Fort Massachusetts

Sea oats stand in the foreground with a large masonry fort in the background.



After the annexation of Texas in 1845, a resolution was introduced by Senator Jesse Speight of Mississippi asking President Polk about the “practicability and utility of a fort or forts on Ship Island” to protect the coast (Bearss, 1984). The War Department’s Army Corp of Engineers Chief, Colonel Joseph G. Totten, was given the task to answer the Senates request. His report indicated that it was important to defend the anchorage at Ship Island, but funds and resources had been dedicated to Forts Pickens, Barrancas, and McRee to guard the Navy Yard at Pensacola.

During the next year, the Board of Engineers discussed the feasibility of building fortifications on Ship Island. The officers stated that the coast of Mississippi did not offer the “temptation to an enemy to land on it, either for occupation or plunder,” a fort on Ship Island could protect commerce and serve as a a refueling and supply depot for small coal fueled gunboats and the ocean going fleet.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a native of Mississippi, advocated building fortifications on Ship Island. Davis recalled that the British used the Mississippi Sound near Ship Island in 1814 to attack New Orleans.

In March of 1857, The Fortifications Bill was signed into law which included 100,000 dollars to build fortifications on Ship Island. A commission of engineers was tasked with determining an appropriate location, reported that it was extremely cost prohibitive to build any fortifications on Ship Island. General J.G. Totten, promptly rejected this notion, and established a new board who provided a more favorable opinion. With the favorable report in hand, Secretary of War John B. Floyd approved the construction of The Fort on Ship Island and the project to defend the Mississippi coast and its commerce lanes finally began.

In 1857 the US Army selected Lieutenant Newton F. Alexander to oversee the construction of the fortifications on Ship Island. Over the course of the next year Lt. Alexander ordered supplies and equipment to construct the fort and stored them with the Ship Island Lighthouse keeper until the land was secured from the state. However, before he could obtain the transfer, Alexander died unexpectedly. (Bearss, 1984)

A new superintendent, 1st Lt. Frederick E. Prime, was assigned to the project. Lieutenant Prime started the primary construction laying the foundation for the structure and ordered the bricks for the fort’s walls from Jules Blanc’s brick yard in New Orleans. The fall and winter storms of 1860 hit Ship Island played havoc on the construction.

In January 1861 the State of Mississippi passed its secession order and militia forces took control of Ship Island on January 26thand held it for several months while trying to fortify the island with cannons and continue construction of the fort. In September 1861, General David E. Twiggs, Confederate Army, ordered the evacuation of the island, setting fire to the partially constructed for and other facilities. A letter written by Lt. Colonel H.W. Allen, the forts commander, to union forces sated “In leaving you to-day we beg you accept our best wishes for your health and happiness… on this pleasant, hospitable shore.” (Allen, 1861)

Back in federal control, ta new superintendent, Lt. John C. Palfrey, tried to complete construction of the fort. The paid labor out of New York and prisoners of war on Ship Island were successful in completion of the fort. The entire project cost an estimated $187,000 and contains an estimated one million bricks. During the course of the construction no permanent cannons were placed on the fort. Only after the forts completion in 1866 was it partially armed, receiving only 17 of 37 cannons..

Though the fort never received an official Army title, Major General Winfield S. Hancock, called the structure Fort Massachusetts in 1884. This report is the first time it has been known by that name in an official document. (Bearss, 1984) Later, the Fort on Ship Island became commonly known as Fort Massachusetts, after the Union Ship which retook in the island in the fall of 1861. (Unknown, 1862).

Fort Massachusetts is shaped like a “D”; similar to some of the earlier castle forts built as part of the Second System of coastal fortifications. The fort’s design provides nearly 360 degree coverage of water and land approaches. The large casemates were designed to hold cannon while supporting an upper tier of cannon. Arches along the eastside of the fort served as support rooms for the garrison. Powder magazines held ammunition and powder for the fort’s cannon. The parade ground, served as a gathering place for troops to attend roll call and perform other duties. (ENGINEERS, 1864)

An oven like structure called a hot shot furnace was used by cannon crews to heat small caliber cannonballs. Heated cannonballs were fired into wooden ships in an attempt to destroy the ship with fire. The hot shot furnace, at Fort Massachusetts, was never used in combat as ships began to be made of metal.

Three spiral staircases provided access to the barbette tier and were an efficient use of the fort’s limited space.. Earthen mounds on the barbette tier added a layer of protection for the soldiers in the fort. Cisterns were built to hold thousands of gallons of fresh water. (Bearss, 1984)

Allen, H. (1861, September 17). Fort Twiggs. Offical Letter.

Bearrs, E. (1984). Historical Resourse Study: Ship Island, Harrison County, Mississippi, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida/Mississippi. National Park Service, Department of Interior. Denver: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Bearss, E. (1984). Historic Structure Report: Administrative and Historical Data Sections; Fort on Ship Island "Fort Massachusetts" 1857-1935, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Harrison County, Mississippi. National Park Service, Department of Interior. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Pritining Office.


Kanze, E. (2001). The Fort Massachusetts Story. Eastern National.

Unknown. View of Ship Island, Louisiana. Harpers Weekly.


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Last updated: March 4, 2020

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