Harbor Defense Museum
Welcome to the Harbor Defense Museum. Our mission is to collect, preserve, exhibit and interpret historically significant materiel related to the history of Fort Hamilton and New York City's harbor defenses. In addition to the exhibits in the museum, we maintain the Cannon Walk area designed to provide a historical perspective of the ordnance used during the coastal defense era. The museum provides educational programs and services for military and civilian audiences. Local school groups are strongly encouraged to contact the Museum Director for guided tours and a video presentation. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Mondays are by appointment only.
To learn about becoming a volunteer, contact the museum director at 718-630-4349.
History of Fort Hamilton
In 1872 an article published in the Brooklyn Eagle noted that “Everybody of any consequence in Brooklyn knows where Fort Hamilton is situated, and almost everybody has been there…” Indeed cool breezes, a park like setting, beautiful views of the harbor, and the novelty of its armaments made the fort a popular destination during the late nineteenth century.
The fort’s bucolic setting however, was based upon military necessity. From 1831 to the end of World War II, Fort Hamilton’s big guns defended New York City against naval attack. In that capacity it stood not alone, but as an integral part of the nation’s coastal defense system. And when the nation was threatened by forces against which the Coast Artillery Corps could offer no defense, facilities such as Fort Hamilton were either closed or adopted to new missions. Today the United States Army Garrison Fort Hamilton is the only active military base in the City of New York. As such it has served as a critical base of operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, events that were unimaginable when the fort was first conceived in the early nineteenth century.
THE NARROWS: FIRST AND SECOND SYSTEM FORTIFICATIONS
On Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, elements of the last British forces remaining in the colonies sailed home through the Narrows. Having gained its independence, the new republic would now have to defend it. And it was strategic locations such as the Narrows that became the focus of a new system of coastal fortifications designed to defend the United States against naval attack.
Less of a challenge to navigate than the treacherous waters of Hell Gate, the Narrows remains the preferred route for shipping to access New York harbor. A remnant of the last ice age, the Narrows forms a constricted but navigable mile wide channel connecting Upper and Lower New York Bay. Having already lost New York City to a British invasion fleet in 1776, the strategic importance of the Narrows would not escape Congress as it approved a plan in March 1794 to erect a network of coastal fortifications. The result of this plan was First American System of coastal fortifications (1794-1807).
These early forts were largely open works constructed of earth and timber, and mounted batteries of eight to several dozen guns. To create this system the federal government relied heavily upon the states to provide the required land, funding and armament. This often resulted in defenses that lacked uniformity and fire-power, and were constantly threatened by erosion. Fort Lewis, a simple earth and timber structure constructed at the Narrows on New Utrecht Point, was one such example.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century many First System fortifications had fallen into disrepair and were abandoned. In 1807 British aggression in international waters compelled Congress to fund the development of a Second System of coastal fortifications (1807-1817). The new system would include open batteries, earthen forts faced with masonry, and all-masonry fortifications incorporating thick walls and multiple tiers of casemated guns. Seven Second System fortifications were constructed in New York City. When war with Britain did come in 1812, the results of these efforts were clearly apparent. Washington, which was largely unprotected, was captured and burned. The British then attacked Baltimore, but were repelled by Fort McHenry. New York City, which was also heavily defended, was never attacked. Rather than risk a direct assault, the British resorted to blockading the city instead.
In many ways the city’s salvation during the War of 1812 can be attributed to the four forts that guarded the Narrows. They comprised Fort Lewis and Fort Diamond on the eastern shore, and old Fort Tompkins and old Fort Richmond on Staten Island. Fort Lewis, which would soon be demolished to make way for Fort Hamilton, was a remnant of the First System of coastal defenses. Forts Diamond, Tompkins and Richmond, which were all under various states of completion, were products of the Second. Their combined firepower nevertheless posed a significant threat to any warship attempting to sail between them.
This 1820 Engineer Department rendering depicts the proposed “Position of the Works, New Utrecht Point at the Narrows.” Fort Hamilton is positioned at bottom center, with its redoubt being above and to the left.
