Battlefields, Encampments, and Forts as Public Sites

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Battlefields, Encampments, and Forts as Public Sites. Usually in the forefront of expansion are the sites of military posts and encampments that protected advancing explorers or soldiers. At or near many posts are the locations of battles that took place. In general, such places are called forts, used interchangeably with other terms, such as camp, post, garrison, cantonment, barracks, presidio, and the like. Many have been preserved for the public as symbols of American history.

Europeans usually built defensive stockades immediately upon arrival in the New World in order to protect their foothold on the shore. The earliest of these is probably Fort San Marcos and San Felipe II at the settlement of Santa Elena, established in 1566 at what is now the Marine Corps Base at Parris Island, South Carolina. James Fort, established by the settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 was the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

The establishment of forts marked the movement westward from the eastern seaboard. The exceptions are those in the Far West, such as the Spanish presidios, and Fort Ross, north of San Francisco, the Russian trade and colonization attempt south from Alaska.

In the East, rough stockades were built to protect settlements or such strategic locations as roads or river crossings. The French and Indian War (1754–63) resulted in a line of forts in western Pennsylvania, northern Ohio, and Indiana. The Revolutionary War brought about the construction of numerous forts throughout the eastern United States from earthworks or stockades at many towns to major construction protecting the harbors.

Fort Stanwix in the center of Rome, New York, is a full‐scale replica constructed by the National Park Service in 1977 to recognize this stockaded structure that played a role in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.

There are a number of other preserved examples of eighteenth‐century fortifications in the East, some of them military, others nonmilitary. One of the latter is Fort Western (1754–69) at Augusta, Maine, built as part of the defenses of the Kennebec River during the French and Indian War.

Further south near Orlando, Florida, is the replica of Fort Christmas, representative of the many forts built during the Seminole Wars. The original post was established on Christmas Day, 1835, and abandoned in 1845. More than 135 years later, the Orange County Parks Department undertook its reconstruction. Another reproduction from the eighteenth century is Fort St. Jean Baptiste (1737), a palisaded square fort near Natchitoches, Louisiana. It was garrisoned by French troops, although in Spanish territory until the Louisiana Purchase. The U.S. Army abandoned its use in 1819, but it has risen again in a ten‐building reconstruction near Northwestern State University that opened in 1982 as part of Louisiana's tricentennial.

A most unusual reconstruction is that of Fort de Chartres (1753–56), four miles from the Mississippi River town of Prairie du Rocher, Illinois. The four‐acre fort had stone walls 18 feet high and more than 2 feet thick. In 1765 it became the seat of British rule in the Illinois country until it was leveled in 1772. Fort de Chartres became a state park in 1915, and most of the buildings were reconstructed on the original stone foundations.

A strategic location of French and British authority was the point between Lakes Michigan and Huron at the Straits of Mackinac, separating Upper and Lower Michigan. In 1712, Fort Michilimackinac—a palisade of pointed logs and blockhouses surrounding log buildings—was built by the French on the southern side of the straits as a fortified trading post. The British took over in 1761, but two years later the fort was attacked by Indians and most of the thirty‐five‐man garrison massacred. The British reoccupied the ruined fort in 1764; it remained the only British‐occupied post on the Great Lakes above Detroit until near the end of the American Revolution. In 1780, the garrison moved to Mackinac Island. Here Fort Mackinac was built on the high bluff with stone ramparts and three blockhouses that remain today in a state park. At the Michilimackinac site, the trading post stockade was restored in 1959 with a full‐scale replica that has 20‐foot‐high log walls surrounding barracks, officers' quarters, storehouse, French church, British trader cabins, and blockhouses.

Also in the Northwest is privately constructed and maintained Fort St. Charles, one of the most isolated posts in the country. Set in the political incongruity of the Northwest Angle—a tiny Minnesota peninsula on Lake of the Woods that is separated by a strip of Canadian territory—the stockade was a trading post erected in 1732 by the French explorer Pierre LaVerendyre. Twenty miles away, in 1736, Indians massacred and beheaded a twenty‐one‐man party led by LaVerendyre's son; parts of their mutilated bodies were buried at the fort. Abandoned in 1763, the fort was soon forgotten. But in 1951–68 it was reconstructed by the Knights of Columbus. The double‐deep log palisade, with its two blockhouses, chapel, and outlined buildings, can be visited by boat from resorts in the Northwest Angle on Lake Superior.

The Great Lakes were strategically important in eighteenth‐century relationships first between the French and British, then the Americans, and forts were built at important points along the shores, usually in direct opposition to each other. Thus Fort Malden at Amhertsburg, Canada, faces Fort Wayne at Detroit; and Fort George, on the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, faces Fort Niagara on the opposite shore of the river.

By the mid‐1790s, the federal government realized that the war in Europe might pose a threat to the United States and a plan was approved to fortify twenty ports along the Atlantic seaboard from Portland, Maine, to Savannah, Georgia. The construction that took place under this so‐called First System of Fortification (1794–1804) consisted primarily of sodded earthworks over which a dozen or so guns could fire.

The appropriations for the First System totaled $172,000 initially in 1794, with an additional $250,000 in 1798. Increased funding made improvements possible, and masonry was introduced at some, including still‐existent Fort McHenry at Baltimore and Fort Mifflin across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

The Second System of Fortification was precipitated by growing antagonism with England, which exposed the disrepair of the early construction. In 1807, Congress began a five‐year program funded by more than $3 million in appropriations. This Second System included some open earthen batteries, but more were of partial or full masonry construction. A design that characterized the forts of this era was the circular or elliptical masonry bastion: Fort Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia, is one of the few remaining examples. The use of multitiered masonry casemates as part of the construction permitted the firing of heavy seacoast guns from within the forts instead of from on top of the walls. Castle Williams on Governors Island is a prime example, with four levels in a circular design mounting 102 guns.

