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4 of America’s Most Impressive Historic Forts

These days contemporary American forts bear little resemblance to those of centuries past. 

Though they’re still often surrounded by defensive positions, checkpoints manned by armed soldiers, and in some cases thick walls, they’re usually less physically imposing than their predecessors. 

Especially in the years between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, America was home to an array of impressive forts that stretched from border to border and coast to coast. 

And when some of them were built, like one on this list, they weren’t American forts at all, but distant outposts of colonial European powers intent on staking their claims in the New World. 

Now without further ado, let’s take a look at four of America’s most impressive historic forts.  

Fort McHenry 

Fort McHenry america's most impressive historic forts
Fort McHenry by Ad Meskens is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Though these days it’s most well-known for crab cakes and crime, Baltimore, Maryland is also home to one of the country’s most significant historic forts – Fort McHenry. 

Located on a peninsula in the Patapsco River just south of the city, during a particularly awe-inspiring bombardment by British forces in the War of 1812, Fort McHenry and it’s tattered 30 x 42-foot ( 9.1 x 12.8 m) flag provided the backdrop from which attorney and Baltimore native Francis Scott Key penned the “Star Spangled Banner” that would become the country’s national anthem in 1931. 

But the fort’s history dates back to the Revolutionary War when a small earthen structure named Fort Whetstone was built to protect what was then the country’s third largest city and one of its most vital ports.

The fort was perfectly situated at a natural choke point through which enemy ships would have to pass on their way north to the city, during which time they’d be dangerously susceptible to artillery fire. 

Fort Whetstone was never attacked during the Revolution, but years afterward a number of significant upgrades were made that included additional barracks and officer’s quarters, powder magazines, and more permanent and defensible brick and stone fortifications and walls that were up to 35 feet (10.6 m) thick and 40 feet (12.2 m) tall.

The new fort was spread over nearly 50 acres and featured a revolutionary 5-pointed star design.

With the fort’s distinct layout, the point of each star was visible from those on either side, which meant that attacking forces would always be partially surrounded thereby making it possible for defenders to repel assaults by larger forces.

In addition, it was armed with a number of innovative Rodman guns, some of which were capable of firing projectiles weighing nearly 450 pounds (204 kg).

With the upgrades in place, the improved fort was renamed Fort McHenry after Secretary of War and Baltimore native James McHenry. 

But after just a few decades of peace, on June 18, 1812 the United States once again declared war on England in response to maritime disputes stemming from its conflict with France.

During that time, neutral America provided much needed supplies to both combatants, but the country’s merchant vessels were frequently caught in blockades and had their cargos seized, and it was common for captured American merchantmen to be pressed into naval service for the Royal Navy.  

Less than a year later, English naval forces entered the Chesapeake Bay, humiliated American forces in a number of battles and eventually captured and burned much of Washington D.C.

With the nation’s capital fallen, Baltimore was squarely in British sites, and in September of 1814 the world’s most dominant navy sailed up the Chesapeake and unleashed a dramatic bomb and rocket attack on Fort McHenry in an attempt to drive its beleaguered troops from their positions. 

The overwhelming bombardment lasted for more than 24 hours, but when the smoke cleared the following morning the fort’s defenders were still at their posts, and British forces ultimately withdrew leaving the nearby city relatively unscathed. 

The fort also fulfilled a number of roles during the Civil War, but by that time it was hopelessly outdated, and during World War I it served as a 3,000-bed hospital for returning soldiers injured in Europe.   

In the late ’30s Fort McHenry was classified as a National Monument and Historic Shrine – the only site in the country ever to receive the designation.

Fort Sumter

america's impressive historic fort Fort Sumter
Fort Sumter by Methaz is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Built on a man made island in the center of Charleston Inlet just a few miles (4 km) southeast of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, when Fort Sumter was fired on by Confederate artillery in mid-April 1861 it marked the beginning of the American Civil War – a conflict that would rage for four years and claim more than 600,000 lives. 

However Fort Sumter’s history started back to the 1820s when it was originally built to prevent Charleston from suffering the same fate Washington D.C. had – just 530 miles (853 km) to the north – during the War of 1812.