FORT HAMILTON AND 3rd SYSTEM FORTIFICATIONS
After the War of 1812 a special board of officers was tasked with developing a comprehensive plan to expand and improve the nation’s seacoast fortifications. In 1816 Brevet Brigadier General Simon Bernard, a French military engineer who had fought with Napoleon, was appointed to head the panel. Also serving was Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Joseph G. Totten, a future Chief of Engineers. In the decades that followed, both men would play a pivotal role in the development in America’s Third System of seacoast fortifications (1817-1867).
After extensive travels, the Bernard Board submitted its first report in 1821. Its recommendations included a prioritized list of new defensive works, and improved design and construction standards. The proposed works included both relatively simple detached batteries, and the principle forts that would become the Third System’s hallmark. The new fortifications incorporated massive vertical walls, tiered casemates, improved embrasures and unprecedented firepower.
Between 1825 and 1864, five Third System fortifications were constructed in New York City. They comprised Fort Hamilton at the Narrows, new Forts Richmond and Tompkins on Staten Island, Fort Schuyler at Throgs Neck and Fort Totten at Willets Point. The extent of these defenses was a clear reflection of the city’s strategic importance.
Fort Hamilton was the first Third System fortification built in New York City. The fort is named in honor of Alexander Hamilton, distinguished Revolutionary War officer and first Secretary of the Treasury. With an initial cost estimate of $ 424, 995.32, construction began on April 26, 1825. The fort’s cornerstone was laid on June 11, 1825, and construction completed on July 10, 1831. The fort had two primary missions. The first was to support actions against enemy warships. Its second, and equally important role, was to defend itself and the other Narrows’ forts against land based infantry attacks. If an enemy force could not neutralize the Narrows’ forts by sea, it could attempt siege operations or a direct assault from the interior.
Small by Third System standards, Fort Hamilton was of brick and masonry construction and employed barrel vaults to form its numerous casemates (enclosed barracks, offices or gun positions). It was comprised of five central elements: 1) The main fort, which was trapezoidal in shape and mounted 32 and 42-Pounder guns on the upper tier of its seacoast wall. 2) An enclosed ditch, designed as a kill zone for enemy infantry, which wrapped around the two sides of the fort and came to a point at its rear. 3) A counterscarp and covered way, which together formed the outside wall of the ditch and provided cover and safe movement to soldiers defending the rear of the fort. 4) Three caponiers armed with 24-pounder flank howitzers. The caponiers were small outworks that provided flanking fire within the enclosed ditch and across the fort’s seacoast wall. 5) A surrounding glacis formed by a gently sloping hill, which protected the sides and rear of the fort from direct fire.
The fort itself was also protected by a redoubt, a small independent fortification, to the northeast. The redoubt was positioned inland to act as both an early warning system and as a first line of defense against an infantry attack from the rear.
The fort’s 32 and 42-Pounders were mounted on barbette carriages at the edge of the parapet on the upper tier. With a maximum range of 1,920 yards (1.1 miles), the guns were perfectly suited to defend the Narrows. Nevertheless most of the combat experienced by America’s coastal defenses during the Civil War was the result of Union attempts to recapture forts lost to the Confederacy early in the conflict. Fortifications in the northeast, such as Fort Hamilton, proved beyond the reach of Southern forces. The fort nevertheless performed a variety of functions during the war, one of the most important being as a recruitment and embarkation center.
In spite of the significant improvements realized in the design and construction of Third System fortifications, they would be rendered obsolete in a matter of decades by subsequent advances in ordnance development. The advent of armored warships armed with large caliber rifled guns, capable of breaching the thickest of masonry walls, marked their end. Earthen open batteries returned to favor after the Civil War, but the new guns they were designed to mount lagged in production. By the mid-1870s a lack of funding for coastal defense purposes brought new development to a halt, and caused existing projects to be abandoned. During this period of decline and uncertainty Third System fortifications remained operational, but were no longer capable of defending the nation’s strategic harbors and waterways.
Photo left: This view from Gleason’s Pictorial captures part of the wharf used to service both Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette. Fort Hamilton officially entered service on November 1, 1831, when Capt. Levi Whiting commanding two officers and 52 enlisted men from Company F, 4th Artillery reported for duty.
