brought to town scores of bearded old men who compared notes on getting old, rehashed the past, mourned the lost, laughed a lot and marched as little as possible.
Around 1905 the veterans made a ceremonial planting at the North Lake Park G.A.R. Fort. They had procured young living scions from a tree famous in American Colonial history—known as the Charter Oak—that they planted in a row, hoping one day the trees would provide covering shade for the Fort. They made wistful commentary about how shade was a luxury they never enjoyed during the actual war, but was something that all the tourists in years to come might appreciate when they visited the Fort.
What of the Fort?
The project that had begun so enthusiastically by men in their 60s lost steam pretty quickly as they hit their 70s, and so the heavy lifting of the job—like the great earthworks—never even really began. Within a generation after the Fort was dedicated there weren’t many people around town who knew what those cannon were doing up on the hill over the lake.
Seventy-five years after the cannon had been placed in the North Lake Fort, they were uprooted and moved to South Park. Today two of them guard the site where the Blockhouse used to stand, and the other two flank a Civil War soldier whose granite pose keeps watch over the years to remind Mansfield of the price Richland County paid a hundred and fifty years ago to keep America whole.
As for Silas Parker’s dream of an educational site where future generations could understand the martial sufferings of their ancestors, the North Lake Park Fort today brings to mind the old gospel song Down By the Riverside that goes, “I ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war no more.”