Forts in America - The Original Homeland Security

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Go ahead.  Make my day.  A cannon aimed out of its firing port at Fort Pickens, FL.  Second and Third System brick forts were engineering marvels and several features can be seen here.  The arch over the gun strengthens the walls around it and makes it less likely to collapse. Different brick patterns were used to strengthen specific areas depending on the forces they would be subjected to. The inward angle of the firing port gives the defenders good fields of observation and fields of fire, while limiting that of the attackers. Inside, the cannon was mounted on a rail swivel, so that it could be traversed right to left as needed.  The rail allowed the gun to be moved smoothly by just a few men even though it weighed several tons.

We have created a Forts section separate from Battlefields. A battlefield implies that there was a battle fought there.  The vast majority of coastal defense forts built in this country never saw a shot fired in anger.  Some, like Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, were never completed or fully manned. Some, like Fort McHenry, became famous for one furious battle. Others became infamous for other reasons, like Alcatraz.  Nevertheless, forts were technical and engineering marvels with broad and lasting impact on the areas in which they were built. In the following pages, you'll find sites that we have visited, photographed and found caches on.  We hope to paint a picture of what transpired over the 500+ years that forts were built in America as well as including little known facts and interesting side stories. 

Defending a Continent

The role of fortifications is inextricably linked to the discovery and development of the New World.  The sea played a major role in our history, especially in the areas of exploration, commerce and war. Before there were roads, railroads and airplanes, the easiest way to move  people and goods was on water. This role was not confined to just the oceans.  The Great Lakes, our rivers and our great natural harbors are all a part of this maritime heritage.

This maritime role greatly affected what happened on land because access to the sea from the interior has always been a major factor in economic success.  Conversely, getting goods from the harbor to the interior was best done via a water route.  This economic success had an evil twin - wartime success. These commerce routes were often strategic targets in wartime - both offensive and defensive - and provided a major advantage to whatever side controlled them. 

A major part of five centuries of history on the North American continent was the fortifying of key areas to defend against both sea and land attacks.  The coastline from Nova Scotia to the Chesapeake Bay to the end of the Florida Keys and all along the Gulf of Mexico had a fort at every city, bay, river and estuary.   The ports of Halifax, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Pensacola, Mobile and New Orleans were fortified to support exploration, trade and conflict long before the United States came into being as a sovereign nation.  Many lesser places, such as Wilmington, NC and Port Royal, SC also had strong fortifications to protect their water lifelines. 

The National Historic Landmark monument at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, SC.  It commemorates this area as historically significant because of the clash of cultures - French, Spanish and Native American - that occurred here almost 500 years ago. Other displays can be seen along a walking trail and boardwalk. 

Every nation built forts on land they claimed, often on top of one that had already been there.  Technology advances and territory changes hands but key defensive terrain is a constant.

You can see graphic evidence of this in a very unlikely place - the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island South Carolina (where this writer was stationed from 1978 to 1982.)  Part of the base golf course has been torn up for 30 years while archaeologists dig through the remains of two 16th century wooden forts found there that guarded the strategic anchorage of Port Royal Sound. The French Charlesfort was found underneath the Spanish Fort San Felipe, guardian of the Spanish settlement of Santa Elena. The site became a National Historic Landmark in 2001 and is still an active dig today.

On the other side of Port Royal Sound is Fort Fremont, a concrete and steel fort finished in 1899 as part of the Endicott system. Fort Fremont is long abandoned and over grown but is a play ground of sorts for the locals.

The New Nation is Tested and Threatened

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the American Revolution officially came to an end and the United States came into its own. 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.

The abandoned and overgrown Fort Fremont on Port Royal Sound in South Carolina.  Despite being unattended for 100 years, it is remarkably solid and intact. This is classic Endicott construction, which followed the Third System brick forts.

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

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 had fled Washington for his life, 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 had built 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.

Endicott construction was often layered over Second and Third System construction because it occupied key terrain.  Here we see a classic example at Fort Morgan, AL. On the right - brick casemates, arched doorways to prevent collapse and gun platforms firing through apertures.  On the left - Poured concrete and steel. Big disappearing guns. Electric ammo hoists. Centralized fire direction.

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. By the mid-1880's, fort building was back on the docket.

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 assets were essentially undefended.  They recommended an extensive building program for the then unheard of sum of $100 million.

These installations would be radically different from their brick predecessors and were called the Endicott Forts. Construction soon started and continued through World War II. The pictures further up this page give you an indication of how different Third System and Endicott forts were.  You can read all about them at our Endicott Fort page.

Not All Forts Defended the Coastline

The classic western construction of Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming could have been the set for a John Wayne movie. This is a corner blockhouse which stuck out from the perimeter. It was designed to provide cover fire down the walls during an attack.  It also would have served as a strongpoint position to defend and counter-attack from if the walls were breached.

