coast defense

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A Brief History of U.S. Coast Defense

The construction of defensive works (forts and gun emplacements) to protect U.S. harbors began along with the country's independence, in the late 1700s. Although the so-called First System of fortifications was authorized by the Congress in 1794, little work was accomplished. A Second System of fortifications was authorized in 1807.

In New England, a number of fortifications, stretching from Maine down to Rhode Island, benefitted from this funding. In Boston, Fort Independance, located at what is now called Castle Island in South Boston, was completed and enhanced in the 1803-1807 period, while Fort Warren, on Georges Island, was built about the same time. Both these forts were expanded during the Third System period, from 1819-1860, and were manned during the Civil War.

Then in 1886 came the report of the Endicott Board, which recommended a far-reaching program of constructing concrete fortifications, mounting new long-range guns, and defending some 29 locations around the U.S. with submarine mines. Most of the fortifications now visible around Boston Harbor (and reported on for this website) are Endicott Period projects completed in the years 1895-1915. Sadly, many of these sites are in increasingly poor condition, with their concrete surfaces spalled and crumbing. Most wooden structures from this period have disappeared altogether, although a few, in advanced stages of deterioration, are visible at Ft. Andrews on Peddocks Island. Brick buildings of this era are likewise almost gone, with Ft. Andrews again having the most survivors. But several of Ft. Andrews' surviving brick buildings, heavily vandalized, are now (in 2010) reportedly slated for demolition.

In 1907, the Coast Artillery Corps was created, and there was a considerable growth in the garrisons of coast artillery posts around the country. New batteries continued to be built and equipped with 3-inch, 6-inch, 8-inch, 10-inch and 12-inch guns, Searchlight units and defensive minefields were added, electric plants were built for the new emplacements, meterological stations became standard at all posts, and telephone communications were added. The Coast Artillery Corps began to experiment and with and develop new technologies in fire control and communications, including radio, and antiaircraft defense was added to its mission.

But with the advent of WW1, many of the coast defense posts were stripped of men and artillery in order to equip the U.S. and allied effors in Europe and the Territories. After the war, many Coast Artillery posts were manned only by National Guard units and went on "caretaker" status. The older guns were declared obselete, and many were scrapped.

In the late 1930s, however, coast defense technology began to be upgraded. Huge 16-inch gun batteries were added at many harbors, and higher performance models of rapid-fire and antiaircraft weapons were installed. Fire conrol systems were greatly enhanced, and in the Boston area, for example, dozens of new fire control towers were constructed. As WW2 approached, older batteries and emplacements were scrapped, but others were upgraded. Many of the coastal forts became training and deployment posts, for artillery and general troops and the numbers of buildings on these posts sometimes increased fourfold or more with temporary structures.

Through it all, there is no record of the Boston harbor defenses ever having fired a shot in anger against the enemy, and very little practice firing was reported either. Manning levels were scaled back farther and farther as WW2 progressed, and by 1946, the Coast Artillery Corps was disbanded. Between 1946 and 1950, most coast defense establishments were declared surplus, Some facilities were re-used as part of the new Nike missle system, and in Boston, part of the network of fire control towers was used for radar and missile guidance R&D.

Efforts by the government to defend the U.S. coast are almost as old as the government itself, dating back to 1794.