The Third System, begun in 1817, could be accomplished systematically. Looking for a “permanent” defense of the country, a board of officers planned and supervised all aspects of a long‐term program—a board that continued in existence under various names until World War II.

In 1821, the board recommended that fifty defensive works be constructed, but termed only eighteen of the first class as urgently necessary. By 1850, the plan had been expanded to recommend about 200 coastal works. In actuality, the effort concentrated on upgrading the protection of the principal harbors in the East, with Florida and the Gulf Coast the main locations for new forts of the Third System. Although most of these forts were constructed simply of brick‐ or stone‐backed earthen uncovered parapets, some were elaborate structures. Examples still standing today include Sumter, South Carolina; Monroe, Virginia; Adams, Rhode Island; Morgan, Alabama; Pulaski, Georgia; Jackson, Louisiana; Jefferson at the tip of the Florida Keys; and Fort Point in San Francisco Bay. Most of these are now preserved and interpreted as part of the National Park Service or that of their parent states. One, Fort Monroe, is still an active army post.

Protection of the coasts of the country looked toward an enemy coming from Europe. To protect the movement of explorers, missionaries, and settlers westward, the army established forts at key locations and along trails and waterways through the frontier. Sometimes these were log cabins, surrounded by upright log stockades—the traditional design accepted by romanticists and the entertainment industry; more often they were just collections of structures built of locally available materials without stockaded walls.

Several of the early frontier forts were actually trading posts but now are preserved as replicas constructed and maintained by the National Park Service. Fort Union, North Dakota, and Bent's Fort, Colorado, both built by the National Park Service, are good examples.

South of Bismarck, North Dakota, is the site of Fort Abraham Lincoln (1872–91), the fort from which Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer led his Seventh Cavalry to the fatal Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Reconstruction of the buildings of the fort began in 1989 in a project that was supported from the proceeds of legalized gambling in North Dakota.

Fort Sisseton (1864–89) near Lake City, South Dakota, is one of the best preserved forts, with original buildings because of its past as a hunting club and the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is now a state park. Fort Hartsuff (1874–81) near Ord, Nebraska, was privately owned after the army left until the state accepted it as a park.

There is no real estimate of the number of forts and camps established in the United States. That might also be said of battlefields. The French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, various Indian wars, and the Mexican border incidents of 1916 left battle sites throughout the country. World War II had a few battlesites in the United States, Pearl Harbor being the most famous.

Hundreds of battlefields are preserved as federal, state, or local historic parks around the country. They range from many Revolutionary War sites in the Northeast and South, such as those of the battles of Bunker Hill, Massachusetts; Monmouth, New Jersey; and the Brandywine (and encampment commemorated now at Valley Forge National Park) in Pennsylvania; to those in the Southwest in the Texas War of Independence (the Battle of the Alamo), and Far West in the Plains Indian Wars (such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn). The most visited battlefields are clearly those of the Civil War, particularly the National Battlefields and Military Parks maintained by the U.S. Park Service, especially those at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and in Virginia at Manassas, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg. Efforts are being made to expand additional sites and protect them from encroaching development.

The Civil War had demonstrated the inadequacy of the old coastal forts. In 1886, an army‐navy study recommended vast increases in defensive works and firepower. It called for fortifications to be built at twenty‐six coastal localities and three on the Great Lakes, for a total of 1,300 guns and mortars of heavy caliber; in fact, only about half ultimately were installed. These new forts were made of reinforced concrete buried in the ground so as to minimize their silhouette and blend with the landscape. Their main vulnerability was that they were open from the rear and, more so, from above. With the advent of the airplane, the army realized that the traditional coastal defense fortification had become obsolete.

Many of these structures still stand on the seacoasts of the East, the West, and the Gulf of Mexico—some because they were historic; more because of the difficulty of destroying the tons of reinforced concrete that withstand even advanced technology.

There are forts and battlefield sites in every state of the Union. Many are preserved and open to the public; many more are just sites, some marked, most forgotten. The National Park Service has 365 sites in its system, of which several hundred could be considered military in nature, either because of a fort or a battlefield, or sometimes both.
[See also Bases, Military: Development of; Cemeteries, Military; Gettysburg National Military Park; Pearl Harbor National Monument.]


Herbert M. Hart , Historic Western Military Posts (1963–1967), 4 vols. Francis Paul Prucha , A Guide to the Military Posts of the United States, 1780–1895, 1964.
Herbert M. Hart , Tour Guide to Old Western Forts: The Posts and Camps of the Army, Navy and Marines on the Western Frontier, 1804–1916, 1980.
Craig L. Symonds , A Battlefield Atlas of the American Revolution, 1986.
Robert B. Roberts , Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States, 1988.
Joseph E. Stevens , America's National Battlefield Parks, 1990.
Alice Cromie , A Tour Guide to the Civil War, 4th ed., 1992.
A. Wilson Greene and and Gary W. Gallagher , National Geographic Guide to the Civil War National Battlefield Parks, 1992.
Frank E. Vandiver , Civil War Battlefields and Landmarks: A Guide to National Park Sites, 1996.

Herbert M. Hart