Full Fort Adams History
The forces of nature that gave the settlers of Rhode Island one of the finest natural harbors in the world, Narragansett Bay, also presented them with a military challenge. Part of the challenge was to prevent an enemy fleet from entering the bay to attack friendly ships or cities along the shore. Another part was to prevent an enemy from seizing the bay to use it for a base of operations. Periodically, those charged with meeting this challenge have had to answer three broad questions. The first was whether to fortify the bay in addition to, or in place of, defending it by strictly naval means. If the answer was yes, questions remained as to what type of fortifications should be built and where they should be located. A look at how these questions were answered in the past provides not only an insight into an important aspect of Newport’s history, but a review of the development of American seacoast defenses as well.
- The Colonial Period
During the colonial period, coastal defenses were largely a matter of local concern. From the earliest period, the settlers of Newport appreciated the need to defend their harbor against a changing array of potential enemies. Although they agreed on the need for defenses, these early residents were not always ready to devote the funds required to satisfy that need. When Newport purchased Goat Island in 1673, for example, both ends of the island were laid out for building lots, but the center was reserved for fortifications. No work was undertaken until about 1700, however, when the first earthen fortifications were constructed. The works of this period, both earth and masonry, were bastioned fortifications similar in style to those of Europe, but much less grand in execution. When gunpowder and the cannon destroyed the military effectiveness of the high masonry walls of medieval castles and fortified cities, European engineers began to search for a satisfactory defense against these impressive new weapons. By the mid-1500s, the Italians had discovered the answer: low earthen ramparts, faced with masonry, surrounded by a ditch, and protected at the angles by bastions. Bastions were arrow-shaped projections from the fortification’s main wall or curtain. These projections served the same role as the towers along a medieval castle’s wall: deny attackers any dead space along the walls where they would be safe from the defender’s weapons.
Although the bastioned style of fortifications was developed over several centuries by engineers of many countries, the style is known commonly as “Vaubanian” after its most famous proponent, Sebastien le Prestre de Vauban. Starting as a cadet in 1651, Vauban rose to the rank of marshal of France and became famous as the engineer who fortified that country’s borders during the reign of Louis XIV. Although Vauban constructed or rebuilt more than one hundred fortifications and supervised fifty-three successful sieges, his writings and efforts to create a professional corps of engineers had an even greater impact on military engineering than the works themselves. In Vauban’s time, military engineers were essentially civilian contractors who worked with the army. Vauban’s efforts led to the recognition of engineering as a true military specialty and eventually to the establishment of schools for the education of engineers. Vauban’s writings and the works of others about his style of fortifications became textbooks for the world’s armies.
Having agreed upon the need to protect their harbor, Newporters, with some familiarity of the Vaubanian style of fortification in Europe, faced the question of where to build the forts. The answer was determined by a combination of geography and the characteristics of available ordnance. Narragansett Bay has three openings to the ocean, known today as the West and East Passages and the Sakonnet River. In earlier times these passages were known respectively as the West, Middle, and East Passages. To avoid confusion, current terminology is used throughout this article. Early surveys of the bay indicated that the West Passage and the Sakonnet River were not deep enough to accommodate major warships. Although this view later was proved wrong, it formed the basis for most of the early plans to defend Newport. In May 1702, the Rhode Island Assembly directed that a new fortification large enough to mount twelve cannon be built to protect Newport Harbor during the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1713). Goat Island was chosen as the site of the new fort, which was named for Queen Anne who had succeeded to the throne in March 1702. The cannon at Fort Anne would have been smoothbore, muzzleloading guns. These cannon were probably 12- or 18-pounders, firing solid iron balls of those weights, and mounted on either naval or field artillery carriages. With effective ranges limited to hundreds of yards, these weapons could have protected only Newport’s inner harbor. Enemy ships could still have entered Narragansett Bay and sailed it with impunity.
During the colonial period, the fortunes of the works on Goat Island rose and fell with the perceptions of threats from Britain’s foreign enemies. After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1714, for example, the garrison was disbanded. Though renamed in 1730 for King George II, the work fell into disrepair. Upon declaration of war between Britain and Spain in 1739, the Rhode Island Assembly ordered Fort George repaired and fully armed. Newport’s sea captain and gentleman architect, Peter Harrison, was asked to design the new fort. Drawing on his personal library, which contained several works on fortification, including one by Vauban, Harrison produced a masonry work reported to have mounted twenty-five guns in its lower battery and twelve on platforms. Although the entrances to Narragansett Bay remained unprotected, the Assembly did order the construction of watch towers on Conanicut Island and at Point Judith, Castle Hill, Sachuest Point, and Brenton’s Point. At the time, the name Brenton’s Point referred to the neck of land at the southwest entrance to Newport harbor where Fort Adams now stands. The name-taken from William Brenton, an early owner of the land-is now applied to the southernmost tip of Aquidneck Island. Because current maps and charts assign no name to the place where Fort Adams stands, the terms “old Brenton’s Point” and “new Brenton’s Point” will be used to differentiate between them.
