“The forces of nature that gave the settlers of Rhode Island one of the finest natural harbors in the world, Narragansett Bay, also presented them with a military challenge. Part of the challenge was to prevent an enemy fleet from entering the bay to attack friendly ships or cities along the shore. Another part was to prevent an enemy from seizing the bay to use it for a base of operations.”
Those are the words of military historian Theodore L. Gatchel, and they show the strategic importance of Newport then, and why a fort had to be built to protect what became one of the premier cruising grounds on the East Coast.
First christened FortAdams (in honor of President John Adams) in 1799, the original fortification had no resemblance to the impressive structure you see today. President James Monroe, in his 1817 inaugural address, talked about the need for better coastal defenses, especially after the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.
When Congress appropriated $50,000 in 1824, the remains of the old fort were demolished, and Lt. Col. Joseph Totten took charge of the innovative construction of FortAdams. (Totten is considered the founding father of the Corps of Engineers and went on to hold the position of chief engineer for more than 25 years.) The project also would be used as a school of application for young engineer officers.
FortAdams illustrates the American interpretation of French military architecture, which dominated the early 19th century. The fort was designed by French military engineer Simon Bernard, a former aide-de-camp of Napoleon. FortAdams is a massive work with structural walls constructed of shale quarried on site, granite shipped by schooner from Maine, and brick believed to have been made with clay from Rhode Island. Most of it is still relatively intact.
The sophisticated engineering of FortAdams makes it a showcase for the art of fortification. Unique or uncommon U.S. military architectural features include galleries under the ditches, underground listening galleries tunneled under the glacis, and extensive outer defenses designed to protect the outer face of the fort’s crown work from battering by a besieger’s artillery. The fort was designed to accommodate a peacetime garrison of 200 and a war complement of 2,400 with 468 mounted cannons.
From its original intention to protect the entrance to Narragansett Bay, FortAdams successfully adapted to changing military technology and tactics. It ultimately became the command center during World War II for a system of artillery emplacements, harbor barriers and other coastal defenses for a sector stretching from Long Island Sound to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. That the fort was never attacked can be directly attributed to the formidability of its design. FortAdams was briefly the site of the NavalAcademy during the early months of the Civil War, and its muster roll includes some of the most prominent officers in U.S. military history.
Make American history part of your stop in Newport. Pack a picnic and hop in your dinghy, or pick up an Oldport water taxi, and head over to the largest fortification in the United States. The park also hosts the Newport Folk Festival (Aug. 1-3) and Newport Jazz Festival (Aug. 8-10), as well as a Revolutionary War re-enactment (Sept. 13-14) and other events. In fact, anchoring off the fort for the music festivals is a popular way to listen to the artists.
An 80-acre National Historic Landmark, FortAdams is a masterpiece of coastal defense and a jewel on Narragansett Bay. Tours are given daily on the hour from mid-May to October, and reservations aren’t necessary, except for large groups. For information, call (401) 841-0707, or visit www.fortadams.org .
Editor’s note: Much of this information is from Theodore L. Gatchel’s history of FortAdams on the Fort Adams Web site.