The Brick Forts







This is our introductory page to Second and Third System brick coastal defense forts. You can check out individual forts via the links on the left.

The New Nation is Tested and Threatened

The imposing seaward view of Fort Pickens, a Third System fort on Santa Rosa Island guarding the east side of the entrance to Pensacola Harbor.  This was the only fort in the area that the Union kept during the Civil War but it was enough. Since it controlled the approaches to the harbor, it bottled up the Confederate forces.  They abandoned Pensacola early in 1862 but not before putting up a vigorous fight to keep it.  The Union conducted amphibious raids and bombardments from Fort Pickens during the Pensacola Campaign of 1861-62.  It was one of the few Third System forts to be attacked from the land.  At the Battle of Santa Rosa Island on October 9, 1861, Fort Pickens fought off over a thousand Confederate attackers. This is the view a ship would have seen if passing by in 1862-1865 - staring down the main battery.  The picture was taken from a point which would have been on the beach during the war.  Now, because of currents, storms and shifting sands, there are another 4,000 feet of island behind this vantage point. Fort Pickens is  part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore run by the Park Service.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the American Revolution officially came to an end and the United States became a sovereign nation. It would take another six years to write and ratify a Constitution and elect a President.  The world didn't wait that long to test the new nation.  America was immediately confronted by old and new adversaries on all sides - both land and sea. 

The French had the Louisiana Territory which was as big as the United States.  The Spanish were in Florida and the desert southwest.  The British were in Canada.  All of them were in the Caribbean.   There was disputed territory on both the northern and southern borders. On the high seas, the British Navy harassed American ships and personnel.  Over in the Mediterranean,  Americans had their first encounter with Muslim terrorists - the Barbary pirates. 

Peace treaty notwithstanding, the British continued to involve themselves against their former colonies by aiding and supplying  Native Americans on the western frontier, which was then around the border of present-day Ohio and Indiana.   In November 1791, near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio almost 1,000 American soldiers were killed in a battle with the Shawnee.  This was the Battle of the Wabash.  It literally killed half the standing American army at that time and almost five times as many men as Custer would lose at the Little Bighorn 85 years later.  George Washington's presidency was only a year old.

In 1794,  facing the possibility of yet another war with the European continent, Washington ordered the construction of a series of fortifications to protect American ports and waterways.   It set in motion a strategy for the defense of the United States mainland using powerful fixed fortifications at key points.  This strategy would continue through 32 Presidents until after World War II, even though fixed forts would become vulnerable and obsolete during the Civil War. It took the atomic bomb to convince the old guard that forts were finished.

From Wood to Bricks to Concrete

Fort McHenry is a Second System fort located on Locust Point in Baltimore Harbor. It is one of the few seacoast defense forts of any system to actually accomplish what it was designed to do - engage and defeat an enemy seaborne threat. In this case, it was the British invasion force that had just burned Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. Completed in 1802, it stood ready for 12 years until 1814 and became immortalized in one day of furious action. Although it looks much like a Third System fort, its guns are all parapet mounted en barbette.  If Fort McHenry had fought a similar action against the Union Navy during the Civil War, it wouldn't have lasted the same 25 hours and it wouldn't have defeated the fleet.  By that time, the ships had the upper hand and brick forts were obsolete.

The history of American fort building is divided into four distinct eras.

The First System forts were built during and after the Revolutionary War. Made of wood, dirt and stone, they were generally open parapets with no overhead cover or defensive layers. They were built in close to harbors to protect them. Of the 21 sites selected for forts, most were never started and few were completed. One of the big problems was a lack of trained American engineers. The War Department, under Henry Knox (the namesake of Fort Knox) was forced to bring in European engineers to design and build American forts - not a good idea if you thought war with the Europeans was coming. In the end, war did come in 1812 but by then, the first system forts had already deteriorated past usefulness.

As war with Britain became a real possibility, President Thomas Jefferson revitalized the national fort building effort.  This period, lasting from 1800 to 1816, is known as the Second System. These forts began the familiar looking brick and stone forts that eventually lined the eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast and San Francisco Harbor. Masonry construction was used extensively and casemates were included to provide overhead and direct fire protection for guns and men, though not to the extent seen in later forts. The defenders of Second System forts still had to fight in the open, firing over parapets.  Their design also included bastions or blockhouses to protect their landward side and bring fire on to attackers at the walls.

Another major change that accompanied Second System forts was the use of American engineers, most notably from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Directed and funded by Congress specifically to address the engineer problem, it opened its doors in March 1802. In just a few years, American Army officers would start replacing the foreign contractors.

The most famous Second System fort is probably Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  Completed in 1802, it was here in 1814 that a British invasion force, the same one that had just burned Washington, was repelled after a 24 hour artillery duel with the fort. The sights and sounds of that battle, witnessed by Francis Scott Key, inspired him to write "The Star Spangled Banner".

The War of 1812 was the marker between the Second and Third System forts. During the war, American ports had been invaded and seized by British forces almost at will. Pensacola, FL,  Mobile, AL and Washington DC itself all fell victim.  Baltimore, on the other hand, successfully defended itself with the powerful Fort McHenry. In a much lesser known action, Fort St. Phillippe repelled a British advance up the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Foiled on the water, they tried later to come overland and were decisively beaten with horrific casualties by General Andrew Jackson.