- The Revolutionary War
In December 1774, shortly before the start of the American Revolution, another cycle of disarming and rearming Newport’s fortifications began, a cycle that has characterized American coast defense policy throughout its history. Sensing the gathering war clouds, and fearing the British would seize the cannon at Fort George, the Rhode Island Assembly ordered that the guns and ammunition be removed and taken to Providence. Appreciating the vulnerability of the colonies, the Continental Congress urged them to fortify their ports. The Rhode Island Assembly endorsed this concept on June 28, 1775. Almost a year later, the citizens of Newport voted at a town meeting to construct a fort at old Brenton’s Point. Inhabitants were ordered to help with the labor or pay a fine of three shillings for each day they missed. By the end of 1776, the earthwork had been completed. A battery of eight 18-pounder guns had been established on Conanicut Island across from old Brenton’s Point, and a small earthwork had been built on Castle Hill. In addition, Fort George on Goat Island had been rearmed with twenty-five guns, manned with a garrison of fifty-five, and renamed Fort Liberty, and the battery on North Point had been enlarged and armed with twenty cannon captured by Commodore Esek Hopkins from the British at Nassau in the Bahamas. Additional fortifications existed at Bristol and Howland Ferries to prevent Newport from being taken from the rear. Unfortunately, the Americans failed to defend the West Passage. On December 7, 1776, Commodore Sir Peter Parker sailed a British fleet of seven ships of the line, four frigates, and seventy transports carrying six thousand troops unopposed up the West Passage and around the northern end of Conanicut Island. The following day, the troops under Major General Henry Clinton landed near Coddington Cove and marched on Newport.
After occupying Newport, the British maintained most of the coastal batteries that they inherited from the Americans and added a battery on Rose Island. The Revolutionary War fortifications around Narragansett Bay-the only ones in the area that have seen action against an enemy-were earthworks that carried their guns en barbette meaning that they were mounted in the open on top of the ramparts, firing over an earthen parapet. This style of fortification continued to reflect French influence. Lacking trained military engineers at home, the Americans had appealed early in the war to France for help. Louis Lebeque Duportail, a Frenchman, rose to the command of continental engineers under George Washington. His countryman, General François Lellorquis de Malmedy, had been appointed “Chief Engineer and Director of the works of defense” of Rhode Island in December of 1776.
To protect the West Passage and correct the weakness they had taken advantage of, the British constructed a rectangular redoubt at Beaverhead on Conanicut Island. In addition, the British took a step that has not been repeated since the Revolution: they constructed a line of fortifications to protect Newport from an attack from the landward side. This line consisted of trenches and earthen redoubts running from the high ground overlooking Easton’s Pond to Tonomy Hill and then north to Coddington Cove. An abatis-a barrier of trees felled with the branches toward the enemy-was constructed to serve the role of modern barbed wire, and Easton’s Pond was deepened by damming the inlet. To screen this defensive line to the north, the British constructed a number of detached earthworks elsewhere on Aquidneck Island, including Common Fence Point, Butt’s Hill, and Fogland Ferry near the area now known as the Glen. Hard work and planning on the part of the British was to pay off handsomely in 1778, when the French and Americans attempted to recapture Newport.
On July 29, 1778, a French fleet under Admiral Charles Hector Théodat, Count d’Estaing, arrived off the entrance to Narragansett Bay, setting the stage for a combined French-American att-r–on Newport. On August 4 and 5, two of d’Estaing’s ships ran the West Passage and rounded the northern end of Conanicut Island. In response, the British burned a number of their ships that were anchored off Newport to prevent their capture by the French. On August 8, the main body of the French fleet, led by d’Estaing’s flagship, Languedoc, ran the East Passage under fire from British batteries and anchored off Conanicut Island. Having already evacuated Conanicut Island, Major General Sir Robert Pigot, the British commander, began to withdraw his forces from the northern part of Aquidneck Island back to the lines around Newport in anticipation of a siege. To hinder the movement of the French fleet, the British scuttled their remaining ships, including a large transport that was run aground between North Point and Goat Island.
Admiral d’Estaing and Major General John Sullivan, commander of the American forces assigned to capture Newport, agreed on a plan that envisioned an American crossing of the Sakonnet River and a simultaneous landing of French troops by d’Estaing’s fleet on the west side of Aquidneck Island. On August 9, the situation changed drastically. General Sullivan had moved his army across the Sakonnet River from Tiverton to take advantage of the British withdrawal, but Admiral d’Estaing had a very different set of concerns. That same day a British fleet under Admiral Lord Richard Howe had arrived off the entrance to Narragansett Bay. If Admiral Howe had landed troops on Conanicut Island, Admiral d’Estaing would have been caught in a crossfire from those forces and the batteries at Newport. Fearing that contingency and the possibility of a sea fight in the restricted waters of the bay, d’Estaing took advantage of a north wind on August 10 to run once again the British batteries guarding the East Passage, this time headed out. The two fleets were still maneuvering for position on the 11th when a violent gale struck. The damage that resulted from the storm and battles between individual ships ultimately caused both sides to retire.
Meanwhile ashore, General Sullivan’s army waited out the storm that destroyed much of their supplies. When the weather cleared, they marched south, arriving opposite the British lines on the afternoon of August 15. The Americans began to construct siege batteries and actually opened the siege on August 19 with a cannonade of the British positions. Unable to breach the enemy lines, plagued with internal problems, and aware that British reinforcements under General Sir Henry Clinton were on the way, the Americans withdrew to the north on the night of August 28. After fighting a running battle with their pursuers, the Americans escaped from the island on August 31, thereby ending the campaign to seize Newport. The British victory was short-lived, however. In October 1779, they evacuated Newport voluntarily, allowing the French to occupy the city in the summer of the following year. Before leaving, the British “dismantled” most of the works protecting Newport from the landward side.
