A walk through the history of coast defense – Fort Moultrie

XBrad and I have brought up the topic of coastal artillery a number of times.  Certainly with respect to the topic, most of my focus is towards the Civil War era.  But in the larger context, the “coast defense” role for many decades – or I should say for the first century and a half – was the most important mission for the US Army.  That is reflected in War Department expenditures all the way back to George Washington’s presidency.  The priority also influenced the posting of officers and their career paths in the 19th century.

Given this long association with coastal defense, the Army’s efforts are historically divided into periods – defined partly by the technology but more so on the political initiatives which brought funding to the projects.    The eight major periods are:  First System, Second System, Third System, Civil War era, Endicott, Taft, World War I/Interwar, and World War II.  By the end of World War II, technology and international realities rendered “coast defense” a secondary role for the Army.  Regardless of obsolescence, the forts, batteries, and guns left after 160 some odd years of activity speak to the history of the US Army and the United States.

There are few places where a visitor might appreciate the long history of US coastal defenses.  One of them is Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.

Interior of Fort Moultrie Today

The fort stands on Sullivan’s Island at the entrance to Charleston harbor.  Military activity at the site dates back to colonial times.  But Americans first built a fort there in 1776, using a mixture of sand and palmetto logs.  In June of that year, the fort repelled a British invasion fleet.  Although four years later the British would return and capture Charleston, this early victory cemented the southern colonies to the revolutionary cause.  Later the patriots renamed the fort in honor of the commander, William Moultrie.  And recalling the wood used in the fort, they also put the palmetto tree on the South Carolina flag!

Sgt. Jasper raising the Flag at Fort Moultrie

Today the fort represents that fort, and the “First System” fortifications with a standing battery in front of the main fort.

After the Revolution the old fort, like many along the coast, fell into decay.  The poor state of defense alarmed some, but only meager funding for repairs.  But in 1802, Congress authorized the creation of separate engineer and artillery corps.  These newly minted military professionals ushered the “Second System” with improvements to include masonry walls.  With limited funding, few forts along the coast were ready for the next test during the War of 1812.  But even incomplete forts such as Fort Moultrie served as effective deterrents to the British.

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Exterior Walls of Fort Moultrie

After the War of 1812, coast defense received a boost with additional funding.  Some of that went towards research to perfect the forts and weapons. As result, the Army’s ordnance officers perfected a mounting system that offered longer range for coastal guns.

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Seacost gun on wooden barbette carriage at Fort Moultrie

These top-tier “barbette carriages” became a feature of “Third System” forts.  Across the channel of Charleston’s entrance, Fort Sumter received the full Third System design, while Fort Moultrie received bastions and guns in barbette.   But from 1840 onwards, funding came and went depending on the political favor at the time.

The next great test of American coast defenses, the Civil War, started AT Fort Moultrie on April 12, 1861.

Fort Moultrie seen from Fort Sumter in February 1861

To cope with improved cannons and ironclad ships, during the lengthy operations in defense of Charleston the Confederates further improved Fort Moultrie’s defenses.  Confederate engineers placed earth traverses between the guns and introduced heavier, often rifled, guns.

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10-inch Rifled Columbiad at Fort Moultrie on a wooden carriage

After the Civil War, the US Army returned to assume the role of defending against external foes.  Funding again ebbed and little improvements were made.  After cleaning up and improving some of the wartime works, the Army brought massive Rodman guns on wrought iron carriages.  Furthermore, the Army and Navy cooperated on the coast defense mission, with monitors allocated to protect harbor approaches.

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15-inch Rodman Gun on iron carriage

These smoothbore, muzzle-loading guns remained at many points along the coast, including Fort Moultrie, into the 1890s (some were manned in the Spanish-American War).  But the era of black powder muzzle-loaders was over with the appearance of dreadnaughts and submarines.  Responding to technical advances, in 1886 then Secretary of War William Endicott declared the coast defenses obsolete and called for a complete overhaul to include concrete structures, large-caliber breechloading rifles, disappearing mountings, and minefields.  The Army built a  concrete battery with 10-inch rifles on disappearing mounts just outside the brick Fort Moultrie.

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Endicott-era Battery Jasper at Fort Moultrie

It was named Battery Jasper in honor of Sgt. Jasper of the Revolutionary War.  (More details on the battery construction on the Fort Wiki entry page.)

Battery Jasper

The Army placed other batteries, with smaller guns, inside the old brick fort.

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4.7-inch Gun at Battery Bingham

Nearby Battery McCorkle had two 3-inch guns.  Both batteries covered the mine fields in the channel.

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Bouyant Mine

Shortly after the Spanish-American War, Secretary of War William H. Taft (yes later president) announced another round of improvements for the forts.  The Taft board introduced electrical powered machinery, strong searchlights, and more light-caliber anti-torpedo boat guns.  A power generation shop stands behind Battery Jasper as a legacy of the Taft Board.

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Power House behind Battery Jasper

World War I brought significant changes to Fort Moultrie.   The concrete remained, but some of the guns were shipped out for World War I service.  Many of the remainder were scrapped in the inter-war period.  This decline changed with the start of World War II.  Initially the response was to bring in heavy caliber guns.  The Army built a new casemate (as opposed to disappearing mount) battery down the beach from Battery Jasper, giving it the inglorious name Battery 520, mounting two 12-inch guns. But plans to place 16-guns were put on hold.  The old 12-inch battery makes for a good beach-house today.

Battery 520 Today

But the really important addition to Fort Moultrie was the Harbor Entrance Control Post (HECP) placed in the fort’s old east bastion.

Sullivan's Island, Fort Moultrie
HECP at Fort Moultrie

From this point, the coast defenders coordinated with Coast Guard and Navy patrols, aircraft, minefield operators, and gunners to protect the harbor.  Several mobile 90-mm anti-aircraft guns provided defense against any enemy submarines and aircraft.

Although the Army left Fort Moultrie in the late 1940s, arguably the work of coastal defense at Sullivan’s Island continues with Coast Guard activity controlling harbor entry.  The threats have changed but there is still a need to defend the coast.

4 thoughts on “A walk through the history of coast defense – Fort Moultrie”

  1. Good overview. This is a great place to visit. You can’t beat a long weekend in Charlston with visits to Patriot’s Point, Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie. Even my daughters enjoyed it!

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