Named after Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter, Fort Sumter was one of a number of similar fortifications constructed along the southern US coast, and though the island itself had an area of just 2.4 acres, the fort was intended to be manned by more than 600 soldiers.

The island on which the fort was built was originally a sandbar, however engineers determined that it was capable of supporting the proposed structure, but that construction would be a mammoth undertaking. 

Work began in 1829 when 70,000 tons of granite were shipped in from New England for the foundation. 

Construction dragged on for years but was plagued by a litany of problems including bureaucracy, the constantly shifting inlet floor, harsh weather, and disease brought on by unbearable heat and hordes of mosquitoes. 

The fort’s exterior was finished by the time the Civil War rolled around in 1861, but the interior was not, and many of its artillery pieces hadn’t yet arrived. 

That said, it still bristled with an impressive array of guns ranging from relatively small 24 and 42-pounders all the way up to massive 250 mm (10 inch) monsters capable of reducing enemy ships and fortifications to splinters and rubble respectively. 

The five-sided brick and stone fort measured between 170 to 190 feet (52 to 58 m) per side, its walls were five feet (1.5 m) thick, and at low tide its ramparts stood 50 feet (15.2 m) over the inlet below.

Events that would shape the nation’s history and propel the small fort onto center stage were set in motion on December 20, 1860, when South Carolina officially seceded from the Union.

Then just a few months later during the predawn hours of Friday, April 12, 1861, Confederate shore batteries unleashed a harrowing artillery barrage that would continue uninterrupted for nearly 35 hours. 

A number of notable historical figures claim to have fired the first shot against Fort Sumter, but historians now believe that that distinction belongs to Lieutenant Henry S. Farley who commanded a battery of two 10-inch mortars on nearby James Island. 

Ironically, return fire from the fort was relatively light, largely because the defenders had limited ammunition stocks and many of their explosive shells lacked fuses.   

Nonetheless, at 7:00 that morning Union Captain Abner Doubleday fired the first shot in defense of the besieged fort. 

Despite demands from Confederate militia commander P.G.T. Beauregard that he surrender, commanding officer Major Robert Anderson refused, but due to the hopelessness of the situation exacerbated by poor morale, multiple breaches in the wall and persistent fires, he relented on Saturday, April 13, and Fort Sumter was abandoned.   

Castillo de San Marcos 

Castillo de San Marcos america's fort
Castillo de San Marcos by Jon Zander is Licensed Under CC-BY-SA

Located on Matanzas Bay’s western shore in St. Augustine, Florida, Castillo de San Marcos – or St. Mark’s Castle in English – is the oldest masonry structure of its kind in the continental United States. 

Though the area had been inhabited by Native Americans for generations prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the city was officially founded by Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.

Along with eight others nearby, a rudimentary wooden fort was built shortly after the Spaniards’ arrival, but their shortcomings became evident after a number of raids spread over the following century, the most devastating of which were carried out by Sir Francis Drake in the late 1580s, and by forces under the command of British privateer Robert Searles in May of 1668 that resulted in much of the city being burned to the ground. 

To protect her empire’s foothold in the New World, Mariana, Queen Regent of Spain, approved construction of a new masonry fort – Castillo de San Marcos. 

Construction began in 1672 using a design by a Spanish engineer named Ignacio Daza that incorporated a number of innovations that would be used on other forts around the world for hundreds of years.

By the mid-1690s most of the fort on the 20-acre site was complete, and by the standards of the day it was nearly impenetrable. 

Though the only suitable building material in the area was coquina stone, a porous sedimentary rock formed by the calcification of organic materials, it served well compared to more rigid rock, because when hit by large caliber cannon shot, it flexed and compressed which prevented it from cracking and shattering like granite would have. 

The coquina stone was quarried across Matanzas Bay and ferried to the site where most of the work was carried out by Native Americans supplied by local missions, and skilled laborers like stone masons brought in from Cuba

The Castillo was a four-sided star fort, and from each corner protruded a large diamond shaped bastion, named the San Pedro, San Agustín, San Carlos and San Pablo bastions. 