In addition to occupying the coastal defense works left by the British, the French constructed a large work on Rose Island and a battery on Hallidon Hill overlooking the works on old Brenton’s Point. They named this latter work Fort Chastellux in honor of one of Rochambeau’s Maréschaux de Camp, the Chevalier de Chastellux. The French also reworked the landward defenses of Newport, an action that has obscured the origins of some of the remains of those early fortifications.
- Early US Coastal Defense Systems
Following the Revolutionary War, the former colonies once again let their seacoast defenses fall into a state of disrepair. In October 1784, the Rhode Island Assembly ordered that the works on Goat Island be repaired and armed. The renovated fort underwent yet another change of name, this time to Fort Washington. Concerned by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793, the United States Congress took action the following year to create a unit of artillerymen and engineers, appoint a committee to study coast defense needs, and appropriate money to construct a number of fortifications that would become known as the First System. Newport was one of twenty-one locations selected to be fortified. Lacking trained engineers to supervise the work, Secretary of War Henry Knox placed a number of European engineers under contract. On March 29, 1794, Major Etienne Nicholas Marie Bechat, Sieur de Rochefontaine, was named the engineer for New England. Rochefontaine designed three fortifications for Narragansett Bay, a work on Goat Island to replace Fort Washington, another on Tonomy Hill, and a battery at Howland’s Ferry. As late as 1945, a stone with the name Rochefontaine carved into it could be seen in the embankment in front of the Torpedo Factory’s Explosive Division. Having Anglicized his name to Stephen Rochefontaine, he became commandant of the new Corps of Artillerists and Engineers in 1795, and was replaced at Newport by another French officer, Major Louis Tousard.
Tousard was no stranger to Newport, having fought there during the 1778 siege and lost an arm during the fighting at Butt’s Hill. He returned to France, became involved in a revolution at Santo Domingo for which he was imprisoned, was freed at the intercession of the American minister in Paris, and then came to the United States where he was commissioned in the United States Army. Between 1798 and 1800, Tousard supervised construction of several works around Narragansett Bay, including an elliptical battery of stone for twelve or thirteen guns at North Point, subsequently named Fort Greene in honor of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island, and a rectangular fort with two circular towers on the western corners located on Rose Island. Named Fort Hamilton after Alexander Hamilton, this latter work was never completed. Tousard also supervised improvements at Fort Washington, which was enlarged and once again renamed. Because the name Fort Washington had been used for a new fort in Maryland, the work on Goat Island was named Fort Wolcott to honor the Revolutionary War service of Governor Oliver Wolcott, who had died on December 1, 1797.
Tousard also designed an elliptical stone tower on a rocky point on Conanicut Island across the East Passage from old Brenton’s Point and near the offshore rocks known as the Dumplings. This work was advanced for the time, designed to have its guns mounted on platforms over casemates, arched stone and brick chambers that served as a magazine and shelters for the garrison. One authority on early American fortifications considers this work to be the first American martello tower, a particular type of circular fort with roof-mounted guns that became popular in Britain during the Napoleonic wars. The work, which was never completed, was a frequent subject for local artists in the nineteenth century. Never named officially, it has been called Fort Louis, Fort Brown, and the fort at the Dumplings.
Another Tousard project during these years was an irregular open work at old Brenton’s Point sited so that about twenty guns could cover the East Passage and an equal number fire in the direction of Newport. An elaborate ceremony was held on the Fourth of July in 1799 to open this new fort and to christen it Fort Adams in honor of President John Adams. Major Tousard addressed the assembled crowd. Over the arch of the gateway was a stone tablet with the inscription:
The Rock on Which the Storm Will Beat
The storm was coming in the form of the War of 1812, but it never beat against Fort Adams. The Royal Navy blockaded the coast of New England during the war, but never attempted to force an entry into Narragansett Bay. This omission was undoubtedly fortunate for Newport. Although the East Passage was covered by fortifications, the works had been declared inadequate by the secretary of war. The other two passages into the bay were essentially open to an enemy fleet. Except for an old battery at Bonnet Point that may have been manned at some time, the West Passage remained unprotected, a fact noted by British naval officers at the time. The Sakonnet River was also unprotected, but the channel was less suitable for large ships, and a stone bridge had been built across the river at Tiverton in 1810. The British failed to take advantage of these weaknesses, however, and the defenses of Narragansett Bay waited out the war without being tested.
During this same general period, two other events took place away from Rhode Island that were eventually to have an impact on the defenses of Newport. In 1802, the Congress separated the artillerists and engineers into two separate corps and directed the latter to create a military academy at West Point, New York. One of the driving forces for establishing the new academy was the need to divorce the United States from its reliance on foreign engineers. The second event was the publication by a French engineer of a multi-volume work titled Fortification Perpendiculaire. Although Marc René, Marquis de Montalembert published his work in Paris between 1776 and 1778, thirty years were required for its influence to be felt in the United States.
Montalembert proposed a new system of fortifications to overcome the weaknesses of the works designed by Vauban and his successors. One weakness of the earlier works was that the crews of guns mounted en barbette were exposed to enemy fire, which included solid shot fired to ricochet down a line of guns, and shell, a hollow projectile filled with explosive that shattered into fragments when detonated by a fuse. In 1794, Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel increased the danger to exposed gun crews with his invention of a projectile called spherical case. Later named for Shrapnel, this new shell exploded in the air raining musket balls on an enemy below. Montalembert’s system protected a fort’s gunners by placing most of them in covered casemates with openings called embrasures for the guns. By stacking rows of casemates on top of one another, the new system also allowed more guns to be mounted along any given length of a fort’s perimeter. This feature was particularly important for seacoast fortifications, which had only a limited time in which to fire at a passing enemy fleet. Not all engineers agreed with this new concept. In 1809, Louis Tousard published an early American textbook on artillery and fortifications titled The American Artillerist’s Companion. After discussing a variety of systems of fortification, including Montalembert’s, Tousard concluded, “The defects that are manifest in all these different systems show the superiority which exists, to this day, in all the fortifications which have been constructed by Vauban.”