Photo right: In this 1860 view from Gleason’s Pictorial, the arrangement of Fort Hamilton’s large seacoast guns is clearly apparent. The fort’s 32 and 42-Pounders were mounted on barbette carriages at the edge of the parapet on the upper tier. With a maximum range of 1,920 yards (1.1 miles), the guns were perfectly suited to defend the Narrows.
FORT HAMILTON DURING THE ENDICOTT/TAFT PERIODS
As a reaction to what many considered a national crisis, former Secretary of War William C. Endicott was appointed as head of a new coastal defense board in 1885. The board’s recommendations would initiate a far-reaching modernization program that is remembered today as the Endicott period.
The signature innovation of the Endicott period was the disappearing gun. Hidden behind massive open concrete emplacements, that were skillfully concealed by the surrounding landscape, large caliber disappearing guns presented a serious challenge to enemy warships. Batteries of breech-loading mortars were also integral to Endicott period defenses. Concealed in concrete pits, the mortars provided volley fire onto the unprotected decks of armored warships. Controlled mines were another new technology that the Army embraced at this time. Rather than exploding on contact, controlled mines were detonated electronically from land-based observation posts. And small caliber rapid-fire guns, designed to neutralize enemy mine sweepers and other fast craft, defended the minefields themselves.
After 1905 these improvements were enhanced further by the findings of a subsequent board, headed by future president William H. Taft. Innovations achieved during the Taft period include the adoption of a new 14-Inch gun, increased spacing between batteries, and major improvements in fire-control systems. Ultimately, the advances achieved during the Endicott and Taft periods restored America to a preeminent position in the field of coastal defense.
By the late nineteenth century Fort Hamilton could no longer be defined only by its masonry walls and their immediate surroundings. In anticipation of modernization, additional lands were acquired through eminent domain, and the swamp behind the fort was filled in to create a new parade ground.
Fort Hamilton’s defenses were completely modernized during the Endicott period. Eleven new batteries containing 33 guns and 8 mortars were constructed between 1898 and 1905. The new gun batteries lined the bluffs along the shore, with the mortar batteries placed further inland. During this process the front of the old fort was demolished to make way for Batteries Brown, Johnston and Burke. Although some of the guns were removed over time, these defenses were manned until the end of World War II.
Photo left: The officers and enlisted men of Fort Hamilton’s 123rd Coast Artillery Company are the subject of this image from 1904. The Coast Artillery was founded in 1901 and became a separate Corps in 1907.
Photo right: One of Fort Hamilton’s 10-Inch Guns is captured at the moment of discharge in this view taken in 1908. For concealment and protection purposes, disappearing guns were raised to their firing positions only prior to discharge. After firing they were automatically lowered to the safety of their loading position.
WORLD WARS I AND II
During World Wars I and II, Fort Hamilton’s coastal defense batteries vigilantly defended New York City against threats that ultimately never materialized. The reality of war however, was ever present during both conflicts. The fort’s location in New York’s harbor, and its proximity to Europe, led to its use as a staging area for thousands of troops deploying overseas. After World War I, Fort Hamilton would also become closely associated with the nearby Brooklyn Army Terminal. Constructed between 1918 and 1919, at a cost of $ 30,000,000, the terminal was the largest port facility of its type in the world. As the headquarters for the New York Port of Embarkation, the terminal would serve as a point of debarkation for thousands of troops returning from Europe. Many would require subsequent processing at Fort Hamilton.
The Coast Artillery Corps manned Fort Hamilton’s batteries during both world wars. Because of the Corps expertise with large caliber guns a number of Coast Artillery units would also serve in Europe during World War I. In the brief peace between the wars the Corps remained an integral part of the nation’s defenses, and continued to serve at Fort Hamilton as other personnel on the base assumed the duties required of a more traditional army post.
By 1939 Fort Hamilton was home to the Fifth Coast Artillery, the First Quartermaster Regiment, the First Battalion of the Eighteenth Infantry and Headquarters for the First Division. And as war again erupted in Europe, a total of approximately 1,000 officers and enlisted men served on the fort. More would follow. As an adjunct to the reactivated New York Port of Embarkation, Fort Hamilton’s facilities would expand significantly as the war progressed. Again thousands of troops would pass through both Fort Hamilton and the Narrows on their way overseas, and hopefully on their way home.
