The ports and river inlets of the Eastern Seaboard offer a unique glimpse into the history of exploration, colonialism, independence and the Civil War. Ships planted the American colonies here, and trade by sea propelled the United States into the powerhouse economy of the world by the turn of the 20th century. However, maintaining a large navy to protect those economic interests was too expensive for the new nation. Cheaper alternatives were devised to protect American waters.
Central to the success of the fledgling United States was constructing coastal military fortifications for defense rather than building a costly navy. These defensive works allowed breathing room for the new government and economy to flourish. Over the first 70 years of nationhood before the Civil War, Congress allocated funds in three distinct “systems” to build these forts.
First System: In 1793, President George Washington proposed a series of 19 forts to protect American harbors along the Eastern Seaboard. These star shaped forts were surrounded with low, sloped earthworks that covered the fortification’s wooden walls. One row of cannons was placed on the open roof of the fort.
Second System: To end reliance on European military engineers to design forts in America, the army needed homegrown engineers. That was accomplished with training at the new military academy at West Point (created in 1802). President Thomas Jefferson began a new fortification system program in 1808 to strengthen the vulnerability of the open batteries of the earthen First System forts, specifically exploding shells that showered the gunners with shrapnel. The Second System forts featured covered casemates or vaulted rooms that protected the artillerists.
Third System: After the War of 1812, President James Madison understood how easily the United States was attacked by sea, so he appointed a Board of Engineers of Fortifications in 1816 to design a stronger Third System of forts on the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Pacific coasts. By the start of the Civil War, 42 new major forts protected these coastlines with structures that were larger, taller and had at least two tiers of powerful cannons.
Cruising the U.S. Atlantic coast by boat yields a greater understanding of history than any textbook can offer. The forts of the shoreline from Virginia to Florida offer lessons from the early colonial ambitions of Spain to the dashed hopes of the Confederacy, all of which can be rediscovered by boat. To witness their glory, add the following forts to your must-see list.
At the confluence of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads sits Old Point Comfort. The strategic importance of this location was recognized as far back as 1609, and various wooden forts occupied that spot for more than 200 years. Completed in 1834 and surrounded by a moat, this Third System seven-sided star stronghold is the largest stone fort built in the United States. It remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
South of Hampton Roads on the eastern bank of the Elizabeth River is the site of Fort Norfolk, a First System design built in 1794. Made obsolete by nearby Fort Monroe, it served as a munitions depot to supply naval ships at the nearby shipyard. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Union army abandoned Fort Norfolk. Confederates occupied the fort and used it to supply powder and shot to their ships that tried to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads. The most famous of these blockade battles was between the Monitor and the Merrimac.
During the colonial period, Beaufort Inlet provided access to marauding pirates such as Blackbeard. To protect Beaufort Harbor, North Carolina’s only major deep water ocean port, a Third System fort was built on the sands of Bogue Banks in 1834. Although captured by Confederate forces during the first year of the Civil War, the Union army retook the pentagonal fort a year later.
Wilmington sits 20 miles up the Cape Fear River from the inlet at the Atlantic Ocean. That city was a major trading port for war supplies for the Confederacy by British smugglers, who exchanged food, clothing and munitions for tobacco and cotton from the South. To guard this vital wartime lifeline, rebel forces built a fort made of soil mounds at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in 1861.
The entrance to Charleston Harbor is the location of a brick Third System fort with three tiers of cannon emplacements. Construction began in 1829, but building the five-foot thick walls that were 50 feet tall was very slow and tedious. On April 12, 1861, the fort was still not completed when Confederate gunners fired the first shots of the Civil War. After a constant barrage of artillery shells, the Union garrison surrendered the next day.
In 1776, South Carolina’s colonial regiments built a square palmetto log and sand fort with corner bastions on Sullivan’s Island to protect Charleston Harbor from attack by the British Navy. A week before the Declaration of Independence was published, this fort successfully fought off nine British warships in an all-day battle. A new First System fort was built there in 1798 and replaced by a Second System fort by 1811.
Fort James Jackson
Now known as Old Fort Jackson, this fort was constructed over an old earthen battery from the Revolutionary War and used to protect Savannah from attack by ships coming up the Savannah River. Built of brick and completed in 1812, it is an excellent example of Second System architecture.
This Third System fort on Tybee Island was constructed with about 25 million bricks to build walls 11 feet thick. It was finished in 1847 under the supervision of Lieutenant Robert E. Lee, then an engineer in the U.S. army. The fort was occupied by Confederate troops in 1861, but a year later Union gunners bombarded Fort Pulaski. The artillery breached a wall and forced the surrender of the fort back to the Union army. This siege used rifled cannons with exploding projectiles instead of smooth bore cannons with round shot. These newer cannons could smash through thick brick walls of Second and Third System forts and quickly made that architecture obsolete.
Castillo de San Marcos
St. Augustine was founded in 1565 as part of the Spanish Empire. Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fortress in America and was built with local coquina stone. Construction started in 1672 on the square-shaped fort with large corner bastions. It remained under Spanish control until 1821, except for a 20-year period after the American Revolution when it was given to Great Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris.
The Dry Tortugas at the western end of the Florida Keys served as the turning waypoint for ships loaded with cotton bales from antebellum Southern states to destinations on the Eastern Seaboard and Europe. Protecting those shipping lanes was the role of this massive fort built in 1846 on tiny Garden Key.
COASTAL FORTS OF THE SOUTHEAST
Fort Monroe National Monument
41 Bernard Road, Hampton, VA
801 Front St., Norfolk, VA
Fort Macon State Park
2303 East Fort Macon Road,
Atlantic Beach, NC
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
1610 Fort Fisher Blvd. South,
Kure Beach, NC
Fort Sumter National Monument & Fort Moultrie National Park
1214 Middle St.,
Sullivan’s Island, SC
Old Fort Jackson
1 Fort Jackson Road,
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Tybee Island, GA
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
1 South Castillo Drive,
St. Augustine, FL
Dry Tortugas National Park,
Garden Key, FL