Frightened by the possibility of war with Great Britain, President Thomas Jefferson began a fortification program in 1807-1808 that has come to be known as the Second System. This system was distinguished from the First System by the use of Montalembert’s concepts and the replacement of foreign engineers by American ones, many of them recent graduates of the new United States Military Academy. The Second System brought no new works to Narragansett Bay, but Newport did not have to wait long to feel the impact of Montalembert and the new American engineers.
- Joseph G. Totten and the Third System
Newport may have escaped the wrath of the British during the War of 1812, but the nation’s capital was not so lucky. Determined to prevent a future repetition of the burning of Washington, President James Monroe mentioned the need for better coastal defenses in his inaugural address of March 4, 1817. A year earlier, the army had created a board to study the subject and recommend what fortifications were required. Membership included Brigadier General Joseph G. Swift, chief of engineers, and two other American engineers, Lieutenant Colonels William McRee and Joseph G. Totten. Apparently lacking full confidence in American officers to accomplish such an important task, the president had appealed to France for a distinguished engineer to head the board. In response, the French sent Simon Bernard, a graduate of the École Polytechnique who had fought with distinction in the Napoleonic wars. In recognition of his position, Bernard received rank and pay equal to that of General Swift. Swift and McRee both considered Bernard’s appointment to be an insult to American engineers and resigned from the board shortly thereafter. Except for a short absence for another assignment, Totten stayed to assist Bernard in planning what became known as the Third System of fortifications. After Bernard returned to France in 1831, Totten became America’s undisputed expert on fortifications.
When Bernard’s board made its report in 1821, it recommended an extensive building program to cover the nation’s seacoasts with modern masonry fortifications. The plan for Narragansett Bay included fortifications at old Brenton’s Point, the Dumplings, and Rose Island, designed to protect the East Passage. The plan also envisaged that Newport’s inner harbor would continue to be protected by Forts Greene and Wolcott. The Sakonnet River was closed by the stone bridge at Tiverton and the troublesome West Passage would be blocked by an underwater dike below Dutch Island designed to permit the passage of small vessels but not large warships. Work on the Dumplings, Rose Island, and the underwater dike was never undertaken, but construction started at old Brenton’s Point in 1824 with an appropriation from Congress of fifty thousand dollars. The first order of business for Lieutenant Andrew Talcott, the senior engineer, was to prepare the site for the new construction. Louis Tousard’s earlier work had been declared “worse than useless” and was completely leveled. The name Fort Adams was retained for the new fort, however.
On August 10, 1825, Lieutenant Colonel Totten arrived at Fort Adams to take charge of the work. Having helped Simon Bernard plan the entire Third System, Joseph Totten was now to supervise construction of one of its true masterpieces. He was to remain in Newport until December 7, 1838, when he left to become chief of engineers of the United States Army. Artillery of the day dictated a site close to sea level to eliminate any dead space under the fort’s guns. Old Brenton’s Point met that criterion, but space limitations precluded a work in the shape of the regular polygons prescribed by theory. Totten chose instead an irregular pentagon with the northeast bastion particularly squeezed to accommodate the nature of the site. Along the two fronts facing the bay, Totten chose one- or two-level casemates in the style of Montalembert. To protect the rear of the fort from attack from the land, Totten designed a complex set of Vaubanian defenses. The heavy, earth-filled ramparts of that style of fortifications were considered more resistant to the battering of enemy siege artillery than multilevel casemates. To prevent a besieger from commanding the fort from the high ground farther down Brenton’s Neck, Totten constructed a powerful redoubt-a miniature Fort Adams in some respects-near the present Eisenhower House.
Fort Adams is a massive work with structural walls constructed of local shale and Maine granite. Alexander McGregor, a Scots mason and Newport resident, oversaw the stonework, which is still relatively intact. McGregor also supervised construction of several other notable buildings in Newport, including the Perry Mill, the Newport Artillery Company armory, Stone Villa, and Swanhurst. Willard Robinson notes in his detailed work on the fort that bricks for the vaulted casemates came from local kilns. At the time he was building the fort, Colonel Totten frequently advertised in the Newport Mercury for New England contractors to provide millions of common bricks. Within the Third System, only Fort Monroe at Newport News, Virginia, and Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas off Key West, Florida, are larger. Neither displays the sophisticated engineering features that make Fort Adams a showcase for the art of fortification. Features of Fort Adams that are uncommon or unique in United States military architecture include galleries under the ditches, counterscarp galleries, underground listening galleries tunneled under the glacis, and extensive outer defenses including the redoubt and tenailles, massive earth-filled, masonry cribs designed to protect the outer face of the fort’s crown work from battering by a besieger’s artillery.
