Baltimore, MD; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC
The United States of America came into existence just in time for the last few decades of fixed stone fortifications. With the advent of more powerful cannons, walled forts and castles were already largely an outdated luxury. Nevertheless America did erect a few major fortresses in the early years of the 19th century, primarily to defend the Eastern Seaboard against possible naval assault. Out of these efforts grew some of America’s most fabled military sites: Fort Pulaski, where rifled cannon were tested for the first time in a siege; Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired; and Fort McHenry, where a failed British assault during the War of 1812 led to the writing of the Star Spangled Banner. All three forts are national historic sites and are among the most popular places of military interest in the United States.
In the years following the American Revolution, Europe was wracked by civil strife and war. The rival navies of Britain, France and other European powers made the waters of the Atlantic dangerous, threatening the Eastern Seaboard of the young nation. Concerned with good reason that the European conflict would eventually spread to the Americas, the United States began constructing a series of strong fortifications, mostly near the seaward approaches to the major cities. The most famous of these by far was Fort McHenry.
Completed in 1805, Fort McHenry was one of the earliest military installations constructed by the United States government. It was designed to protect the city of Baltimore from a naval assault coming from Chesapeake Bay, and was put to the test barely a decade after its completion. In 1814, a British invasion fleet subjected the fort to a 24-hour bombardment. It suffered only light damage and only a few casualties among its defenders. This battle, one of the few major American victories of the War of 1812, was immortalized by Francis Scott Key, who witnessed the engagement from aboard a nearby ship. Fort McHenry subsequently served as a prison during the American Civil War, as an army hospital during World War I, and as a Coast Guard Base during World War II.
In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the interest in coastal defenses grew, especially in the largely undefended south. Major installations were erected around the large port cities. The greatest of these was Fort Pulaski, which was built to protect the harbor of Savannah. Completed in 1847, its thick walls and isolated position on an island had military commanders deeming it all but impregnable. However, that turned out to be optimistic in the face of new technological advances. At the outset of the war Fort Pulaski was seized by forces of the Confederacy. In 1862, Union forces, using new rifled cannon, quickly reduced the fort. This event effectively ended the age of stone fortifications in America.
More famous than Fort Pulaski is Fort Sumter in nearby Charleston. Mostly completed in 1835, the fort was still under construction at the outbreak of the American Civil War. It is, in fact, the place where the civil war began. A Union stronghold just offshore from South Carolina, the first state to secede, Fort Sumter bore the brunt of the first Confederate assault. Following a thirty hour bombardment, the Union army surrendered the fortress on April 13, 1861. Interestingly, none of the defenders died during the battle. It was not recovered by Federal forces until close to the end of the war. It was later used sporadically for other military purposesw as well as a lighthouse.
Fort McHenry was constructed towards the end of the colonial star-fort era, when artillery was becoming too powerful for masonry fortifications to withstand. Although built along the classic star-fort pattern, it relies more heavily on earthworks designed to absorb gunfire. Because it was in nearly continual use until the middle of the 20th century, Fort McHenry has been well preserved. The fort’s museum boasts a collection of famous American flags, including the original Star Spangled Banner which inspired the national anthem.
Fort Pulaski is more in appearance like an earlier, colonial-era gunpowder fort. Its iconic red-brick walls are protected by a moat, but there is little in the way of the earthworks that may have helped the fortress absorb artillery fire. After the siege in 1862 Fort Pulaski was quickly repaired, and it appears much today as it did at the end of the American Civil War.
Fort Sumter stands on a small, rocky island in the center of Charleston Harbor. Not a particularly attractive fort, it is a no-nonsense, blocky structure which consists of little more than a massive, multi-tiered battery of cannon surrounded by a wall. Largely destroyed during the Civil War, most of the modern fort actually dates from the late 19th century. A variety of artillery pieces adorn the casements. The Fort Sumter museum is actually located on the mainland, and features historic exhibits on the lead-up to the war.
All three sites are run by the National Park Service and are open year-round except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day. Fort McHenry is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm (later hours in summer); admission is $5.00. Fort Pulaski is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm; admission is $3.00. Fort Sumter is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm; admission is $12.00. Web: www.nps.gov (official website of the U.S. National Park Service).
Many of America’s coastal cities were fortified during the early 19th century. By far the most visited, thanks to its proximity to the Statue of Liberty ferry, is Castle Clinton in lower Manhattan. Fort Independence on Castle Island near Boston is one of the oldest military sites in North America. Fort Mifflin outside of Philadelphia saw action during the American Revolution and was subsequently used by the United States army for nearly two centuries.