Photo left:Taken in 1945, this aerial view reveals the development that took place on Fort Hamilton during World War II. All of the fort’s available land had been utilized at this point with only the parade ground, visible to left of center, surviving intact.
Photo right: This aerial view of Fort Hamilton was taken prior to World War II. Note the significant portions of undeveloped land. Poly Prep and Dyker Beach Golf Course can be seen at center left.
THE COLD WAR
During the first half of the twentieth century the Coast Artillery Corps manned not only the nation’s big guns, but controlled mines, searchlights, barrage balloons and anti-aircraft batteries as well. The Corps served with distinction during two world wars, both at home and abroad. Yet neither the Corps, nor its big guns, would survive the early years of the Cold War. The Corps was disbanded in 1950, and its large coastal defense batteries deactivated. Fort Hamilton’s last gun was removed in 1948, and by the early 1960s even its massive concrete gun emplacements had been demolished. They fell to time and unprecedented technological change. New threats were on the horizon, and big guns offered no defense against nuclear armed long range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
By necessity national defense strategies shifted to new technologies. In the early 1950s a number of former coastal defense facilities in the New York City area were integrated into a local network of 19 Nike air defense missile batteries. Permanent underground Nike emplacements were constructed at Fort Tilden in Breezy Point, Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook, and Fort Slocum on David’s Island. Mobile batteries were employed elsewhere.
The Nike was a strategic, surface-to-air, guided missile. It was designed to defend against high-performance aircraft and short-range ballistic missiles. The majority of Nike Hercules batteries were deactivated in 1974, with their role being assumed by new and even more complex systems. And over the next few decades nearly all of New York City’s remaining military installations would be deactivated as well.
Photo left:Although significant portions of its original casemates were lost during the Endicott Period, and others modified to accommodate the Officers Club in the 1930s, Fort Hamilton was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Photo right: Fort Hamilton’s Officer’s Club was opened to the community-at-large in the 1970s. This image captures the road leading from the newly designated Fort Hamilton Community Club, circa 1980.
FORT HAMILTON TODAY
Having survived the Cold War, Fort Hamilton experienced yet another period of uncertainty during the 1990s. In 1990 the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) created a non-partisan commission to review Department of Defense (DoD) recommendations regarding the closure or realignment of military installations.
In 1995, DoD surveyed existing installations and included the closure of Fort Hamilton among its recommendations. In turn, the garrison began taking steps to face what appeared to be the inevitable closure of the fort. These efforts proved to be premature because the commission’s final recommendations excluded Fort Hamilton from the list of proposed base closures forwarded to the President.
The wisdom of the commission’s decision became evident in September 11, 2001. As the Army’s only base of operations in New York City, Fort Hamilton quickly proved invaluable as the armed services responded to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In 2012 the garrison was designated as a Base Support Installation (BSI) to facilitate Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. As a BSI, Fort Hamilton provided soldiers and civilians responding to the disaster with critical staging areas, food and housing, logistical support, communications and force protection. And during these operations, the number of individuals supported by the garrison rose from 500 to more than 1,000.
Today the U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hamilton is under the joint command of the Installation Management Command (IMCOM) and the Military District of Washington (MDW). The garrison supports tenant organizations including Army Reserve and National Guard units, the New York Military Entrance Processing Station, the New York City Recruiting Battalion and the Army Corps of Engineers, North Atlantic Division. It also provides modern housing for military families and essential services for more than 50,000 active, reserve and retired military personnel and their families. Ultimately after nearly 200 years of service, Fort Hamilton remains an enduring presence in a world of constant change.
Photo left: In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, then U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hamilton commander Col. Eluyn Gines and Command Sgt. Maj. Hector A. Prince update Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno regarding the garrison’s status as a base support installation and its role in coordinating relief efforts throughout the metropolitan area.
Photo right: In 2007 Fort Hamilton’s parade ground, Doubleday Field, was transformed into a modern housing complex. The project was designed to improve the quality of life on the garrison for Soldiers and their Families, and was the result the Army’s Residential Communities Initiative (RCI).