The Endicott Forts - 19th Century Homeland Security



The Endicott forts of Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola, FL. Fort Pickens was the only defensive structure guarding this side of Pensacola Bay during the Civil War.  All the other pins represent Endicott forts built in the late 1890's. This is a great example of the difference between the two systems.

The American Civil War was one of the transformational events in world military history.  Friend and foe alike watched as the Americans on both sides advanced weapons technology, firepower and tactics more in four years than the rest of the world had done in the previous 100. The Civil War marked the end of fortress engineering which went back 1,000 years. The large brick forts of the Second and Third Systems were easy prey for the rifled cannon, faster ships and combined arms operations they now faced. They were large stationary targets where everything was concentrated in one place with no camouflage, no dispersion and no effective shielding.

Sea coast fortifications fell out of favor as America concentrated on the Western Migration.  There was little activity from the end of the war through the early 1880's.  There was some planning and review during this period but little construction.  Everyone knew the old brick forts were done, but no one knew what to replace them with.  Weapons were advancing by leaps and bounds.  The concern was that any new plan would be obsolete before it was ever implemented. However, weapons continued to proliferate around the world and potential threats continued to evolve. Given America's maritime heritage, strategic planners started re-thinking the defense of ports and waterways.  The airplane hadn't been invented yet, so any threat to the United States would have to come by sea.

Battery 234 on Santa Rosa Island guarding the eastern approaches to Pensacola Bay.  The hill between the two turrets is made of concrete and steel covered with sand and vegetation - a classic Endicott fort.  All support for the guns, such as ammo storage, crew quarters and fire direction, are encased in or on the hill. The two six inch guns have steel shielding to protect the firing crew who work directly on the gun.  Though the guns are exposed, they have a 360 degree traverse so they could fire up and down the coast or into the interior if need be.  They had a range of about eight miles.

In 1885, President Grover Cleveland commissioned a joint military and civilian board to investigate the current state of seacoast fortifications and make recommendations for improvements.  This group was called the Board of Fortifications and was chaired by the Secretary of War, William Endicott.  It came to be known as the Endicott Board.

The board reported out in 1886.  Their basic conclusion was that American maritime targets were essentially undefended.  They recommended an extensive building program for the then unheard of sum of $100 million.

The Endicott Board did a harbor-by-harbor threat analysis.  They compared the characteristics of a target area with the capabilities of the weapons systems that could attack it.  Based on the resulting threat matrix (although they probably didn't call it that) they made recommendations for the placement and armament of new defenses.  For instance, a deep water port with direct ocean access would mount weapons that could fight a battleship. A harbor with shallow water or up a river might face smaller, faster vessels, so they would mount smaller, faster firing weapons with greater traverse to counter that threat.

The board also made extensive recommendations for the design of the new defenses.  Gone were the large exposed forts mounting many cannon. Instead, the new defenses were smaller, mounted fewer guns and were dispersed. Poured concrete and steel replaced bricks. They also made extensive use of dirt, sand and vegetation to hinder observation from the sea and absorb hits from shells.


A classic Endicott defensive position. This is a battery of 12 inch breech-loading sea coast defense mortars probably around 1900.  The exact date and place are unknown but this is the classic deployment of these weapons - four mortars to a pit and always at least two pits.  These behemoths weighed 138,000 pounds - one ton more than an M-1 Abrams tank. Each mortar had a 12 man crew.  The shells weighed up to 1,000 pounds and were propelled by 65 pound bags of powder giving them a maximum range of 15,000 yards.  At that range, they could penetrate at least 6 inches of deck steel on a ship. The mortars were to be used to fire volleys of heavy high-angle shells down on to large ships trying to force their  way into a harbor. Artillery spotters in towers directed the firing of the weapons. Firing data was extrapolated from the spotter readings and written on chalkboards for the gunners. These weapons were never fired in combat - only practice.  Their target - a floating target barge towed behind a small ship. When fired, the barrels recoiled 23 inches. Only four of these weapons still exist in the U.S.  They are all located at Fort Desoto, which once guarded Tampa Bay but is now a park. There are two more on Corregidor Island in the Philippines.  All the rest were melted down to make more modern weapons as these became obsolete.

New weapons were incorporated into this system.  Disappearing rifled cannons, smaller rapid firing guns and huge mortars that fired a 1,000 pound shell were the main weapons. They were supplemented by underwater mines, obstacles and nets covered by  observation and fire from shore batteries, usually the smaller guns. This overall design provided defense in depth and increasing intensity of fire as the enemy grew closer. The dispersed batteries could mutually support each other and the loss of one would not render the area defenseless.

Lastly, the effective production and transmission of electricity gave the new forts capabilities that didn't exist even a decade before. Searchlights became part of all harbor defenses.  Underwater mines could be electrically fired. Ammunition hoists could be electrically powered.

These new forts became known as Endicott forts or the Endicott system.  Construction was slow to start, but accelerated as the nation became concerned about hostilities with Spain, which eventually came in 1898.  Although the system was never fully completed, work continued on it for almost 30 years. Communications and fire direction capabilities improved considerably and weapons were moved or upgraded frequently.

Endicott design on Santa Rosa Island guarding Pensacola. An innocent looking seaside hill... really Battery Cooper with two six inch disappearing rifles.

Subsequent commissions recommended implementing these systems in newly acquired territory after the Spanish-American War, including Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines.  Eventually, Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone were built up also.

As impressive and effective as these fortifications were, they were no match for the future. The Endicott forts were rendered obsolete by the  development of tactical aircraft in World War I.  Nevertheless, many of the forts remained in use through World War II.  Some retained their role of coastal defense, often swapping large guns for smaller faster firing ones to engage submarines prowling on the surface.  Others were training bases.  Still others housed anti-aircraft batteries, barrage balloons and blimps. 

Seacoast forts were not the only major maritime weapons system displaced by the airplane.  The battleship itself proved no match for attack aircraft although that realization didn't take hold until World War II.  Aviation advocates like Colonel Billy Mitchell spent two decades between wars trying unsuccessfully to convince the battleship admirals that their floating fortresses were highly vulnerable and that the future lay in aviation.  The Japanese convinced them in two hours.

On December 10, 1941 - three days after Pearl Harbor - during the Battle of Singapore,  the HMS Prince of Wales was sunk off of Kuantan, Malaya by swarms of land-based Japanese warplanes. Commissioned less than a year earlier, she was the pride of the Royal Navy and had helped sink the Bismarck in May 1941.  Her anti-aircraft batteries could put up 60,000 rounds per minute.  It didn't even slow down the Japanese, who lost four planes.  The attack started at 11:00 AM and shortly after 1:00 PM, Winston Churchill's favorite ship was on the bottom, the first frontline warship to be sunk solely by enemy aircraft.  She would not be the last.  Five months later, on May 7-8, 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, American and Japanese fleets fought the first battle in naval history where the surface combatants neither saw nor fired at each other. A month later, the same type of battle was fought at Midway, turning the tide of the war and forever changing naval warfare. Aviation had arrived.  Maritime attack and defense would now be done at long range from the air.  The era of forts - on both land and sea -  was over.