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Coastal Fortifications of the United States:
A Brief History

By Jim Mathews

During most of this nation’s history, security against foreign attack was sought largely through defense of its maritime frontiers. The two principal instruments of this security were the Navy and the Sea-coast Fortifications of the Army. The Naval role in coastal defense has elsewhere been well documented, and will only be remarked upon briefly in this column. The Army Fortifications designed for maritime frontiers, harbors, bays and rivers will be dealt primarily in this series.

Early in 1794 the United States, as a new nation undertook its first program of defensive construction for the protection of its seacoast communities against enemy naval attack. This was the first of a series of harbor defense programs that were to continue, virtually without interruption, until shortly after World War II. The large and varied body of coastal fortifications resulting from these one and one half centuries of construction constituted this country’s principal expression of military architecture during most of that period.

These defenses had far more than architectural significance, however, for the fortifications, as well as the history of the legislation that produced them, accurately typified certain basic characteristics of this nation’s traditional threats from abroad. Not only did they represent the distinctly defensive emphasis of its military and naval policies throughout most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth; to a large degree they also symbolized the general attitudes of Americans, public and Congress alike, toward the entire question of national defense.(1).

In the entire history of warfare, few principles have been as enduring or as nearly absolute as the one concerning the superiority of "guns ashore over guns afloat." Accordingly,for several hundred years the permanent emplacement of heavy artillery to defend cities and naval bases on or near the sea was an almost universal practice among maritime nations. for the mere presence of such defenses ordinarily constituted a highly reliable deterrent to naval attack (2).

The European conflict following the French Revolution threatened more than once during the early 1790’s to embroil the new United States and led President Washington repeatedly to urge upon Congress the need to provide defenses for its seaports. Finally, on February 28, 1794, a special committee of the House of Representatives submitted a statement of estimates and recommendations as to the kinds of works that should be erected and their locations. On the basis of this report, the first federal authorization was passed within three weeks, on March 20.

The Secretary Of War at once issued instructions concerning the general character of the proposed fortifications, but left the specific plans and their execution to be worked out by the engineer in each locality. Because of the urgency and because funds were limited, construction was in all cases to be simple and inexpensive.

(1)--The existing literature on harbor defense fortifications, is almost all entirely technical. The only contemporary works to give the subject more than passing mention with regard to its place in American defense policy are:

Walter Milis, "Arms and Men" (New York: G.Putnam and Sons, 1956);
Russell F. Weigley, "Towards An American Army" (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), Chap. 5 and 9.

(2)--The rule was infrequently violated, and very rarely with success. On practically every such occasion throughout history, the naval forces deliberately engaged the fortifications only when at least one of two conditions was met: (a) When the firepower of the attacking fleet was overwhelmingly superior to that of the shore defenses in terms of either the number or caliber of the guns, or (b) when the attacking power had such overall naval superiority that it could afford to risk the loss of ships in order to attack or capture a coastal position of exceptional significance.

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