President James Madison, who fled Washington for his life while the British burned the White House, was determined to make sure America would never be violated again.  At his direction,  a board of military engineers was tasked with designing and building a cohesive mainland defensive system centered around strong forts at key locations.  To head this board, Madison brought in an outsider who was widely considered the best fort builder of his day. He was Simon Bernard, a French military engineer who built and attacked forts for Napoleon. He was in charge of fort building until his death in 1838. His successor was Colonel Joseph Totten, West Point Class of 1805.  Totten stayed on the job until his death in 1864, with almost 60 years of active duty. Together, these two men placed, designed and supervised the building of America's 42 Third System forts along with smaller independent redoubts and batteries.

Space Shuttles and Shovel Ready Projects

An aerial view of Fort Morgan . This Third System fort guarded the eastern side of the entrance to Mobile Bay (off the right side of the picture) and was the scene of intense fighting during the Union attack on August 5, 1864. To get past Fort Morgan, the Union fleet sailed by it at full speed while firing canister rounds at the cannon apertures. This killed and disrupted gun crews so effectively that the 45 guns of Fort Morgan fired fewer than 500 rounds the entire battle. The combined 192 guns of the Union fleet fired thousands of rounds and ran the "impassable" gauntlet with minimal casualties and minimal damage to the fort, which the Union planned to use. 

After holding out for two weeks, Fort Morgan was thoroughly devastated by a combined land-sea Union bombardment that lasted 24 straight hours. The Union guns found their range as over 3,000 rounds impacted on or inside the fort. With all their guns disabled, the interior in flames and 80,000 pounds of gunpowder exposed, the fort surrendered on May 23.

Decades later, it was re-fitted as an Endicott fort which served through WW II. Those are the gray concrete bunkers. You'll see the mix of old and new everywhere.  Fort Morgan has been fully restored and is now a state historical site.  It has a museum and a self-guided walking tour. The tour placards and the museum have the best information about the battle of Mobile Bay. 

The wreck of the Union ironclad USS Tecumseh is marked by a buoy just offshore that can be clearly seen from the ramparts. It sits on the bottom of Mobile Bay under 20 feet of mud, along with 93 of her 100 crewmen. It is a military grave and there are no plans to recover or explore any of it.

The planners of the Third System forts had three objectives for the new installations - survivability, concentrated firepower and all around defense.

Survivability was achieved mostly through the use of masonry and construction of casemates to enclose guns and men. It was also enhanced by safety features inside, such as using non-sparking wood and brass in powder storage areas.

Concentrated firepower was enabled through multiple layers of guns. The new forts would have one or two layers of cannon in casemates firing through apertures and another layer on top firing over the wall. This necessitated the engineering of the masonry to support and spread out the tremendous weight being born from the cannon above.

All around defense came from enclosed polygon-shaped forts with weaponry on all sides. Bastions or blockhouses projecting out from the corners would allow flanking fire on attackers close to the walls. Supplemental construction such as moats, glacis and obstacles would further protect forts from land side attack.

The Third System forts achieved all this and more. They were engineering marvels, requiring a degree of innovation, precision and artisanship that rivals anything built today - the space shuttle programs of their day.  In today's world of computers, robotics and automation, it's hard to imagine building one these behemoths without them - but they did.

Who is they?  West Pointers, civilian contractors, merchants, artisans, tradesmen, entrepreneurs - and in some cases, slaves.

Many new West Point graduates in the decades preceding the Civil War were sent somewhere to build forts.  The construction of Fort Pulaski in Savannah, GA was supervised by 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829.  There many others.

Civilian contractors and merchants provided building materials and made money - in many cases, lots of it.  When the government needed bricks to build forts in Pensacola and Mobile, local entrepreneurs built kilns to make the tens of millions that would be needed. Granite, slate, lead, rails, copper, brass, lumber, tools, lime, cement, food, water, tools, horses, leather, wagons, boats, barrels and everything else was procured locally or shipped in through local merchants. 

When normal materials weren't available, they improvised.  At Fort Barrancas, they needed asphalt to waterproof brickwork but none was readily available. So they put equal parts of clay and sandstone in mineral oil and boiled it.  The result was a sticky mass that waterproofed just fine.  Ingenuity and improvisation were a vital part of building all forts.

The use of slave labor was controversial and kept quiet so as not to get Congress upset.  Despite their current situation, many slaves were skilled carpenters, bricklayers and masons.  Their skills were critical and heavily utilized. In many cases, the slaves were paid for their work.

The government spent a lot of money on these forts and the building went on for over half a century. They were the original shovel ready projects.

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The Second and Third System forts were designed and built to defend against wooden sailing ships bouncing in the water firing smooth bore cannon with round cannon balls from a range of about a mile. The few forts that faced that threat - like Fort McHenry - fared well

The Civil War brought a quick and violent end to the brick forts.  Despite their size, mass, engineering and firepower, the forts were no match for the advances in weapons and tactics of that war. These advances included rifled cannon, fused high explosive shells, ironclad gunboats firing at point blank range and combined arms operations from both land and sea. Forts that faced these threats were demolished or surrendered to avoid annihilation. None of the brick forts were ever taken by ground assault.  None were needed. Bombardment alone did the job. 

For 20 years after the war, there was little interest in coastal forts.  That changed in the 1880's as weapons and threats proliferated. Europe found itself on the brink of yet another war.  Spain, in particular, with a strong navy and heavy presence in the western hemisphere, was perceived as a threat to the U.S.  Fort planners went back to the drawing board and came up with the fourth generation of forts - the Endicott Forts. These would take us from the Spanish-American War into the nuclear age.

Check out our brick fort pages via the links above.

Semper Fi...Out here...Alpha6