Most of this innovation can be attributed to Totten’s inventive mind, and his use of the construction, which lasted until 1857, as a school of application for young engineer officers. During this time, Totten conducted scientific experiments to determine the resistance of various materials used in fortifications to enemy fire, designed a greatly improved embrasure for seacoast forts, and made numerous contributions to civil engineering. When he died in 1864, he was recognized as one of the country’s greatest engineers. In writing a eulogy of Totten for the Smithsonian Institution, John Barnard, another senior military engineer, noted that Fort Adams had “called for the application of most of the rules of the art and many of those special arrangements which form the themes or treatises upon ‘fortification.'” Barnard further stated, “In these respects, [Fort Adams] has no parallel with us.”
During the long period of Fort Adams’s construction, artillery had also been improving. Better gunpowder allowed greater range from smoothbore cannon. Although solid shot, sometimes heated red hot in furnaces, had long been the standard projectile for use against wooden ships, the firing of shell from guns became increasingly common. Previously the use of shell had been limited largely to short-barreled mortars and howitzers. Because shells were hollow and could vary in weight, guns specifically designed to fire shells were classified by the diameter of their bores rather than the weight of the projectiles fired. In spite of this new development, Fort Adams was designed for 468 conventional seacoast guns mounted both in casemates and en barbette on the upper tier of the fort. No more than a fraction of that number, however, was ever installed. Carronades-short-barreled naval guns firing canister or grape shot-were mounted in the bastions to keep attackers away from faces of the fort. The seacoast guns were still muzzleloaders and were still laid to fire across the East Passage. Ships that might attempt to run the fire of the fort’s guns were similarly armed, although often with guns of a smaller caliber. Fort Adams’s granite walls were generally invulnerable to fire from smoothbore ship’s guns of the period. Unfortunately, that situation was to change about the time Colonel Totten’s masterpiece was completed.
- The Civil War and Its Aftermath
The two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War saw major improvements in artillery. Individuals such as Captain Thomas Jefferson Rodman of the United States Army and Lieutenant John A. Dahlgren of the United States Navy conducted experiments that led to the scientific design of artillery pieces. The result of this work was ordnance with more power and greater range. Others worked on rifled artillery. Unlike smoothbore guns, rifled ones had spiral grooves in the bore that imparted a spin to the projectile. The spin stabilized the projectile in flight giving greater accuracy and range. Rifling also permitted the use of elongated, pointed projectiles in place of spherical cannon balls. Experts disagreed at the time about the impact these improvements would have on fortifications. Some said the new weapons presented no greater threat than the ones they replaced. Experience during the Civil War proved that point of view wrong.
Third System forts were destined to play an important role at the start of the war. The Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor on April 12, 1861, marked the outbreak of fighting. In April of the next year, Union forces under General Quincy A. Gillmore took Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia, under siege. Fort Pulaski was located on an island at the mouth of the Savannah River, and no less an engineer than Robert E. Lee had earlier pronounced it to be impervious to any artillery that could be placed within effective range. Lee based his estimate on the capability of smoothbore artillery. Unfortunately for the garrison of the fort, the Union troops were using rifled guns in addition to smoothbore siege artillery. In less than two days, Gilmore’s artillery had dismounted eleven of the Confederate guns and battered a large breach in the fort’s brick wall. Fort Pulaski surrendered on April 11, 1862, a date that also could be said to mark the obsolescence of the masonry forts of the Third System. Given the focus of the fighting in the south and west, improving the defenses of Narragansett Bay was not a high priority for the Union. Fort Adams was rearmed, however, with new Rodman guns, 10-inch pieces in the casemates and 15-inch guns in open batteries atop the southwest bastion of the crown work. To protect the West Passage, units from the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, a black regiment, were stationed on Dutch Island from September until December of 1863. These soldiers manned eight artillery pieces emplaced in an earthen battery they had constructed. Later, the army constructed permanent batteries for 10- and 15-inch Rodman guns on the island.
Following the war, engineers argued about the best alternative to masonry fortifications. The Europeans were experimenting with armored casemates and turrets, but American engineers decided the cheapest and most effective plan was to revert to open earthworks of an earlier age. During the war, such works had proven extremely resistant to artillery and United States forces had become experienced in their construction. This shift also reflected the influence of Dennis Hart Mahan, who taught engineering at West Point from 1832 to 1871. In 1846, Professor Mahan, father of Naval War College strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, had written a textbook on earthen fortifications for use by cadets at the Military Academy.
Inexpensive earthen forts matched not only engineering thinking of the time, but also the fiscal mood of Congress. In 1876, the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1859. In spite of the deteriorated condition of the country’s defenses, Congress promptly cut the Army’s requested budget for fortifications from $3,500,000 to $315,000. Only $100,000 of that was allocated to repair fortifications. The remainder was to be used for experiments with mines and other ordnance.
Naval mines became a weapon to be reckoned with during the Civil War. At that time, they were called torpedoes, a term that has since been applied to self-propelled underwater missiles. David Bushnell had used them against the British during the Revolutionary War, and Robert Fulton had successfully demonstrated their power in the early 1800s. In 1842, Samuel Colt, better known for his revolvers, demonstrated the effectiveness of electrically fired mines for President John Tyler and other officials by sinking a schooner in the Potomac River. Congress appropriated $15,000 for Colt to continue experimenting, but many experts were not impressed. General Totten, now chief of engineers, disparaged the mine as an old idea that had not demonstrated its effectiveness in war. The Confederates proved General Totten wrong by sinking twenty-nine Union vessels with mines and damaging fourteen others during the Civil War. In the face of such evidence, the dissenters gave in. In 1869, the United States Navy established the Torpedo Station on Goat Island at Newport. In the 1870s, the Army’s engineer battalion at Willetts Point, New York, was given the mission of developing a mine system for harbor defense. Ironically, the fort located at Willetts Point was named for General Totten, who had died in 1864.