Not by a long shot. The earliest settlers and explorers built forts as soon as they landed somewhere.  As America moved west, forts did too. The construction and circumstances were different but the mission was the same - protect the area around them. One aspect of the frontier forts that was different from their coastal kin was their level of involvement in the community. Interior forts became centers of trade, commerce, medical care, Indian affairs and law enforcement until self-sufficient towns became established.  In times of conflict, they became safe havens. They were bustling places with lots of activity - something their brick brothers never really experienced. In fact, the brick forts were designed that way. It would have been impossible to fully garrison every coastal installation. After they were built, they were manned by small caretaker staffs, who kept the place ready to go. A garrison would only be sent in the event of conflict.

The other thing that many of these forts experienced that the big coastal forts did not was combat. Some of them saw lots of it. Wyoming's Fort Phil Kearney, in particular, was under constant pressure and in danger of being overrun during Red Cloud's War.

We've included a separate section on these forts.  Called "Frontier Forts", it has pages on a number of interior forts that we have visited.

What Happened to Them?

An aerial view of Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. It is the only active U.S. military installation with brick walls and a moat.  Completed in 1834 to defend the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, it was the largest and most heavily armed of all the seacoast forts.  Currently the home of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), it is scheduled for de-activation in 2011 but has survived such actions before.

America's coastal forts once extended from Maine to the Florida Keys, the Great Lakes and San Francisco Bay. Starting out as palisades made of wood and dirt, they progressed to installations built with millions of bricks and finally to poured concrete and steel.  The heyday of the fort ended with the Civil War, but forts were built, re-built and reinforced until World War II.  After that, many of them were simply abandoned, falling into disrepair, hammered by the elements and reclaimed by the land and sea. Fortunately, the National Park Service and various state and private agencies have preserved a significant number of these installations for posterity.  Some, like Alcatraz and Fort Sumter, are household names and tourist attractions. Others, like Fort Powell and Fort McRee, are gone and almost forgotten. 

The same fate has befallen many of the interior forts. Some, like Fort Necessity near Uniontown, PA are well known and well preserved. Others, like Fort Augustus in present day Green Bay, WI are gone and forgotten.

One of the Third System forts is still operational.  Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia has continued as an active Army base to this day - moat and all. 



Visiting and Exploring Forts

A benchmark at Battery Cooper, an Endicott fort on Santa Rosa Island just outside of Pensacola, FL. It's right down the road from Fort Pickens. This survey mark is cemented into the top of one of the battery's walls. Most benchmarks are disks but there are lots of other kinds.  Take a picture and record your find.

Forts are great for exploring and learning. For the most part, they belong to the National Park Service or their state equivalents. Others are maintained by private organizations. Many more are abandoned or simply gone.  One of them - Fort Monroe in Hampton, VA. - is still an active post. Many have been included in parks and historical sites. They are almost always located in interesting places.  They may not be that easy to get to sometimes, but are always interesting.

These forts are three dimensional textbooks of the history, geography and cultural influences of the areas and the times in which they were built. From Conquistadors to Redcoats to Confederates to Indians to U-boats, every fort has a story to tell. Even though they have many similar design and appearance features, every fort is unique. 

Many are haunted.  Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, FL has a Confederate soldier that has been seen by the staff and visitors alike.  He reportedly has even spoken to unsuspecting tourists exploring deep inside the fort and been mistaken for a re-enactor when none were present that day. 

Forts and their surroundings are excellent for geocaching.  There are also letterboxes, waymarks and shutterspots. If you are a benchmark hunter, you're in luck.  These forts are engineering marvels and always have recognizable benchmarks on the grounds or nearby.  For instance, Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island near Mobile, Alabama has four of them. The system of fortifications around Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola, FL has over a dozen. You can look up benchmarks on  You'll need a GPS device, a good search plan and some detective work to find them. GPS coordinates for benchmarks are approximate, since GPS didn't exist when they were placed. You'll also be using the original USGS description to find them.  Don't forget to bring along a camera to take a picture of the benchmark to post with your log.

I hope this little introduction to forts will get you out there to do some exploring on your own.  If not, the pages of this section will let you do some virtual exploring. 

If you are interested in reading up on forts and related topics, here are three books I recommend and use myself.

  • Fortress America, by J.E. and H.W. Kaufmann
  • Seacoast Fortifications of the United States, by Emanuel Raymond Lewis
  • Arms and Equipment of the Civil War, by Jack Coggins

Additionally, there are a number of websites dedicated to fort discovery, history and exploration. One of them is FortWiki. It's worth checking out.

As always, we welcome your comments via our email or our Guestbook.

Semper Fi...Out here...Alpha6