The fortification of New York Harbor

Dr. Thomas W. Matteo, Staten Island Historian

The year was 1812, just 29 years since the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the United States achieved through the American Revolution. But in 1812 this independence was being threatened by the very country that signed the treaty, Great Britain. Since the end of the Revolutionary War, there had been an uneasy peace between the two nations. America’s growing economy began to rival Great Britain’s and at the center of this growth was New York City.

New York City’s importance to the nation’s economic growth increased dramatically after the revolution. Its harbor was always full of merchant ships carrying goods to anxious buyers in Europe. By the end of the 1700s nearly one third of all the revenue collected by the federal government was collected in New York City.

Citizens who remembered the British occupation during the Revolutionary War were concerned that the City would once again become the object of British conquest. The original fort at the southern tip of Manhattan, known as The Battery, had been dismantled and turned into a park. Although New York had become the most important harbor to defend, it was virtually defenseless!

For the most part, the defense of New York’s harbor was left to the State government and its governor, Daniel Tompkins. A Staten Islander, Tompkins was first elected governor in 1807 and re-elected in 1810. Later, he would become Vice-president under President James Monroe. At the outset of hostilities, he personally oversaw the defense of New York. After turning down a Cabinet appointment, Tompkins was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of the Third Military District by President Madison in October 1814. Tompkins appointed several aids-de-camp including Washington Irving. Also serving under his command was a young officer by the name of Ichabod Crane.

The narrows was the gateway into New York’s harbor and it was poorly protected. Only 164 guns were in place in the event of an attack. For this reason, Fort Richmond, Fort Morton, and Fort Hudson were erected on Signal Hill (Fort Wadsworth) to improve the defenses.

Approximately 1,800 yards across the narrows, Fort Diamond (Fort Lafayette) on the Brooklyn side of the narrows was constructed on Hendrick’s reef. When complete, its 72 guns along with the batteries on Staten Island created a deadly crossfire for any enemy vessels attempting to enter the harbor.

A report to the Governor warned that a British fleet could pass Sandy Hook, land a force near Prince’s Bay and march on the harbor defenses at Signal Hill. To protect against this threat, Fort Smith was built at Prince’s Bay and fortifications were developed at Signal Hill to safeguard the harbor defenses against an attack by land.

Not to be out done, his political rival New York City’s Mayor DeWitt Clinton issued an appeal to New Yorkers to come to the defense of their city. He emphasized New York’s importance to the “enemy” because of its wealth, geographic location and increased probability of attack. In response to the mayor’s appeal, hundreds of New Yorkers from all walks of life picked up shovels and picks and began the work of strengthening the city’s defenses.

Forts, batteries and blockhouses were constructed on nearly every island and reef in New York’s harbor and others along the coast.

Fort Jay on Governor’s Island (renamed Ft. Columbus in 1806) was strengthened with the construction of Castle Williams. The walls were 8 ft. thick with three tiers of casements holding 80 guns.

Hell Gate, a tidal strait connecting the East River with Long Island Sound and the Harlem River, was protected by a fortifications constructed on a small island in the middle of the waterway known as Mill Rock. This location protected any penetration of the harbor from Long Island Sound.

Castle Clinton was constructed off the lower tip of Manhattan along the same style as Castle Williams. Fort Wood was constructed on Bedoes Island, which is known today as Liberty Island. The 12-pointed star fort had 30 guns protecting the western entrance to the harbor.

In addition to these fixed positions, the City had a formidable park of field artillery and a flotilla of gunboats. About 1,000 “Sea Fencibles” in 40 shallow-draft gunboats and barges manned the flotilla. These units were mostly comprised of volunteers and were the navy’s version of a Home Guard or seafaring militia.

By 1814, New York City was defended by 900 pieces of artillery and 25,500 men. This is probably why the citizens did not panic when five British war vessels were spotted off the coast of Sandy Hook on August 18th, 1814. They never came any closer.

While most of the military action took place upstate in New York around the cities of Plattsburgh and Sackets Harbor, many historians believe that the fortifications constructed to protect New York’s harbor was a major reason why the British never attacked.