Bread was a staple of the eighteenth-century diet, and many forts of the era had a bread oven dedicated to supplying the daily rations for a garrison of forty or fifty men. The 1737 map of Fort Tombecbe places the bakery in the southwest corner of the fort. It was a small building with an oven located at one end. When the British took possession of Fort Tombecbe, they described the bakery as being “of earth, smooth built on columbage, sixteen foot long, and fourteen foot broad, the building wanting repairing, the oven in very bad condition.” Archaeological excavations suggest that the structure had undergone several reconstructions. This photo of a replica bread oven at present-day Fort Toulouse (1717-1763) in Wetumpka, Alabama, is similar to how an open-style oven might have appeared. * Bread oven pictured is at Fort Toulouse.
The walls of Fort Tombecbe were made of split cedar posts set side-by-side into a deep trench and rose nearly 10 feet above the ground. Soldiers would have fired their muskets over the wall while standing on a low, bench-like platform, or banquette. The west wall (at the top of this map) was 274 feet long, the north wall 231 feet, the south side 304 feet, and the eastern side along the Tombigbee River measured 173 feet in length. The northwestern bastion had a projecting turret, guerite, and a substantial gun platform that supported a large cannon. The fort’s main gate is on the north wall, where several paths converge, and stood 13 feet high.
The Tombigbee River was important for transportation and for unloading and loading supplies, but the steep bluff made access to boats very difficult. The French addressed this problem by creating a long pathway, or ramp, that paralleled the bluff face. It doubled back toward the river and widened at a small boat landing. Enemy attackers who approached the fort from the landing would have been deterred by a guard stationed in the small guerite, or sentry box, overlooking the ramp. The British and Spanish continued to maintain the ramp during their occupations, and today, it is the only thing built by the French that is still visible
Though the 1737 map does not indicate any structures or significant features beyond the walls of Fort Tombecbe, there was a considerable amount of activity taking place around the fort. One of the paths leading from Tombecbe’s main gate is labeled Chemin des Tchactas, or path of the Choctaws. Thousands of Choctaws lived about one day’s walk to the west, and at least one village was established “within musket shot,” or about 300 yards, from the fort. The Choctaws and dignitaries from other tribes were regular visitors at the fort to trade, seek gifts, and share information, and a large house for these visitors eventually was constructed nearby. It is also likely that civilian traders maintained households near the fort. Outside the walls, soldiers grew their own vegetable gardens, which were protected from hungry animals by substantial fences.
Architectural plans for the 1761 renovation of the fort indicate that the prison and guard house were nearly identical buildings. Both were 20-feet long by 12-feet wide with porches 7-feet deep. They were timber-framed structures elevated on wooden piers with double-pitched roofs and a chimney. The spaces between the upright timbers were filled with a mixture of mud, clay, and sticks, a technique known as columbage bousillé.
Fort Tombecbe was not completed when Sieur de Bienville and his army arrived at the site in late April 1736 and made camp on the open prairie. Crude bread ovens were built nearby to make bread for the expedition. Bienville met with several Choctaw chiefs, among them Red Shoe and Alibamon Mingo, to plan their strategy for the campaign against the Chickasaw. The six hundred troops in the camp included French marines, civilian volunteers, a bachelor militia from New Orleans, and a company of forty-five free Africans. This sketch of Bienville’s encampment shows his tent in the center surrounded by the tents of various regiments or companies, each flying its own flag.
The mounds of earth that are visible at the site today are often mistaken by visitors as the fort
that was built by the French. However, these features are the remains of Fort Confederation, built
in 1794 by the Spanish. Fort Confederation was designed to meet a very different defensive need
than its predecessor. The biggest threat to French safety had been musket fire, but the Spanish
were on guard against possible attack from American artillery. The crown-shaped earthworks
had a steep slope, or glacis, to deflect cannon fire, and it was held in place by a wall called a
revetment. Building plans for the fort show that a ditch, or moat, separated the revetment from
a 7-foot high stockade wall, behind which was a 2 ½ -foot wide stone or brick banquette on the
interior of the fort. Archaeological excavations revealed that the south glacis was made of rough
chalk blocks, while the north glacis was constructed of earth capped with chalk cobbles. It is not
clear if the revetment and banquette were actually constructed of cut stone. The river bluff was
protected by 3 parapets, each with a swivel gun.
Fort Confederation’s main gate was on the center of the north wall, very near the original location of Tombecbe’s gate. Although Tombecbe had been in ruins for some years when the Spanish arrived, it is possible that the remains of well-worn paths leading to its gate were still visible. The substantial gateway of Fort Confederation curved slightly as it cut through the earthworks, allowing the Spanish to control traffic in and out of the fort. Above the double doors was an arch proclaiming: “Carlos IV reigning, Baron de Carondolet governing. In the year 1794.” A smaller gate in the southeast corner controlled traffic to and from the river.
The main building within Fort Confederation was a two-story log blockhouse designed to hold
four cannon to defend the fort. It also would have been a defensive stronghold for troops in case
enemy attackers breached the fort’s walls. Interestingly, when the cannon were mounted on the
second floor, it was discovered that their line of fire over the earthworks was poor. This 1794
drawing of the blockhouse by Lieutenant Antonio Palao describes its features and its position
within the center bastion of the fort.
The gunpowder needed for eighteenth-century weapons had to be kept cool, dry, and protected from enemy fire. Like many powder magazines, the one at Fort Confederation was constructed of stone and lime mortar, instead of wood, and with an arched roof to withstand attack by cannon and mortar fire. It may have been carved partly into the chalk bedrock. Maps indicate that Confederation’s powder magazine was in the same location as the one built by the French for Fort Tombecbe.