The First and Second Systems of coastal fortification

The fortification of American ports began long before the 19th century. Small wood and earth works fortified the first settlements in the American Colonies from the 16th century onward. Shortly before the start of the American Revolution in 1775, some of these early coastal fortifications were developed into more substantial structures. Among the strongest of these was the Spanish-held Castillo de San Marcos, which protected St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast of Florida. An earlier structure had protected the first Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, but in 1672 work began on an imposing stone-built fortification; the first substantial fort constructed on North American soil. Designed by the Spanish engineer Ignacio Daza, it was essentially a square structure 320 feet across, with a bastion on each of its four corners. Its curtain walls were 36 feet high, built using blocks of coral rock. A ravelin protected the fort's entrance (sallyport), and two drawbridges linked this feature to the main fort by spanning a moat. This imposing structure is important in that it introduced contemporary European concepts of fortification to the Americas.

Work was started on a similar British fort designed to protect Boston Harbor during the 1690s. Called Castle William after the reigning monarch, it was built on a small island to the west of the inner harbor, and laid out using the same simple polygonal design as Castillo de San Marcos. In 1719, the French began work on a substantial fortified town on Isle Royale, which they named Louisbourg in honor of Louis XIV.

Elsewhere, fortifications tended to be smaller affairs, such as Sullivan's Fort (later renamed Fort Moultrie), which protected the entrance to Charleston, South Carolina. When the position was attacked during a British assault in 1776, it was discovered that the combination of sand and palmetto logs used to build the curtain of the fort proved virtually impervious to roundshot. Other temporary coastal fortifications were built during the Revolutionary War, most

Jersey British Isles Forts

Fort Zachary Taylor, built to protect the island harbor of Key West, Florida, was one of the most imposing of the Third System fortifications and one of the simplest in terms of its design.Work began on the structure in 1846, and it was built on a coral shoal just off the shore. (Stratford Archive)

Nature Fortification

The nature of coastal fortifications changed during the period covered by the Third System and the design of individual forts varied to suit the geographical limitations of the site. At FortTotten, built in Queens, New York, during the Civil War. che engineers favored a low casemate structure surrounding a well-fortified citadel. (Clyde Hensley Collection)

notably Fort Mercer protecting Philadelphia, Forts Lee and Washington defending the Hudson River, and Paulus Hook, defending New York Harbor from the New Jersey shore.

Following the end of hostilities in 1783, little was done to improve the coastal defenses of the fledgling United States until the onset of the French Revolutionary War in Europe (1793-1802) increased the possibility that America could become embroiled in what was fast becoming a global conflict. President George Washington urged Congress to provide adequate defenses for the country's ports, and an investigative committee was established, charged with determining the best locations for coastal forts. The committee submitted its report to Congress in February 1794, and, three weeks later, expenditure on the first U.S.-built forts was authorized. This became known as the First System of coastal fortification, and building work encompassed by this Congressional initiative continued for ten years (1794-1804). To call it a Federal project is somewhat misleading, as individual states supervised and paid for many of the projects.

The foreign-trained engineer in charge of each construction project was given considerable latitude to modify the plans to accommodate local conditions, or take advantage of a local abundance of suitable building materials. Funds were limited, so work was done as cheaply as possible. Most of these coastal fortifications were extremely crude by contemporary European standards. Roughly-cut timbers, banks of stone and earthen banks were the most common features of these open-topped emplacements. In addition to a main battery facing to seaward, some of these forts included an earthen redoubt to guard against attack from the landward side.

Examples of forts built during this period include Fort Mifflin, built on Mud Island in the Delaware River to protect Philadelphia. Pennsylvania. Work began in 1798, and continued for five years 7 he fort consisted of a low polygonal curtain, with two bastions placed to protect the sally port, and a simpler star system of salients at the opposite end \ star fort on Governors Island, known as Fort Jay, protected New York Harbor, but rt was later demolished to make way for a more imposing structure during the Wr of 1812. Perhaps the best-known coastal fort of this period is Fort Mc Henry. built to protect the port of Baltimore, Maryland. Work began on the fort on Whetstone Point in 1800, and continued past 1804 to incorporate achaiKes ntroduced during the Second System. Its defenses were tested during tr.e J IS 12 when it was subjected to a lengthy bombardment by artillery and rockets in September 1813. The event inspired the composition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Keys. Like Fort Jay, it was a "star" fort, a term used rather loosely to encompass almost any form of fortification that formed the shape of a star. In fact, neither fort was a true star fort, although the American term continued in use well into the 19th century.

