In an ironic twist of history, one of this nation’s grandest military construction projects has evolved into playgrounds, picnic parks and tourist attractions.
For millennia, the walled, moated and towered castle reigned as the supreme manifestation of geopolitical power. Following the War of 1812, America began building more than 40 coastal defense fortifications to guard major port cities. From Bucksport, Maine, down the Atlantic to the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Straits, all along the Gulf Coast and Great Lakes, and even out to Alcatraz in California, fortresses ranging from single towers to the largest brick building in the western hemisphere lined our coasts. Called the Third System, these bastions stood as the pinnacle of military architecture, the penultimate walled castles.
Today, most of the Third System has been repurposed for more peaceful activities. Advances in artillery during the Civil War brought an abrupt end to castles’ dominance. Our region has four of these former strongholds: Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River; Fort Carroll in Baltimore Harbor’s Patapsco River; Fort Monroe — the first Third System fort — in Hampton Roads; and Fort Wool, an “anvil” for Fort Monroe’s “hammer.” Fort Carroll is privately owned, but the other three invite visitors to explore a unique passage in our national history.
Built from 1819 through 1834 and designed for more than 400 guns, Fort Monroe was one of the few forts in the South that remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. Its 10-foot thick masonry walls and 8-foot deep wet moat also sheltered a “freedom village” of escaping slaves. After the war, one of Fort Monroe’s artillery casemates served as a prison cell for the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
A change in mission
The fort remained an active Army post, until recently becoming a National Monument, open year-round for outdoor activities. The Casemate Museum chronicles Fort Monroe’s military history from construction of the first defensive fortification in 1609, through the last major command.
Across Hampton Roads from Fort Monroe, Fort Wool was positioned to establish a crossfire that guarded the harbor entrance. Originally named Fort Calhoun, the island fortress is now accessible aboard the Miss Hampton II, sailing from downtown Hampton. Harbor tours begin in the end of April and include a 45-minute guided walking tour of the Civil War island fortress.
Originally built to protect the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia, Fort Delaware, on marshy Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, became a Union prison camp during the Civil War, housing up to as many as 12,595 Confederate prisoners, their Union guards, and civilian men and women in a variety of vocations.
Today, Fort Delaware has become a state park, accessible only by ferry boat from Delaware City, beginning at the end of April. Visitors tour the parade ground, officers’ quarters, barracks, kitchen, blacksmith shop and ordnance room; hear stories of great escapes; engage with fort historians dressed in period clothing; and watch as the Fort’s Columbiad cannon fires a live gunpowder charge! Pea Patch Island is also outstanding habitat for one of the largest wading bird nesting areas on the East Coast, summer home to nine species of herons, egrets and ibis.
Facing an uncertain future
Fort Carroll, another Third System stronghold, also became a bird sanctuary, but has not shared Fort Delaware’s relatively happy fate. Built on an artificial island guarding Baltimore’s harbor, the hexagonal fortress crouches in the Patapsco River shallows, on the edge of Sollers Point Flats. Originally designed to shield Baltimore from a War of 1812-type invasion, Fort Carroll was Robert E. Lee’s last work as a U.S. Army Engineer.
Since 1958, efforts to reuse, renovate or revitalize the 3.4-acre island as a resort, casino, restaurant, hotel or support pillar for the Key Bridge have all failed. At one point, proposals for creative reuse collapsed because rare shore birds had established nests in trees once planted to beautify the island. Facing an uncertain future, Fort Carroll is known for its association with Robert E. Lee and its fate as a curious island citadel is besieged only by progress, politics and the creeping erosion of time.
Although some Third System bastions continued their martial roles after the Civil War, most were altered or modified as their uses changed. The era of the walled castle has long passed, and the majority of the once-martial structures are now peaceably recycled.
For more information:
Fort Monroe National Monument, 757-722-FORT (3678)
Miss Hampton II, 757-722-9102, misshamptoncruises.com
Fort Delaware Park Office, 302- 834-7941, destateparks.com/History/FortDelaware
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com.