History of Fort Constitution

(previously known as Fort William and Mary)

The Defense of Portsmouth Harbor, 1631-1948

Part I: 1631-1890

Fort Point on Great Island, the site of Fort Constitution, has been an active military position guarding the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor for nearly four hundred years, and may be the oldest continuously occupied military site in the United States.

Early History

The first documented defense installation was built in 1631, and consisted of an earthen redoubt with four "great guns". In 1666 a timber blockhouse was built. In 1692 the fort, by then also known as "The Castle", was formally named Fort William and Mary after the reigning English monarchs, and a breastwork for 19 guns was then constructed to defend against the French fleet during King William's War. The first stone walls were built in 1705. The first well for the garrison's fresh water supply was dug also in 1705, outside the south wall, with the water pumped into the fort.

detail of 1705 site plan
The Fort William and Mary Blockhouse.
Detail from a 1705 plan from the Trustees of the British Museum,
from a copy at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

1705 site plan
1705 site plan from the Trustees of the British Museum,
from a copy at the New Hampshire Historical Society.

Repairs were made in 1722 under Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth I, and additional repairs and more guns were added in 1757 under Royal Governor Benning Wentworth. However, the basic structure of the fort remained the same. Throughout the colonial era, the average complement of men was only four to eight, with 20 to 40 additional soldiers added in the summer or in times of crisis.

In 1771-72 a major improvement to the fort was made when a barbette battery was built protected by a stone wall about seven feet high, with several gun embrasures. The first harbor light was installed here in April 1771, which was at first only a lantern hung up a flagpole. A shingled 50-foot tall wooden lighthouse with a copper-roofed iron lantern was built July 1771, and was tended by soldiers at the fort. It was the first light station established at a military installation in the British colonies of the present United States, the tenth of eleven light stations established in the colonies before the American Revolution, and the first lighthouse in the American colonies north of Boston.

The American Revolution

During the nights of December 14 and 15, 1774, in two separate raids, about 400 men of the local chapters of the "Sons of Liberty", warned by Paul Revere beforehand on December 13, stormed the fort and overcame British Captain John Cochran and his five-man garrison, capturing 16 light cannon and 97 barrels of gunpowder, some of which later made its way to the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. This incident is remembered locally as the first overt action of the American Revolution. (See also: The Capture of Fort William and Mary, and also: Raid on Fort William and Mary for more extensive coverage.) The arrival of two British warships (HMS Scarborough and HMS Chanceaux) three days later, with upwards of 100 Royal Marines, prevented a third raid. The remaining guns and stores were removed by the British in February 1775 and sent to Boston. The British then later partially dismantled the fort on May 30, 1775. In retaliation, about 500-600 men of the New Hampshire militia under Dr. Hall Jackson dismantled the eight-gun battery at Jerry's Point on May 31 and removed everything of value. Facing increasing public pressure, the Royal Governor of New Hampshire, John Wentworth II, and his family sought refuge inside the fort in June 1775 after news of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and finally left for Boston with the British Royal Navy in August 1775, thus effectively ending British rule in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire militia, under the command of General John Sullivan, dismantled what was left of the fort in September 1775, and proceeded to build entirely new works upriver (Forts Washington, Sullivan, and Clark's Point) at the "Narrows" of the Piscataqua River, which was deemed to be more easily defensible. The abandoned fort, renamed Fort Hancock in 1776, saw little use for the duration of the war, except that the lighthouse (unlit during the war) was sometimes used as a lookout post. A sentry would raise a signal flag on any sign of trouble, which would then be answered by flag and a four-pounder gun at Fort Sullivan, and then relayed to Portsmouth by flag and a four-pounder gun at Fort Washington. After the war the site was known thereafter simply as the "Castle Fort" or "Fort Castle". (Read another essay about the 1774 raid from the NH Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.)

