The First System of American Seacoast Defenses

The United States' first systematic attempt to defend its shores was inadequate in funding, planning, and design. The system was so short-sighted that unlike later systems, very little evidence of its forts remains along the coastline today. What the first system did do, however, was set a precedent in which the Federal government provided for the coastal defense of the United States through heavily fortified positions; a practice which continued through the Cold War of the late 20th Century.

As the young American nation struggled to find its way following the American Revolution, European conflicts threatened its sovereignty. During these early years, few leaders were calling for the Federal government to provide for the defense of the country's vitally important seaports. However, with European threats intensifying, the First System of American Seacoast Defense was born by an act of Congress on March 20, 1794.

There was no US Army Corps of Engineers in 1794 and very few military engineers at all, leaving fort design and construction to local and French military engineers. Limited funding meant that forts were built principally from dirt and lumber capable of mounting only a few dozen cannon. In a few cases local fundraising and volunteerism allowed for larger, more permanent forts.

Cannon for the first system ranged in size with the largest normally being 24-pounders, although there were exceptions. These cannon were mostly left over from the American Revolution; some were of American manufacture, others French, and the majority were British. During a second wave of funding, however, the lack of effective armament was realized and a few 24- and 32-pounder cannon were produced.

Inconsistencies in fort design and armament were not only a result of improper funding; beyond this was the question as to whether the Federal government had the right to build these structures in the states. To mitigate this concern, the Federal government often leased or bought the land designated for a fort, a practice that has continue throughout American history. More importantly though, engineers were required to get designs approved by local authorities before beginning construction. This requirement hampered the construction and ability of the first system to defend the coastline.

As the threat of complete war with France dwindled at the beginning of the 19th Century, so did public concern for the coastal defense system. However, following the Chesapeake Incident of 1807, a renewed effort emerged. This would become known as the second system of American seacoast defenses, in which some of the inadequacies of the first system would be addressed.

Today, unaltered first system fortifications are hard to find and for the most part forgotten. The second Fort Moultrie built on Sullivan's Island, SC was part of this system but its eight years of service are often overshadowed by other periods in the fort's long history. By contrast, one of the most famous forts in the United States, Fort McHenry, is an original first system fort memorialized every time Americans sing the National Anthem.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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