Civil War Forts: An Introduction

It’s the first series of 2022, and we’re taking a journey through the history and sites of Civil War forts!

Along the coast lines, rivers, siege lines, outside cities, and at other strategic locations, these outposts were fought over, captured, or by-passed. The forts were constructed of a variety of materials: brick, planks, logs, earthworks, piled sand. Some stood years before the war, others were hastily built for defense.

We’re looking forward to sharing our recent research with you and hopefully inspiring new or continued studies about these outposts and battle sites.

FORTnoun [Latin fortis, strong.]

1. A fortified place; usually, a small fortified place; a place surrounded with a ditch, rampart, and parapet, or with palisades, stockades, or other means of defense; also, any building or place fortified for security against an enemy; a castle.

2. A strong side, opposed to weak side or foible.

(Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary)

3 Responses to Civil War Forts: An Introduction

  1. I love the contrasting fates and effectiveness of the old brick casement forts like Sumter, forts like Fort Fisher, which adapted it’s structure to the increased velocity of projectile fire. Look forward to seeing the posts!

  2. “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man” – General George S. Patton.
    The fortifications in existence prior to commencement of the Secession Crisis of 1860 were primarily “Third System, Seacoast fortifications,” derived and installed by the Federal Government after assessing the failure of U.S. fortifications during the War of 1812. These “heavy masonry gun emplacements” were erected in order to provide credible defense of essential trading harbors and Navy Yards, and in 1860 the thick, brick walls were viewed as impregnable to smoothbore ship-borne artillery: the fort, with its heavy guns mounted on a stable platform, was master of the ship. Self-defense features were incorporated – dry moat, shooting gallery, abatis, glacis – and even additional forts in close proximity, occupying mutually supporting sites, forcing attackers into deadly crossfire. Forts of this type included Fort Pickens at Pensacola Bay; Fort Morgan at Mobile Bay; and, of course, Fort Sumter. And before the end of the war, rifled artillery – able to punch through the thickest walls – made masonry forts obsolete: the ship became master of the fort.
    Arguably the most impressive “fort” was actually a “fortified position, commanding a height,” and named for the example established at the eastern entrance to the Mediterranean Sea: Gibraltar. So impregnable was (is) that original Gibraltar, with its own source of drinking water and vast food and ammunition storage, that it successfully held off a siege lasting four years, and remains in British hands to this day. During the American Civil War, the best known Gibraltar of the Confederacy was established at Vicksburg, its packed-earth ramparts and heavy guns, commanding heights overlooking a strategic bend in the Mississippi River. And from initiation, until its subjugation in July 1863, Vicksburg held out for ten months.
    The lesser-known, but most impressive “Gibraltar of the West” was established on the heights at Columbus Kentucky, overlooking the Mississippi River twenty miles south of Cairo Illinois, with work commencing September 1861. By November 1861 over 140 pieces of artillery and 13,000 Rebels under command of Major General Leonidas Polk occupied Fort Columbus; and one of the outcomes from U.S. Grant’s raid at Belmont Missouri, just across the river from Fort Columbus: the position was deemed to be impregnable. And from November 1861, General Polk continued to strengthen his position: two or more armed riverboats were always in proximity; a heavy chain was stretched across the Mississippi River, combined with torpedoes of proven ability. And the weaker “back of the fort” – its east side – was entrenched, and defended by some of the first land mines (spare river torpedoes adopted to the purpose.) A direct assault by Federal forces against Fort Columbus was never attempted. Instead, Fort Henry and then Fort Donelson were overwhelmed, and Federal forces moved South, up the Tennessee River… and General PGT Beauregard ordered the Gibraltar of the West abandoned.

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