Fort Mitchell’s history is the early history of Alabama

Get to know the fort’s history before Pioneer Day at Fort Mitchell on April 22 from 9-4 p.m.

By Mark Clark

When General John Floyd crossed the Chattahoochee River on March 24, 1813, to establish an outpost to protect settlers traveling a path that would one day become the Federal Road from Augusta, Ga., to St. Stephens, Ala., and to garrison soldiers in the First Creek War, he had no idea the place he would establish as Fort Mitchell would hold an important place in Alabama’s and the young United States’ history. In fact, other than the county of Mobile, there is no other Alabama county with as much historical significance as Russell County.

The fort gets its name from David B. Mitchell, a former governor of Georgia. The fort was erected on a high hill overlooking the Chattahoochee River and it was here that Gen. Floyd planned his movements for the war. The fort is also where, in 1815, Colonel Benjamin Hawkins left to travel down the river to engage with British Troops near the Florida line in one of the last campaigns of the War of 1812. Fortunately, news that the war had ended made it to the two sides and engagement was avoided. The two sides met in peace.

Fort Mitchell remained an important military facility through the Seminole War of 1817-1818 until the Second Creek War of 1836. Many soldiers marched through the gate of the fort to battle sites during this time and there were many celebrity visitors – President James Monroe and General and future President Andrew Jackson among them.

From 1836 through 1837, Fort Mitchell took on one of its saddest duties as it acted as the beginning point of the Trail of Tears for the Creek Indians. Thousands of warriors, women and children took their first steps to their new home in Oklahoma from this site.

Perhaps the final role played by this historical facility was from 1861 to 1865 during the Civil War. Fort Mitchell was a site used to muster Confederate troops before they left to join the regular army. James Cantey served two nations. First, he was a captain in the U.S. Army who was wounded in the Mexican-American War and retired to become a planter in Fort Mitchell. Later, Cantey was selected as a Colonel for the 15th Alabama Volunteer Infantry Regiment and rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. He is buried at Fort Mitchell.

Colonel John Crowell

John Crowell was born in Halifax County, N.C., on Sept. 18, 1780. He came to Alabama – to St. Stephens – while in his 30s. St. Stephens was the temporary seat of the state’s government where the territorial legislature met during the state’s seeking of admission to the Union. Crowell was chosen as a Territorial Delegate. He became the state’s first and only Congressman. In 1821, near the end of his term of office, Crowell was appointed a U.S. Agent to the Creeks. He made his official residence at Fort Mitchell. He died in 1846 at 66 years of age. He and his two brothers, Thomas and Henry, are buried at Fort Mitchell.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette

The Marquis de Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to tour the United States in 1824. Lafayette helped the United States win its freedom from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War and was a hero to many Americans. The general crossed into Alabama from Georgia over the Chattahoochee River and on to the Federal Road that passed by Fort Mitchell. He was welcomed by Creeks and whites alike. He made his way to Fort Mitchell on March 31, 1825, and left on April 1, 1825, making his way to the western states created by the Louisiana Purchase. Here to help the country celebrate its 50th anniversary, he was the cause for celebration. 

John Bascomb, Alabama’s First Sports Legend

Colonel John Crowell, once the Indian Agency at Fort Mitchell was discontinued, turned to becoming a planter as he owned more than 18,000 acres of Russell County near Fort Mitchell. He also turned his attention to raising thoroughbred horses. Crowell purchased the horse named John Bascomb and brought him to Fort Mitchell to train. Crowell and a friend, Colonel W.R. Johnson, proposed a race between their two best horses with a side bet which had Johnson outing up $17,000 on his horse and Crowell placing a bet of $15,000 on John Bascomb. John Bascomb was the clear winner of the race. Because the two men were close friends, Crowell offered John Bascomb to Johnson to run against Post Boy in the “South against the North” race on May 31, 1836, in Long Island, N.Y. The horse selected to represent the North was considered the best in the nation, barring none. John Bascomb, since there were no vehicles or train cars available in those days for transportation, had to be walked from Fort Mitchell to Long Island. John Bascomb won the race and thus became Alabama’s first sports legend. Crowell had another horse named Robin Hood that won the Washington Silver Plate. Crowell had portraits of his horses painted by Thomas Troye. When you visit Fort Mitchell today, you will see a print of one of those portraits of John Bascomb.

Fort Mitchell is now a National Historic Park in Russell County, about 10 miles south of Phenix City. The park features a reconstruction of the 1813 fort, historic burial grounds, a museum featuring a collection of historic carriages, a restored 19th century log home and an impressive visitor center. The center offers exhibits, a film and a walk through the history of the site. The park is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. All times are Eastern.