The Federal Period

In 1783 Lieutenant Meshech Bell was appointed to command "the old Fort at New Castle", with a garrison of five men, and to tend the lighthouse. The wooden barracks and gun platforms from the Jerry's Point Battery were moved here, as well as a timber powder magazine and the flagstaff from Fort Washington. Thirteen guns were also newly emplaced, consisting of seven heavy guns of 18-, 24-, and 42-pounds on seacoast carriages and six light guns on field carriages. The fort's main purpose at this time was for collecting and enforcing customs duties on all ships entering the harbor. Captain Titus Salter took command of the fort in 1786 until dismissed in 1793 and replaced with a Mr. Duncan, who was solely tasked to be the lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse was apparently rebuilt or repaired in 1784. In 1791 the State of New Hampshire ceded to the United States 1.75 acres, which included the old fort and lighthouse. It is unknown when the fort was officially renamed, or by whom, due to lost records at the War Department from this time period, but it is known that in 1802 Secretary of War Henry Dearborn was referring to "Fort Constitution" in official documents. An official War Department naming order was not reissued until 1937. The fort was essentially unchanged from the colonial era except for repairs and the addition in 1794 of a two-story wooden citadel/blockhouse, which would be rebuilt in 1808 as the "Captain's House". The fort at this time would be considered a "First System" work. The fort was briefly garrisoned by federal units in 1798-99 during the French-American Quasi War. A federal garrison again returned for duty in 1802. Local militia units were to augment the garrison in times of crisis. A new 85-foot high wooden lighthouse was constructed in 1803 about 100 yards east of the original 1771 lighthouse (today's site). An additional 1.5 acres was ceded by the state to the federal government in 1807. The fort underwent additional repairs and modifications until completed in 1808 during the so-called "Second System" of fortifications. Renovations included a new outer stone wall twice as high as the original, with a bastion in the southwest corner facing the sea, two brick barracks which could accommodate 150 men, two brick powder magazines, a shot furnace, and emplacements for 36 guns. The foundations of the two barracks still remain to be seen today, as well as the larger of the two powder magazines.

1803 Lighthouse
courtesy of the National Archives
1860s era photo of the 1803 wooden lighthouse.
It had been shortened by 30 feet, to 55 feet, in 1854. It stood until 1877.

In 1809 an explosion during an Independence Day celebration badly damaged the Captain's House and killed 14 people. They were listed as "Sargent (sic) (Joseph) Albert(s), (Private) Theodore Witham, Reo Gamoth, Samuel Stevens, Gideon Guild, Edmund Hurd, John Ricker, Robert Miller, (Private) Peletiah McDaniels, Ephraim Pickering (Esquire) of Newington, a young man named Paul of Kittery (these last two having just landed to visit the fort), John (or Joseph) Mitchel of New Castle, and two or three others whose names could not be assertained". Another source lists a "James Trefethen", a young man from New Castle. Colonel Walbach was having a late afternoon dinner party, when "two chests of powder and 30 cartridges of 6 and 8 pound, about 300 wt. of powder in all", placed on the wall to dry, were somehow ignited and exploded (source: American Mercury, Hartford, CT, July 13, 1809). The house was repaired, but later burned down in 1861. It was located at the end of the north inner wall past the present flagpole. (See also: Fort Constitution Explodes! for more information.)

During the British blockade of 1814 a brick casemated Martello-type tower (known as Castle Walbach, or later Walbach Tower) was constructed on a small rocky hill west of the fort. It was named for and by Colonel John de Barth Walbach, originally from Germany, who served in the French Imperial Army until joining the American Army in 1799 as a lieutenant of light dragoons, and was now second-in-command of all New England seacoast defenses. The tower mounted a large 32-pounder naval gun on its roof to fire on ships in the channel to the east and south, as well as three 4-pounder field guns in casemates to protect the landward approach from the west. The remains of its foundation and arched magazine still stand today, in an overgrown area just behind the location of Battery Farnsworth. (See Walbach Tower photos).

Read about an unusual Military Court-Martial that took place at Fort Constitution in 1814.

Walbach Tower photo
photo from the Patch Collection, Strawbery Banke Museum
Walbach Tower, circa 1880.
View is looking north towards Kittery, Maine.

From 1821 to 1828, Company I, 1st U.S. Artillery was garrisoned here until transferred to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. A local militia company of artillery, musicians, and artisans (about 50 men total) was then posted here until withdrawn in 1852. In 1840 improvements were made to the outer walls, which included raising them higher, placing a stone copping on the parade and ramp walls, and replacing the temporary wooden gun platforms with permanent granite blocks with iron traverse rails. This is basically the fort structure we see today.

