Researched and Written by John T. Duchesneau.
Center for Fort Preservation and Tourism
The earlist known fort to defend Newport is mentioned in Arnold's History of Rhode Island. This was a battery of guns emplaced near the corner of Thames and Pelham Street in the late 1600's. From this position its guns could command Newport Harbor and engage any vessels which may have entered it.
As Newport's importance as a seaport grew so did its defenses. During Queen Anne's war in 1703 a permanent fortification was built on Goat Island. This position not only controled the harbor itself but its approaches as well.
This fort was progressively expanded and improved throughout its life and was known variously as Fort Anne (1703 - 1724), Fort George (1724 - 1775), Fort Liberty (1775 - 1789), Fort Washington (1789 - 1794) and Fort Wolcott (1794 - 1879). Fort Wolcott (refered to henceforth by this name as it was the name the fort had when it served with Fort Adams) was Newport’s primary means of coastal defense until the new Fort Adams was first garrisoned in 1841.
Fort Wolcott was manned by the state militia until 1794 when it was garrisoned by the United States Army. Ownership of the fort was transfered from the State of Rhode Island to the federal government in 1799. It remained garrisoned continually until 1836 and was finally transfered to the Navy for use as the Naval Torpedo Station in 1879.
The present Fort Adams is actually the third fortification occupy its site (known in colonial times as Brenton’s Point) at the entrance to Newport Harbor. The first was an unnamed earthwork built on the night of April 6th, 1776 to protect Newport Harbor from British warships during the American Revolution. It was armed with one 18, one 9, one 6 and two 4 pounder cannons the same afternoon. On the morning of the 7th a battle began at about 5AM when the fort fired on the H.M.S. Glasgow and a smaller ship which were anchored near Newport harbor. The ships cut their anchor cables and went over the passage to relative safety near Jamestown. Colonel Richmond of the Rhode Island militia fired 35 cannon shots at the ships in the space of half an hour. (Source - The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, Vol. 2 pg 5.)
The earthwork also had a brief exchange of gunfire with the British warships H.M.S. Scarborough and H.M.S. Cimetar while leaving Newport Harbor on the 14th. This action led to Rhode Island being temporarily free from British warships and helped pave the way for the its declaration on independence on May 4th, 1776. The Brenton’s Point battery was active until the British occupation of Newport started on December 8th, 1776.
Due to its key position at the entrance of Newport harbor, both the British and the French maintained the battery as a vital protection for the harbor. After the Revolution the earthwork fell into disuse and its guns, if any remained at that time, were most probably moved to Fort Wolcott on Goat Island.
The years from 1781 and 1794 were uneventful from a military perspective in Rhode Island. In 1794 a French engineer named Stephen Rochfontaine was placed in charge of planning fortifications in the northeast.
After visiting Newport in 1794 Rochfontaine decided that Narragansett Bay should be defended by several forts which included Fort Wolcott on Goat Island, Fort Greene in the Point section of Newport (today known as Battery Park), a fort on the Dumplings in Jamestown, Fort Hamilton on Rose Island (which was never completed) and a fort on Brenton’s Point, as it was referred to in those days, at the entrance to the harbor. (This should not be confused with the location now commonly known as Brenton Point on the Ocean Drive.)
In July of 1794 the U.S. Army stationed a company of artillerists and engineers under the command of Captain William Littlefield at Fort Washington (soon renamed Fort Wolcott) which marked the beginning of a federal military presence in Newport which continues to this day.
Fort Dumpling (also known as Fort Louis or Fort Brown) in Jamestown was more noteable as a landmark than a fortification. It was a round tower about 50 feet in diameter and about 20 feet tall. It stood a a peice of land where the Jamestown Public Works Yard is today. It was a common motif for artists and features in most paintings of the approaches to Newport Harbor made in the 1800's. In an official report in 1811 it was listed as being armed with 10 guns but there is no evidence it was ever garrisoned or figured in defense plans for Newport after the War of 1812.
The new fort on Brenton's Point was designed by Major Louis Tousard (a Frenchman who served as a volunteer in the Continental Army in the Revolution) and was built between 1798 and 1799 and was called Fort Adams after then president John Adams. (To avoid confusion it will hereafter be referred to as Old Fort Adams.) This fort was active through the War of 1812 and mounted seventeen 32 pounder cannons. (Cannons at that time were designated by the weight of the cannonball they fired.)