With the exception of these new developments, American coast defenses continued to languish. In 1884, Congressman Roswell Horr compared United States forts attempting to defeat a modern warship to trying “to stop a mad rhinoceros by firing green peas out of an old-fashioned popgun.” In November 1887, a squadron of United States Navy ships under the command of Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce conducted maneuvers at Newport. During the exercise, a squadron of five ships ran the East Passage to land marines against a force defending Coddington Cove. More than twenty years after the end of the Civil War, Fort Adams could reply with nothing more powerful than two 15-inch Rodman guns en barbette and ten 10-inch Rodmans in the casemates. Umpires did rule, however, that two ships would have been sunk by mines during the passage.
- The Endicott Board and the Early Twentieth Century
The period following the Civil War saw revolutionary improvements in artillery, particularly in Europe. Smoothbore, muzzleloading guns of iron that used black powder were replaced by rifled, breechloading guns made of steel and firing smokeless powder. Annual reports of the United States chief of engineers in the early 1880s reflect the opinion that these new weapons had made American coast defenses, once the strongest in the world, obsolete. A West Point professor writing at the time noted that the forts had become, “not only weak, but absolutely more dangerous to the defenders than to the enemy.” A hit from a modern ship’s gun would have turned Fort Adam’s granite walls into splinters as deadly as shrapnel.
Recognizing this weakness, Congress added a provision to its 1885 Fortifications Appropriation Act requiring the president to appoint a special board similar to the earlier Bernard Board to study the issue of coast defense. In May of that year, President Grover Cleveland appointed a board headed by his secretary of war, William Crowninshield Endicott. The board, which included civilians as well as military and naval officers, became known as the Endicott Board. The board issued a comprehensive report in January 1886 that recommended a coast defense system consisting of modern ordnance mounted in up-to-date concrete fortifications. Implementing the board’s report represented an incredible challenge. At the time, for example, the United States had no ordnance facility capable of manufacturing such modern steel artillery pieces. The cost of implementing the board’s recommendations was estimated at $126,377,800, a figure that shocked Congress. Rather than implement parts of the report’s recommendations, Congress failed to enact a fortifications appropriation at all for the next two years. Once started, work proceeded slowly, but was given an impetus by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and scares of bombardments by the Spanish fleet along the eastern seaboard.
Construction of the new system required the cooperation of several branches of the Army, the engineers who designed and built the fortifications, the ordnance experts who designed the guns and supervised their emplacement, and the artillerymen who manned the guns. The artillery had not yet split into field artillery and coast artillery. The engineers were forced to balance cost against protection in designing the new forts. As a result, they once again rejected armored casemates and turrets-which afforded gun crews great protection-in favor of open emplacements of concrete banked on the sides facing the enemy with thick layers of earth and sand. This type of fortification offered reasonable protection from direct fire that would be expected from an enemy ship. Such emplacements had the added advantage of being very difficult to spot from the sea. Added protection was expected from the manner in which the new guns were to be mounted.
Armament for the new coast defense system can be grouped into four classes. First, large caliber guns would perform the traditional role of attacking enemy warships. Designers of the gun batteries were confronted with the problem of protecting the gun crews from enemy fire. Having rejected armored casemates and turrets because of cost, engineers found a compromise solution in the form of a gun mount known as the disappearing carriage. The disappearing carriage was a complex mechanism that allowed a gun’s barrel to project over a high concrete parapet for firing. When fired, the gun’s recoil caused it to descend below the parapet where the crew could load the next round. In the loading position, the crew was protected from direct fire by the concrete parapet and as much as forty feet of sand and earth in front of it. While providing relatively cheap protection, disappearing carriages had several important weaknesses. Obviously they offered no overhead protection. Additionally, technical considerations limited both the traverse and the range of guns mounted on this type of carriage. To overcome this disadvantage, some guns continued to be mounted on barbette mounts. Second, were seacoast mortars. Instead of firing directly at an enemy ship as would a gun, a mortar lofted a large caliber shell toward an enemy ship along a high trajectory. Rather than hitting a ship on the side, where the armor was thickest, a mortar shell would pierce the ship’s relatively weak deck and explode deep within the vessel. The mortars’ high trajectory also allowed them to be emplaced well back from the shore line where they were relatively protected from the flat trajectory fire from ships’ guns. Because the target could not be seen by the gunners, however, mortars required a sophisticated system of observation and fire control. Third, were electrically-fired mines, which had assumed an increasingly important role in coast defense. Finally, small-caliber, rapid-fire guns were developed to deal with a new threat, the swift torpedo boat that could sneak into an anchorage and wreak havoc. These guns could also cover minefields to prevent an enemy from sweeping them.