Although the United States became embroiled in a bizarre "Quasi War" with France (1799-1800) over the talks surrounding the Louisiana Purchase, it soon became apparent that the country was not immediately threatened by foreign invasion. Consequently, work on the fortifications slowed after 1800 and some of the completed works lapsed into disrepair. Funding for building work was reduced, while individual state administrations preferred to concentrate their funding on the upkeep of the few substantial forts that had already been built.

This period of decline in the readiness of America's coastal fortifications ended in June 1807, when the British frigate I IMS Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake during a dispute over the return of deserting British sailors. Building work on the First System of coastal forts had tailed off three years previously, but President Thomas Jefferson called for an immediate resumption of the building program. Another congressional committee examined the problem. In November 1807 it presented its report and, as a consequence, Congress authorized the expenditure of S 1,000,000 on new building work. This time the forts were not going to be hastily constructed wood and earthen defenses. Major Joseph Swift of the U.S. Corps of Engineers developed a plan for a string of powerful fortifications, with brick-built citadels and casemated gun batteries. This became known as the Second System of coastal fortification, and work would continue for seven years from 1807 to 1814.

The first real difference between this system and the preceding one was that the defenses were planned and built by American engineers. As Secretary of State Henry Dearborn explained, it avoided "the unpleasant necessity of employing foreigners as engineers." As before, there was little control over what these engineers created, which led to a significant variation in the size, type and style of these forts. Second System fortifications fell into three broad types. The first were the small coastal batteries that were too unimportant to become real forts. These varied in shape and size, although many tended to be

Bombardment Fort Sumter

Union batteries in action during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, April 1861.The artist has taken liberties concerning the architecture of the fort and the design of the gun carriages, but otherwise, the overall portrayal of a casemate battery in action is reasonably accurate, and extremely atmospheric. (Stratford Archive)

Coastal Fort

Forts Marion and McHenry

Many forts built before the Third System of fortifications was introduced were converted to conform to the latest notions of coastal defense. Fort Marion (top), at St. Augustine. Florida was the oldest example of these refurbished coastal fortifications. Built as the Castillo de San Marcos by the Spanish in 1672, the fort was built along classical Vauban lines, and the modernization as limited to the addition of outer works, and the emplacement of more modern guns. Similarly Fort McHenry (bottom) played a major part in the War of 1812, and was then the same manner during

Vauban Defensive SystemCoastal Fortifications

A view of Fort Pulaski, Georgia, after its surrender. The fort was repaired and served as a headquarters for local Union forces, where these guns helped contain Confederate naval forces and blockade runners on the Savannah River. The group in the foreground is clustered around a 10-inch columbiad mounted on a wooden en barbette mount. (Stratford Archive)

laid out in convex curves. All were open-topped, although some incorporated a small citadel or other defensive work on the landward side.

The next in scale were the composite forts based on earthen walls with a brick face to the curtain. By far the most popular type of coastal fortification built during this period, these defenses tended to be similar to the forts built during the First System. Many were circular or elliptical in shape, or combined a variety of curved batteries and more conventional square or rectangular citadels. Examples of these include Fort Norfolk, Virginia, Fort Richmond and Fort Tompkins defending New York Harbor and Ford Madison in Maryland. The most significant of the three general fortification types included in the Second System were the masonry forts, as these became the forerunners of the imposing brick- and stone-built Third System coastal fortifications that saw action during the American Civil War (1861-65). For the first time, American engineers introduced masonry-built casemates, although none of these early forts was built on the same scale as the later structures with their multi-tiered curtains. The real breakthrough of the casemate design was that it permitted the deployment of large guns housed low within a fort. Before this development, fort design required that pieces be sited on top of the structure, protected by an open-topped parapet (known as the en barbette method of gun emplacement). While this system had been employed in Europe, the introduction of brick-built casemates in North America represented a significant advance. For the first time, gunners were protected from mortar and small-arms fire, and the first tentative steps were made towards the production of tiered forts with an en barbette battery mounted on top of a casemate battery.