Of historical note, Captain Robert Parker Parrott, ordnance inventor, who was a member of a prominent Portsmouth family, served at the fort as a lieutenant from 1829 to 1831.

1820 site plan
courtesy of the National Archives
1820 US Army Corps of Engineers site plan.

The Civil War

In 1861 at the start of the Civil War, there were only 25 pieces of artillery mounted in the fort, which consisted of several 32-pounder seacoast guns and 100-pounder seacoast Parrott rifles. A local militia company of 25 men and a captain were rushed to activate the slumbering fort. The commanding officer was Josiah G. Hadley. A 150-man detachment of the Home Guard and the Portsmouth Volunteer Corps also arrived at the fort in the opening weeks of the war. A 42-pounder naval gun sent from the Naval Shipyard was emplaced in the bastion. The Hampton Volunteers (or Winnacunnet Guards) were in garrison from May to August 1861. They were later re-designated as Company D, 3rd New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment, and transferred to the war front at Hilton Head, South Carolina. Battery A, 1st New Hampshire Heavy Artillery was stationed here from July 1863 to May 1864, until transferred to the defenses of Washington, DC. They returned to Portsmouth in November 1864. (see the 1863 garrison roster) Various state militia units were also posted here from time to time to relieve the garrison. A new, larger "Third System" fort, begun in late 1862, was to include a massive, pentagonal three-tiered casemated granite wall constructed outside of the original outer wall. It was designed for 149 new gun emplacements. The northeast section of the original wall was blasted away in 1866 to prepare for the new wall. However, as the war had progressed, it became clear that masonry forts were becoming obsolete, and the new construction was halted by 1867. The fort was then placed on caretaker status until 1897, when war with Spain was imminent.

Of historical note, Charles F. Conant, assistant Secretary of Treasury 1874-77, under the Hayes administration, served at Fort Constitution in the local militia from 1861-63.

Civil War photo
photo from the Copley Collection
1862 photo of interior of the fort.
(click for larger version)

Civil War photo

photo from the Davis Collection, Portsmouth Athenaeum
1861 or 1862 photo of the center-pintle Parrott rifles on the northeast wall.
Note the older mounts in foreground for front-pintle carriages.

Civil War photo

photo from the Davis Collection, Portsmouth Athenaeum
1865 photo of the casemates under construction.

1865 site plan
Map based on 1865 US Army Corps of Engineers site plan.

Detail of 1851 site plan

courtesy of the National Archives
Detail of the plan for the new granite fort.

Detail of 1851 site plan

courtesy of the National Archives
Detail of the vertical cross-section of the three tiers and stairwell access.

1863 casemates

1863 casemates

photos courtesy of Rob Robson 2003
present-day views of the unfinished gun casemates.

The Post-Civil War Period

In 1872 plans were drawn up for a massive V-shaped earth and concrete 14-bay barbette gun battery. It was to be located where Battery Farnsworth is now located, and it was to be similar to the other so-called "Fourth System" works started at Fort Foster and Fort Stark in 1874. Congress never provided any funds for this project, and it was therefore never built. In 1874 the small brick powder magazine in the old fort next to the bastion was removed to allow for the construction of a temporary emplacement of two 15-inch smooth-bore Rodman cannons on wooden platforms. In 1886 the emplacement was reported as empty, so it may be possible that the guns were never actually emplaced. Five of the original Civil War era 100-pounder seacoast Parrott rifles still remained, and four were emplaced and made ready in the eastern section of the unfinished outer casemates of the new wall. They remained there until 1905 when they were finally removed. In 1877 the old wooden lighthouse was demolished and replaced with the current 48-foot high cast-iron structure seen today, on the original foundation of the 1803 light tower.

1886 proposed site plan
courtesy of the National Archives
Proposed plans for the new outer battery.
(click for larger version)

1885 photo

photo from the Staples-Herald Collection, Strawbery Banke Museum
The unfinished, but armed, outer casemates, circa 1880s.
Shown are four 100-pounder seacoast Parrott rifles.

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