Fort Pickens and Fort Point: Wonders of 19th Century Architecture

Civil War

Fort Pickens and Fort Point: Wonders of 19th Century Architecture

Fort Pickens and Fort Point were both built using the “Third System” defense theory that was based in part on hard lessons learned in the War of 1812.

Fort Pickens and Fort Point were both built using the “Third System” defense theory that was based in part on hard lessons learned in the War of 1812.

by Eric Niderost

In the War of 1812, America’s major coastal cities had been poorly defended, with the exception of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. When the British captured and burned Washington, D.C., it sent shock waves throughout the young nation. After the war, the U.S. Army created a special board to study fortifications and make recommendations. Brig. Gen. Joseph Swift, the Army’s chief of engineers, headed the project, along with Lt. Cols. William McRee and Joseph Totten.

President James Monroe felt that Americans didn’t have the background and expertise needed for such an important investigation. He asked Paris to send a distinguished engineer to head the board, and the French willingly obliged. Simon Barnard, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, was a military engineer of great distinction. Bernard had been an aide-de-camp to Napoleon himself, but Swift and McRee felt insulted that a foreigner was chosen and quickly resigned. Totten stayed on to learn all he could from Bernard. After all, the French had a tradition of military engineering that dated back to the great Vauban in the 17th century.

Barnard and Totten’s “Third System”

Together, Barnard and Totten created the so-called Third System of forts. Eventually the Frenchman returned to Europe, but his pupil Totten became America’s leading military engineer. The forts they designed shared certain characteristics. They were masonry buildings, mainly built of brick. They featured tiers of casemates—vaulted chambers—with embrasures for artillery. The top tier was usually open and roofless, with the cannons placed en barbette, with their long black snouts poking out of wall embrasures. Bastions jutted out from the main walls to protect the flanks.

Get to know the stories behind the statistics...
Get your copy of Warfare History Network’s FREE Special Report,
The Battle of Gettysburg

Fort Pickens was built between 1829 and 1834, and utilized 21.5 million bricks in its construction. The fort’s northwest bastion was destroyed in 1899 when a fire reached the magazine and blew up 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. In the early 1900s a modern concrete battery was constructed within its walls.

Fort Point

By contrast, Fort Point in San Francisco remains virtually intact, a Third System fort that was a wonder of 19th-century architecture. In the 1850s, California’s gold made the state too important to be left unguarded. Fort Point was designed to protect San Francisco, chief metropolis of the West Coast, as well as the Golden Gate and the city’s strategically located harbor.

Work began on Fort Point in 1853 and was substantially completed by 1861. As a first step, workers blasted a towering 90-foot cliff down to 15 feet above sea level. This was crucial, because at such a level lower tier fort cannonballs could skip across the bay surface to hit enemy ships at their waterline. The fort’s foundations were made of granite shipped in from China, but its bricks were crafted in a local kiln.

The fort’s west, north, and east faces looked out onto the Golden Gate. The south side of the fort, nicknamed “the Gorge,” contained living quarters for officers and men, as well as powder magazine, kitchens, an infirmary, storage areas, and a jail. In 1861, Fort Point housed 58 officers and men. By 1865, there were nearly 500 troops manning the fort. Armament included 10 8-inch columbiads and an assortment of other cannons.

A Short Period of Glory

Advancing technology meant that Third System forts like Fort Pickens and Fort Point had a short period of glory. Rifled cannons could pulverize brick masonry forts, turning them into pock-marked ruins within hours. Fort Point remains largely intact because it was 2,000 miles away from the western battles and main theaters of the Civil War.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *



Issue Previews

How Juan Pujol Garcia (a.k.a. “Garbo”) Made The D-Day Invasion Happen

How Juan Pujol Garcia (a.k.a. “Garbo”) Made The D-Day Invasion Happen

Double Agent Juan Pujol Garcia—a.k.a. ‘Garbo’—helped the Allies mislead the Germans as to the actual D-Day invasion landing site.

Union General John T. Croxton’s Southern Odyssey

Union General John T. Croxton’s Southern Odyssey

After being separated from Wilson’s corps, Union General John T. Croxton embarked on a 31-day odyssey spanning 653 miles, crossing four major rivers.

A Hard Mutt’s Life: “Military Dogs” in World War II

A Hard Mutt’s Life: “Military Dogs” in World War II

Below, the fox terrier ‘Salvo’ prepares for a drop over England. Military dogs played a key role in morale and companionship throughout the war.

A Wehrmacht Pioneer Laid to Rest 70 Years After Operation Barbarossa

A Wehrmacht Pioneer Laid to Rest 70 Years After Operation Barbarossa

Thanks to technological advances and local help, a Wehrmacht Pioneer was finally located and laid to rest years after Operation Barbarossa.

facebook gplus twitter youtube rss

Enter Your Log In Credentials

Forgot your Password?

×
.