The Endicott Board recommended twenty-seven ports be protected under the new system. New York and Boston were first and third in order of priority. Narragansett Bay was number eleven. Because of this relatively low priority, construction was barely underway around Newport when the Spanish-American War broke out in April 1898. Had the Spanish Fleet attempted to enter Narragansett Bay, it mainly would have faced United States guns from the Civil War period augmented by a few modern weapons in temporary batteries. The Spanish would have had to contend with the minefield blocking the East Passage, however, as did Joshua Slocum when he returned to Narragansett Bay in June 1898 from his historic, single-handed cruise around the world. When construction of the new forts began in Narragansett Bay shortly before the turn of the century, changes in ordnance required the engineers to rethink the locations of the forts. The increased range of guns presented the main challenge. A 12-inch gun could fire eight miles, for example. Instead of firing across the entrances to the bay in the manner of earlier muzzleloaders, the new guns required a location that would allow them to be fired out to sea along the line of a column of ships attempting to sail into the bay. The high ground at Fort Adams adjacent to the Third System redoubt provided room for four gun batteries, including Battery Reilly with two 10-inch disappearing guns. Two batteries of 12-inch mortars were also located at Fort Adams. Across the East Passage from Fort Adams, Louis Tousard’s old fort on the Dumplings was finally demolished to make room for several batteries of a new work called Fort Wetherill.
Fort Wetherill had some of Narragansett Bay’s biggest guns of the period, including two batteries of 12-inch disappearing guns. The wharf built below where Tousard’s fort once stood became the base for the mine defenses of the East Passage. Across Conanicut Island at Beaverhead, a new position was constructed to protect the West Passage. Named Fort Getty, this new work contained three gun batteries, including one with three 12-inch disappearing guns that was named for Louis Tousard. Two other works were also placed to guard the West Passage. Dutch Island was transformed into a full-fledged fortified position named Fort Greble. The fort’s armament included three gun batteries and a battery of mortars to complement those at Fort Adams. Construction of Fort Kearny, the last of Narragansett Bay’s Endicott works, began in 1906 near the South Ferry landing at Saunderstown. Containing three batteries of 3- and 6-inch guns, this fort protected the mainland shore of the West Passage. The Sakonnet River continued to be a weakness in the defenses of Narragansett Bay. Although the depth of the channel prevented major warships from gaining access to the bay by this route, coast defense commanders worried that smaller enemy vessels might take advantage of this “side door.” During joint Army-Navy maneuvers in 1902, the commander of Fort Adams periodically trained his searchlights up the bay in hopes of detecting any enemy ships that might have sneaked in through the Sakonnet River. During World War I, the army moved two 4.72-inch guns from Fort Adams and emplaced them temporarily at Sachuest Point to protect the mouth of the Sakonnet River.
World War I saw no enemy fleets attempting to force Narragansett Bay or shell the cities along its coast. The war did see technical developments that were to force a reconsideration of United States coast defenses, however. On one hand, ordnance designers made great strides in increasing the range and power of artillery pieces. Technical considerations involving the construction of naval turrets of the period meant that for a given size of gun, a coast defense weapon would have a greater range than its shipboard equivalent. The United States Army’s 16-inch coast defense gun, Model 1919, had a range of 49,1d> ards. In comparison, the 16-inch guns of the battleship Maryland, which was laid down in 1917, had a range of 35,000 yards. Army engineers decided to rely on this sizable differential to protect long-range coast defense batteries in lieu of costly concrete cover for them. Long-range 12- and 16-inch guns were once again mounted on barbette carriages which allowed 360-degree traverse and drastically reduced construction costs. Unlike many other important harbors, Narragansett Bay did not receive any of these new weapons. Unfortunately, another World War I development, the bomber aircraft, was to force engineers and artillerymen to reconsider this latest approach to coast defense. World War II and the End of Coast Defense Airplanes were to affect coast defenses in several important ways. In the view of some Army officers, the airplane was the ideal instrument to continue the trend of increasing the range of coast artillery. Instead of extending ranges hundreds of yards with a new cannon, they argued, extend ranges hundreds of miles with a new bomber. A variety of circumstances combined to encourage the proponents of aerial coast defense. Disciples of air power believed that strategic bombing alone could win wars without the carnage that attended ground fighting of the type that had occurred in Europe during World War I. The key to such bombing was the development of a modern long-range bomber. This development, in turn, rested on money from Congress.
Congress was in no mood to provide money for a weapon that could be used only in another overseas war. An improved way of defending the United States, however, was a different matter. The eventual result of this effort was the Boeing B-17. When this bomber became famous in World War II as the Flying Fortress, most Americans assumed the name referred to the unprecedented amount of defensive armament it carried. In fact, the name referred to the plane’s initial mission as a flying coast defense fort. In a series of tests in 1921, Army bombers led by Major William “Billy” Mitchell sank several former German and United States warships that had been adapted for use as targets. Although Mitchell demonstrated that, under certain conditions, aircraft could sink large ships, a question remained whether aircraft could locate an enemy fleet at sea in the days before radar. On May 12, 1938, Army Air Corps B-17s intercepted the Italian liner Rex 776 miles off the United States coast. In addition to demonstrating the ability of land-based aircraft to locate ships far at sea, this action renewed rivalry between the Navy and the Army over the responsibility for such missions. Improvements in aircraft also caused problems for the proponents of conventional coast defense methods.
The problems involved the protection of coast defense forts from aerial attack by an enemy. Part of the solution was to add antiaircraft guns to the types of ordnance already in the coast artillery’s arsenal. This effort required not only new guns, but a new array of fire control equipment such as height finders. The second part of the solution involved the redesign of gun emplacements. Construction of the new long-range barbette gun positions had hardly begun before they were obsolete. The answer to this new problem was an old idea, the casemate. Paralleling the transition from Vauban to Montalembert, coast artillery guns were once again mounted in covered positions that protected them, but limited their fields of fire. This time, however, the casemates were massive structures of reinforced concrete covered with tons of earth instead of the elegant brick vaults of General Totten’s time. As so often had happened in the past, emphasis on America’s defenses declined following the end of World War I. Many of the guns were removed from the forts around Narragansett Bay. In one sense the loss of these guns made no difference. At the start of World War II in 1939, a modern battleship could have shelled Newport while remaining at sea beyond the reach of the area’s longest range guns.
