Paper Type

Master's Thesis


College of Arts and Sciences

Degree Name

Master of Arts in History (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. Dale Clifford

Second Advisor

Dr. David Courtwright

Third Advisor

Dr. Daniel Schafer


The United States government created America's third coastal defense system during the early-to-mid nineteenth century based upon the recommendations of the Board of Engineers of 1816. The engineers of 1816 believed the most economical means of protecting America was the construction of large, permanent forts along key areas of America's coast.

Union forces under Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore seized Fort Pulaski in April of 1862. Pulaski was one of the most formidable forts built under the third system. Gillmore required two months to install the weapons used against Pulaski; most of the time was spent installing smoothbore Columbiads, the standard breaching weapon of the day. Yet the weapons that destroyed Pulaski were lighter, rifled guns. Gillmore attributed the fort's destruction to rifled weapons, and found the smoothbore guns practically worthless during the engagement.

All forts built by Southern engineers prior to the fall of Pulaski, prior to the proof of the superiority of rifled weapons over permanent works, were earthen forts. Masonry's obsolescence was not a factor in the decision to build earthen works. The South needed forts immediately, for it faced an enemy that had invaded its soil and established a base on its shores. The change in construction material from masonry to earth was not in response to the recognition of a new threat, the rifled weapon, but because the Confederacy lacked the time and resources to build forts like Pulaski.

Earthen forts like Fort McAllister, Georgia, were able to withstand repeated attacks by the United States Navy and emerged unscathed. The largest guns in Federal service, 15" Columbiads, were used on several occasions against McAllister. The fort did not fall until assaulted by a greatly superior land force.

Although the lessons provided by earthen forts did not change the immediate future of coastal defenses, they did have an impact later in the nineteenth century. Under the Endicott system of the 1880s, engineers constructed coastal forts as one-tier works with dispersed batteries. The materials used were earth and reinforced concrete. By the tum of the century the impressive forts of the third system were abandoned in favor of the Endicott forts.

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