Book Review- “A Legacy in Brick and Stone” – The American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System 1816-1867 by John R. Weaver II- Part I

by Matthew Young on July 15, 2008 · 2 comments

I came across this book when I visited Fort Pulaski last year for a living history immersion event called “The Immortal 600” in which I played a Confederate military officer being imprisoned in the casemate at Fort Pulaski, but I will save that for another post!

At any rate, I decided to pick up “A Legacy in Brick and Stone” since it was one of the few books I had come across on Civil War era coastal defense. Here are the book “stats”-

Author: Weaver, John R. II

Publisher: Redoubt Press, McLean, Virginia

First Printing 2001

ISBN 1-57510-069-X

Hardcover 245 pages (although I have the soft cover edition)

Numerous maps, drawings, photographs, and illustrations

Overview-

There are three major parts to this book. The first deals with the Coastal Fortification board, it’s formation and it’s function. This section also deals with the architecture of the forts, how the designs changed from 1816 to 1867, and how effective the different designs were. The second part looks at each region of the country and examines the different fortifications in those areas, to include the Great Lakes, New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic states, the South Atlantic Coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico, and even San Francisco. The final part of the book is a wonderfully detailed Appendix to include a Glossary of Terms, Fort Names, Coastal Defenses by location, a General Index, and a great Bibliography.

Part I- The Fortification Board

Weaver discusses the foundations of the board and how it came into being. There were many who thought that successful forts on the coast manned by small garrisons could prevent large amphibious landings by an enemy force. Besides James Madison and James Monroe, the most influential person is helping design the “Third System” of forts was a Frenchman and former aide to Napoleon named Simon Bernard. Bernard was made a brevet Brigadier General, but as an outsider, often didn’t see eye to eye with already established Generals in the Corps of Engineers who had successfully fought and defended their system of forts in the War of 1812. However, this jealousy only seemed to exist at the higher level of command, for several new West Point graduates seemed to have enjoyed working with Bernard, and the US Navy seemed to accept his views openly.

Not long after the board convened, the two senior army officers resigned and the board was left to Bernard, Major Joseph Totten, and a US Navy Captain J.D. Elliott. They immediately recognized that two areas needed to be defended badly, New Orleans and Hampton Roads. These three submitted a report to Congress in 1821 using four main elements for National Defense; The Navy, Communications, Fortifications, and the Army & Militia. This would be the foundations of US Defense policy for the next forty years.

“Multiple forts were projected at major sites and single forts, sometimes with supporting works, at the less-critical locations…Bernard’s goal was to design forts that would be able to withstand a siege for 14 days”

Weaver then does an outstanding job of listing the names and places of proposed locations for these various fortifications, some were constructed while others were not.

Next, he discusses the evolution of the board of Engineers and how it was largely a process of trial and error when building fortifications. He uses, as an example, Fort Gains on Dauphin Island at the entrance to Mobile Bay. There were two different contracts handed out, money disappeared, and there was no engineering officer on site to oversee construction. All of that was soon to change.

Camp Pope Publishing

Bernard would leave the US and return to France in 1830 and Joseph Totten would assume command of the Fortifications Board and play an ever increasing role in the construction of coastal fortifications. He actually took the field for the Mexican War and helped to oversee the successful siege of Vera Cruz by US forces under to command of General Winfield Scott.

In 1851, he submitted a report to Congress on the progress of the Third System of forts (some 30 years after the initial report). Totten submitted that the new development of railroads had significantly reduced the necessity of forts to withstand a siege by land and this had a major effect on the forts yet to be finished. He also addressed the use of steam ships against coastal forts, and made a successful argument that the development of steam powered ships only heightened the need to finish the coastal fort system. The final line in the report effectively summarizes the third system of forts, “No improvements or inventions of modern times, tend, in any degree, to lessen the efficiency of fortifications as means of coast defense; while the principal one, namely, the firing of shells from guns, unquestionably augments their relative power.”

It was shot & shell fired on one of these Third System of forts, in Charleston Harbor, that would officially begin the Civil War.

More on “A Legacy in Brick and Stone” in the next post.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

History Book Buff July 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Thanks for the review. I just got finished reading “The Confederate War Bonnet” by Jack Shakely and have been interested in other books on the Civil War ever since. I haven’t payed much attention to this part of US history, but Shakely’s book really piqued my interest and I’ve been on the look out since. I’ll pick this up, it seems like it will give me a better historical setting for what I just read.

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