Most of these new Second System defenses were finished before the outbreak of the War of 1812. Although few saw active service, their presence certainly served to keep the superior British fleet at a respectful distance from the main American ports. The exception was Baltimore, which was attacked in September 1813. During the engagement, Fort McHenry managed to withstand a heavy bombardment. Shortly before the war, its First System walls had been improved by the addition of brick revetments, although its guns were still mounted in the en barbette manner. The success of the fort in withstanding the heavy bombardment served as a demonstration of the efficacy of the brick-fronted design, and encouraged the construction of more all-masonry forts. During the period from 1813 to 1816, several all brick structures were built or

A view of Fort Pulaski, Georgia, after its surrender. The fort was repaired and served as a headquarters for local Union forces, where these guns helped contain Confederate naval forces and blockade runners on the Savannah River. The group in the foreground is clustered around a 10-inch columbiad mounted on a wooden en barbette mount. (Stratford Archive)

Fort Baton Rouge 1719
The water battery of Fort Monroe, Hampton Roads,Virginia. The defenses of the fort were augmented by a series of single-tier casemates constructed on the "covered way." (Stratford Archive)

completed. A prime example of this is Fort Moultrie (formerly Sullivan's Fort), outside Charleston, which was rebuilt during the years following the attack on Baltimore. An even more spectacular Second System structure is Castle Williams in New York Harbor (not to be confused with the earlier fort of the same name in Boston Harbor). Built between 1807 and 1812, this was the first fort in the United States to be built around a series of casemate gun emplacements. The plan called for a circular brick-built fort of red sandstone some 210ft in diameter, with three tiers of casemates or barracks, surmounted by a terreplein. The lower two floors of casemates had 13 gun embrasures, while above these a floor of barrack rooms could be converted into an additional casemate if required. Above these floors, the terreplein was designed to carry 48 small guns, but, during the War of 1812, this was modified to permit the deployment of 26 powerful 32-pounder guns. This was the most imposing fortification on the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States, and the structure

Smoothbore columbiad pieces mounted on iron casemate carriages in the water battery of Fort Monroe,Virginia, photographed shortly after the Civil War. Note the unusual color scheme of the fort, where the lower casemate walls have been painted white. (Estate of I 2 Wright Langley)

Smoothbore columbiad pieces mounted on iron casemate carriages in the water battery of Fort Monroe,Virginia, photographed shortly after the Civil War. Note the unusual color scheme of the fort, where the lower casemate walls have been painted white. (Estate of I 2 Wright Langley)

Images The System Fortification

was deemed to be a successful one. It therefore served as the prototype for the even larger brick-built fortifications of the Third System.

By the time the War of 1812 ended in 1815, almost every large port in the United States was protected by a Second System fortification of some kind, while the major coastal cities were defended by several defensive positions. Additional batteries augmented many of them. For example, Fort McHenry was strengthened after 1813 by the addition of powerful water batteries (open-topped batteries lying close to the water's edge).

The first two fortification systems had been developed as a result of the threat of war, or during periods of uncertainty when war was raging in Europe and the Caribbean. This meant that many First System fortifications were quick and easy solutions built to fill an immediate need. Second System fortifications were more involved, with the majority designed to be permanent. Some of these, including Castle Williams, were extremely imposing defensive structures, and would become integrated into later systems. During both phases, the majority of fortifications were constructed within four years of the beginning of the program, and all were completed within a decade. In both cases, the impetus for construction ended when the threat of war, or the end of a war, meant that their completion was no longer imperative.

By contrast, the system that followed was a peacetime undertaking, and construction work spanned several decades. The hastily built fortifications of the first two systems were insignificant compared to the enormous structures built over the next few decades.

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  • nilde
    What is the difference between first, second and third system fort?
    8 years ago

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