The outbreak of fighting in Europe emphasized the weaknesses of America’s defenses and prompted measures to overcome the problems. For the first time since the colonial period, entirely new locations had to be found for the modern casemates. Rather than defending the three entrances to the bay separately, the range of the new 16-inch guns permitted a single defense of all three. In 1940 and 1941, the United States government acquired property at Sakonnet Point and Point Judith to create Forts Church and Greene respectively. The twenty-six-mile range of these huge guns allowed them to take an enemy under fire long before his ships were close to entering Narragansett Bay. To the east, the guns could reach out as far as Martha’s Vineyard; to the west, almost as far as the tip of Long Island. At Fort Church, a battery of two 16-inch guns was complemented by a battery of two 8-inch guns, also in casemates. A battery of two modern 6-inch guns in steel shields was also located at Sakonnet point as were positions for 155mm mobile artillery pieces. At Fort Greene, one battery of 16-inch guns in casemates was completed. Another was started, but construction was suspended in 1943 when the direction of the war indicated that United States coastal defenses would probably never see action. Point Judith also had a modern 6-inch battery and prepared positions for 155mm mobile artillery.
Exploiting the full capabilities of these modern forts required the establishment of a new fire control system using both radar and optical instruments. Some of the resulting fire control structures were concrete towers and silos whose looks betrayed their military nature. Others, however, were disguised to look like beach front cottages. Locations ranged from Gay Head on Martha’s Vineyard to Block Island, with numerous other sites along the Rhode Island coast. Concern for the security of Narragansett Bay increased after the start of war in 1941 and a second line of defense was begun. In 1942, the government purchased land at Beavertail on Conanicut Island for the construction of Fort Burnside. A modern 6-inch battery was constructed there, and the 3-inch guns from Fort Getty’s Battery Whiting were moved to Fort Burnside to cover the entrance to the East Passage. Opposite Beavertail on the mainland, Fort Varnum was established with older 6-inch guns that had been moved from Battery House at Fort Getty and 3-inch guns taken from Fort Kearny. The smaller guns were later moved again, this time to Fort Getty. At various times, 37mm and 90mm guns were mounted for anti-motor-torpedo-boat duty at locations that included Fort Getty, Fort Varnum, Fort Wetherill, and new Brenton’s Point, where positions for 155mm mobile artillery pieces were also located.
In addition to the firepower of this wide array of guns, an intricate system of underwater listening devices, minefields, and antisubmarine nets also protected Narragansett Bay. Seaward from the mouths of the East and West Passages lay underwater cables that could detect the magnetic field of a submarine or surface ship passing over them. Closer to the shore were hydrophones that could pick up the sound of a ship’s propeller. Command posts ashore analyzed information from these detection systems to determine the nature of any contacts. Next came two lines of electrically controlled mines. Modern mine casemates, bunkers from which the minefields were controlled, at Hull Cove on Conanicut Island replaced earlier ones at Fort Adams, Fort Wetherill, and Fort Greble. Completing the system were the giant steel nets that closed the East Passage at Fort Wetherill. Made in two sections, one end of each section was anchored to the shore. The other ends of the two sections were held by net tending ships stationed in the channel where they could open and close the barrier like a giant bi-fold closet door. The West Passage was blocked by a solid anti-boat boom and net that could not be opened. The ends were anchored at Fort Getty and Fort Kearny. As World War II progressed, the threat of an enemy bombarding Narragansett Bay declined steadily. Most of the guns remaining in Endicott period forts were removed for scrap, and work was suspended on uncompleted modern casemates.
German submarines continued to operate off the coast until the end of the war, but they remained an enemy beyond the reach of traditional coastal defenses. Air attack remained a very real threat, however, and antiaircraft batteries sprang up aroe wethe bay. Many were entirely new installations, such as the ones on Coaster’s Harbor Island, on Eustis Avenue in Newport, and on Ruggles Avenue and Old Fort Road near the site of the current Rogers High School. Other batteries showed up in some familiar places. As early as the 1920s, the army had emplaced antiaircraft guns at Fort Greble, between the Endicott batteries at Fort Wetherill, and atop Joseph Totten’s redoubt at Fort Adams. During World War II, soldiers also manned naval antiaircraft guns mounted on Rose Island around Louis Tousard’s Fort Hamilton. During the war, none of the many guns protecting Narragansett Bay saw action. Had they been called upon to do so, Fort Adams, the masterpiece of the bay’s earlier defenses, would have been far to the rear of the battle. General Totten might have been pleased to know, however, that the battle would have been controlled from an underground command center located not far from his Third System redoubt.
After the war, coastal defenses languished for a while in a state of limbo. When the threat shifted from enemy fleets to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the forts were closed and put to other uses. Most are parks, like Fort Adams, which is now part of a state park that includes athletic and sailing facilities and is a favorite place for picnics and other recreations. The fort itself has been the backdrop for musical events, including the Jazz Festival, which began in Newport in 1954. Fort Varnum and parts of Fort Greene at Point Judith are still used by the military. Fort Church is home to a golf course, and Fort Kearny houses a research reactor for the University of Rhode Island. They all stand as silent reminders of the great system of fortifications that once defended the fleet that, perhaps fittingly, is now also gone from the waters of Narragansett Bay.