Each provided relatively unobstructed fields of fire and were connected by walls called curtains that stood 25 feet (7.6 m) high and tapered from 12 feet (3.6 m) thick at the base to 9 feet (2.7 m) thick at the top, each of which included multiple cutaways, or embrasures, for the deployment of cannons and muskets by defenders.  

Below both of the fort’s landward facing walls large glacis, or slopes, were constructed that would force invaders to make a precarious climb toward the fort itself, during which time they’d be susceptible to cannon and musket fire from multiple sides. 

In addition, the fort was surrounded by a wide moat enclosed by an outer retaining wall, and though it was usually dry, it could be easily flooded with seawater in case of an attack by land. 

Over the years the fort endured a number of sieges, and was alternately controlled by the Spanish and British, after which it became the permanent property of the United States in 1821 after the signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty.

The fort was designated a National Monument in 1924, and was officially decommissioned in 1933 after more than 250 years of continual military service.

Fort Pulaski

America’s Most Impressive Historic Forts pulaski
Fort Pulaski by Edibobb is Licensed Under CC-BY

After the War of 1812, then President James Madison decreed that a new system of coastal fortifications be erected to protect the young country’s coastline, and to that end Fort Pulaski, just east of the Port of Savannah, would be one of its centerpieces.

By the time South Carolina officially seceded from the Union and the Civil War began at Fort Sumter, Savannah was already a bustling port that handled much of the South’s imported goods, and it’s exposed location made it particularly vulnerable to foreign navies with nefarious intentions.  

For most of the 19th century, the majority of forts built to defend the United States from foreign invaders were constructed of masonry. 

Compared to the predominantly wooden ones that came before them, masonry fortifications were more structurally sound and nearly invulnerable to the weapons of the day, but technological advancements in artillery made during the Civil War meant that the new weapons were far more worthy adversaries.

Located on Cockspur Island between Tybee Island and Savannah, Georgia at the mouth of the Savannah River, construction on Fort Pulaski began in 1829.

Fort Pulaski was just one of many such coastal forts along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that together were designated as Third System fortifications. 

Initially under the watchful eye of Major General Babcock, construction oversight was later passed to recent West Point graduate Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, who’d go on to become one of the South’s most successful and well respected generals during the war between the states. 

Officially named after Revolutionary War soldier Casimir Pulaski who fought under George Washington, the fort contained approximately 25 million bricks, and its walls were up to 11-feet thick – more than enough to stop the smooth bore projectiles common at the time, most of which had low muzzle velocities, short ranges, and relatively anemic penetrating power. 

In fact, an overconfident Robert E. Lee apparently once opined (before the bombardment began) that “one might as well bombard the Rocky Mountains as Fort Pulaski.”

Needless to say, they were words he’d live to regret uttering. 

As footings, thick wooden timbers were sunk up to 75 feet (22.5 m) into the mud to support the fort’s immense bulk. 

The five-sided fort was surrounded by a wide marshy moat and enclosed nearly 250 acres, but though it was garrisoned by Confederate troops early on, at the onset of hostilities it was hopelessly outgunned and undermanned, which prompted Union forces to hasten their placement of three dozen artillery pieces on nearby Tybee Island in preparation for the siege. 

In 1862, when Union Army officers met with the fort’s commander Colonel Charles Olmstead and asked him to surrender he refused. 

Then, using state of the art James rifled cannons and massive Parrott rifles capable of firing 100+ pound projectiles accurately from more than 5 miles (8,230 yards) away, a 30-hour bombardment ensued during which large portions of the fort’s walls were breached, marking a clear victory by projectiles over fortifications, and changing the face of siege warfare forever.

The short but devastating barrage only resulted in one Union and one Confederate soldier being injured, but Olmstead’s forces ultimately surrendered to prevent wanton loss of life.

Today Fort Pulaski’s walls look much like they did immediately after the siege, and of the more than two dozen Third System fortifications built in the first few decades of the 19th century many still exist, and some are still in surprisingly good condition.  

All told, when construction costs were tallied up in the late 1840s, Fort Pulaski’s price tag came in at nearly $1 million, or equivalent to about $40 million today. 

Fort Pulaski was declared a National Monument in October 1924, and since then has undergone a number of restorations.

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