Old Fort Adams was opened on July 4th, 1799 in an impressive ceremony presided over by Major Tousard. A brief but detailed account of the opening ceremony was in the Newport Mercury newspaper on July 9th, 1799 which records that salutes were fired by the Artillery Company of Newport and that a motto was placed over the entrance to the fort which said - "Fort Adams, the Rock on Which the Storm Will Beat".
The fort's first commanding officer was Captain John Henry of the 2nd Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers (the Artillery and Engineer branches of the Army were united at that time). (Captain Henry's company was the "ancestor" of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment which was an active unit in the U.S. Army as recently as 1991.)
(Captian Henry was stationed at Fort Adams for a short time before being reassigned to Fort Sumner in Portland, Maine. He later became a "secret agent" and shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812 and sold to the Madison Administration correspondence proving that the British were attempting to subvert the established government in the State of Massachusetts. The "Henry Papers" were instrumental in building the public outrage which led to the outbreak of the War of 1812. Henry then left for Europe where his eventual fate was unknown.)
Old Fort Adams was garrisoned only until April 1st, 1802 when reductions in the Army consolidated the two artillery companies assigned to Newport into one company at Fort Wolcott. From that time until the War of 1812 the fort was unmanned. In July of 1814, seeing a growing threat of British warships operating off of the New England coast, the Army had Fort Adams garrisoned by three companies of Rhode Island militiamen (about 200 men total). They were called Wood’s State Corps after their commander, Major John Wood, and would serve at Fort Adams until the war ended early in 1815.
Fort Adams was garrisoned by a comapny of regular Army artillerymen until 1821. From 1821 until 1836 Fort Wolcott was the only garrsioned fort between Boston and New London. In May of 1836 the garrison was withdrawn from Fort Wolcott and Newport's forts were unmanned until the new Fort Adams was garrisoned in 1841.
After the War of 1812 the Army reviewed the fortification needs of the country. (The forts resulting from this review are commonly called the Third System of American forts.) It was decided by the Engineer Board that Newport required a major fortification. Fort Adams was designed for 464 guns, more than any other American fort and is second in size only to Fort Monroe in Virginia.
The designer of Fort Adams (as well as Fort Monroe) was a French engineer officer named Simon Bernard (1779 - 1839). Bernard, who had served as a lieutenant general of engineers under Napoleon, was given the rank and pay of a brigadier general in return for his services as a military engineering consultant. He served in this capacity from 1816 to 1830. Bernard was a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique and had studied the fortification techniques of the French masters Vauban and Montalembert and incorporated many of their ideas into the design of Fort Adams. This was the primary factor in making Fort Adams a showcase of fortification technology.
Work was started in August of 1824 under First Lieutenant Andrew Talcott of the Army Corps of Engineers and on February 22nd, 1825 Major (soon promoted to Lieutenant Colonel) Joseph G. Totten (1788 - 1864) arrived to superintend the project.
An 1805 graduate of West Point, Totten had learned advanced engineering and fortification techniques from Bernard while they both served on the Engineer Board. This made Totten aware of the most advanced theories in fortification design and construction.
Totten is considered to be one of the foremost American born engineers of his day. In addition to military projects he also did a lot of civil engineering work like building dams and breakwaters and also designed the famous Minot’s Ledge lighthouse in Massachusetts - considered to be one of the greatest engineering achievements of the nineteenth century. In December of 1838 Totten left Newport to assume the position of Chief Engineer of the Army which position he held until his death in 1864 at the rank of Brigadier General.
The construction of the stone work of Fort Adams was overseen by Alexander MacGregor, a Scotsman and master mason. MacGregor would spend the rest of his life in Newport and would die in 1870. His other works of note in Newport include the Perry Mill, the Newport Artillery armory and the Swanhurst mansion.
The labor force to construct the fort was supplied by over 300 Irish immigrant laborers who came over in search of a better life in the new world. The Army advertised for laborers in Ireland offering free passage to the United States and gainful employment. These workers were the beginning of Newport’s large and proud Irish-American community who established Saint Joseph’s parish (later renamed Saint Mary’s) in 1828 which has the distinction of being the oldest Roman Catholic parish in Rhode Island.
If there is one factor which makes Fort Adams more distinctive than any other American forts of its day it is that Fort Adams is a living example of the highest evolution of masonry fortification. Among the features to be found at Fort Adams are an underground network of tunnels, listening galleries, the only two tennailles (small fortifications designed to disperse attacking forces and provide additional protection to the fort's walls), reverse fire galleries and a redoubt (a small fort to defend the landward approaches to the fort). While most of theses features can be found elsewhere, Fort Adams is the only American fort where they are all found as part of conprehensive fortification system.
