First System

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First System Coastal Defenses (1794-1808)

When the United States gained independence in 1783, the seacoast defense fortifications were in poor condition. Concerned by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793, the Congress created a combined unit of artillerymen and engineers in 1794, appointed a committee to study coast defense needs, and appropriated money to construct a number of fortifications that would become known as the First System.

Twenty-one locations were selected to be fortified, mostly with traditional low walled structures with low sloped earthworks protecting wood or brick walls. The conventional wisdom was that soft earth would cushion the effect of cannon fire against the walls, and that low walls presented less exposure to projectiles. Walls were laid out at angles to each other forming a system of bastions, resembling a star layout, so that enemy forces could not mass against the bottom of a wall beneath the vertical field of fire from the wall; defenders on any wall could see and fire-on the base of the adjacent walls. The angled walls also reduced the chance for more destructive straight-on hits from cannon balls.

Lacking trained engineers to supervise the work, Secretary of War Henry Knox placed a number of European engineers under contract. Although some fine forts were constructed, for the most part enthusiasm and funding waned and little work was completed. Most of the partially finished earthworks and wooden structures deteriorated before they were needed to defend against the British in 1812.

First System Fortifications (1794-1807) (edit list)
Coastal Forts

1. Fort Sumner (2) (1794, 1808), Munjoy Hill, Portland, Maine

2. Fort Constitution (2) (1794, 1807), New Castle Island, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

3. Fort Pickering (1) (1794, 1808), Winter Island, Massachusetts
4. Fort at Gloucester (1794, 1808), Massachusetts
5. Fort Sewall (1794, 1808), Marblehead, Massachusetts
6. Fort Independence (1) (1800), Castle Island, Boston, Massachusetts

7. Fort Wolcott (1798, 1808), Goat Island, Rhode Island
8. Fort Hamilton (3) (1798) Rose Island, Rhode Island
9. Fort Adams (1) (1798, 1808), Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island

10. Fort Trumbull (1799, 1808), New London, Connecticut

11. Fort Jay (1794, 1798, 1806), Governor's Island, New York

12. Fort Mifflin (1798,1800), Mud Island, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

13. Fort Whetstone ((1776, 1794) Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Maryland
13. Fort McHenry) (1798) Whetstone Point, Baltimore, Maryland

14. Fort Nelson (1794, 1802,1808) Norfolk, Virginia
15. Fort Norfolk (1794, 1808) Norfolk, Virginia

16. Fort Johnston (2) (1799-1806), North Carolina

17. Fort Johnson (1) (1795, 1807), James Island, Charleston, South Carolina
18. Fort Pinckney (1798, 1804), Shutes Folly Island, Charleston, South Carolina
19. Fort Moultrie (1796, 1809), Sullivan's Island, Charleston, South Carolina

20. Fort Greene (1) (1794), Cockspur Island, Savannah, Georgia
21. Fort at Point Peter (1795-1802, 1808-1819), St. Mary's, Georgia

22. Fort St. Philip (1793, 1804), Palaquemines Parish, Louisiana (acquired in 1804 by the Louisiana Purchase)

Inland Forts

1. Fort Putnam (1), West Point, New York
2. Fort Niagara, New York
3. Fort Detroit, New York
4. Fort Mackinac, Michigan


See Also:

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