Fort Adams was mostly completed by August 25th, 1841 when the fort was first garrisoned by two companies of the Second U.S. Artillery under the command of Major Matthew M. Payne. A report of 1851 records the forts armament as consisting of 200 cannons of three major kinds - 32 pounders (32’s), 24 pounders (24’s) and flank howitzers. These were three common types of cannon until the Civil War when more modern artillery pieces were developed. The 32’s were designed to fire at ships at long range (about a mile and a half) and the 24’s at medium range (about one mile). The flank howitzers were designed to defend the fort against attacking infantry (foot soldiers) and fired canister shot which was a metal can filled with musket balls. The canister shot was effective to about 300 yards and would probably disable any soldier who got in its path.
The fort would be garrisoned continually until 1853 when it was placed in caretaking status until 1857. During this period the copnstruction of the fort was completed including the redoubt built about one quarter of a mile south of the main fort. The redoubt was constucted under the supervision of Lieutenant Issac I. Stevens who would become a Brigadier General in the Union Army during the Civil War and be killed at the battle of Chantilly, Virginia in 1862.
In 1857 the fort was garrisoned by Company I of the 1st Artillery under the command of Captain (Brevet Lieutenant Colonel) John B. Magruder. Magruder practiced his native southern hospitality and made Fort Adams a center for social events. Contemporary newspaper accounts record that the sound of music could be heard in downtown Newport coming from Fort Adams. Magruder is reputed to have used Fort Dumpling in Jamestown for target practice although the bulk of the old fort remained until it was demolished in November of 1898 to make room for Fort Wetherill. When the Civil War broke out Magruder resigned from the Army to take a commission with the Confederate Army. In this capacity he rose to the rank of Major General and, after the war he was commissioned to the same rank in the Mexican Army. Magruder and his company departed in 1859 and the fort reverted to caretaking status until the Civil War.
After the attack on Fort Sumter in April of 1861 Governor Sprague of Rhode Island ordered the Old Guard of the Newport Artillery Company (the Old Guard consisted of members of the Artillery Company who were too old or disabled to join the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of which the younger members of the Artillery Company formed Company F) to stand guard at the fort to deter any would be saboteurs. The Old Guard stood watch until May 9th when the famed frigate U.S.S. Constitution (also known as “Old Ironsides”) arrived with the U.S. Naval Academy on board. The academy was moved from Annapolis, Maryland for fear of invasion by the Confederates. This arrangement lasted only until September of 1861 when the academy was moved to the more comfortable Atlantic House hotel at the corner of Pelham Street and Bellevue Avenue. Fort Adams served as the headquarters of the Fifteenth U.S. Infantry Regiment from October 1862 until the end of the war. Many soldiers passed through Fort Adams before seeing combat in the war.
From August to October of 1863 Fort Adams was under the command of Brigadier General Robert Anderson. Anderson was a national hero for his noble stand at Fort Sumter at the beginning of the war and was in poor health which prevented him from active service at the front. He was assigned to Fort Adams in hope that he would recover sufficiently but this was not to be. In late October Anderson realized that he was incapable of active service and retired from the Army at his own request.
After the Civil War Fort Adams returned to its primary function as a major coastal artillery fort. Although the number of troops stationed here varied the fort typically had a regimental headquarters responsible for all coastal fortifications in New England and was usually commanded by a colonel. Periodically the garrison would be rotated as the two primary assignments for an artillery unit of the time were garrisoning coastal fortifications and fighting the native Americans out west. As the former duty was as easy as the latter was hard the army had a rotation policy to reward the efforts of those who served in the west and to prevent the coastal garrisons from becoming too complacent.
During this time the armament of Fort Adams underwent significant changes. The old 32 and 24 pounder smoothbores, despite some being converted to rifles, were obsolete and were disposed of soon after the war. More modern guns were brought to the fort including four 100 pounder (6.4 inch) Parrott rifles, thirteen 10 inch Rodmans and eleven 15 inch Rodmans.
The 15 inch Rodman was developed shortly before the Civil War and was the largest and most powerful piece of ordnance in the Army until modern rifled artillery was developed in the late 1800's. Two were mounted on the southwest parapet of the exterior front of Fort Adams. Additional pieces were mounted to the south of the fort where Endicott period batteries were later installed. The massive Rodmans were finally scraped in 1904. Surviving specemins may be seen at Fort Knox in Bucksport, Maine, Forts Sumter and Moultrie near Charlestown, South Carolina and Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland.