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Fort Wood, New York..
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Total at the forts
Report of General J. G. Totten.
WASHINGTON, November 1, 1851. Sir: In obedience to your orders of April 17, I have the honor to present my views and opinions on the subject embraced in the first of the resolutions adopted by the House of Representatives on the 3d March last in relation to the permanent fortifications of the country,
I shall successively take up the points which you have made particular subjects of inquiry, though I foresee that I may need your indulgence for some time, using a rather broad license in connecting them with collateral topics. I hope, also, to have your indulgence for occasionally quoting from a report on national de fence, made by a board of officers to the Secretary of War on the 10th of May, 1840. I have the less hesitation in thus quoting, since that report was written by myself, and its statements and opinions have been confirmed by all my subsequent meditation on the subject. As I shall, however, repeat herein a part only of what is therein set forth, and as that report goes into a pretty full discussion of the whole subject, and was concurred in by several experienced officers, whose countenance and support gives to it, indeed, all its authority, I would respectfully urge the whole report upon your attention. It is to be found in House Document No. 206, 1st session 26th Congress.
The remarks made by Mr. Secretary Poinsett, when laying the report before Congress, as given in the same document, seem to me worthy of full consideration.
I do not consider it necessary to urge the point that wars may again visit us, and wars moreover with powerful nations. All the questions of the Secretary assume this as possibility at least, as do the resolutions of Congress calling for this inquiry. How much soever a nation may love peace, and however well disposed to preserve it by moderation, justice, and impartiality, it is not less true now than it ever has been that the interests and honor of nations cannot always be made to run in parallel courses, and that jostling and interference are the more apt to occur where there is the closer proximity by position or by the relations of trade and business.
Within the last fifteen years four or five times has this country, owing to some question suddenly rising into importance, been surprised to find itself on the very verge of war with the most powerful nations of the earth. And the latent spirit, not to say belligerent aptitude, on either side, has not always been quite satisfied that the concessions made for peace have not purchased it at too high a price. The point of honor will always, when really touched, as it ever has done, keep with nations as with men the point of interest in subjection. And a hackneyed adage shows that it is ever deemed not less important with nations than with men that there should at all times be obvious preparation and readiness to defend both honor and interest. It is, therefore, notwithstanding certain theories of the day and public declarations that the age of strife and warfare has passed away, only reasonable and prudent to assume that a state of war may exist, and to inquire in what way a powerful enemy may wage it against us. He may do som
1. By attacking our commerce and navigation upon the ocean. As, how. ever, no military preparation on the shores can avert this danger, and the means of meeting it must be purely naval, these means do not now fall under consideration; or,
2. By assailing some one or more important point or points of the coast with a large military and naval force, with a view to immediate damage or more or less protracted occupation; or,
3. By suddenly appearing with a large squadron of vessels before our principal commercial cities, laying them under contribution, and burning or carrying off the shipping, and by making powerful attacks upon our navy yards in order to destroy those establishments; or,
4. By attacks upon smaller towns and establishments of the coast with small squadrons or single vessels, or with privateers, capturing the shipping therein, and levying contributions, and by like means intercepting the interior commerce within the bays, sounds, and estuaries of the coast; these lesser enterprises being often conducted under the countenance and support of considerable fleets.
The danger may take any of these forms, or all of them. And against any or all of these a naval force of equal or greater strength, if it could with any certainty be found at hand, might be an adequate resort, though it would not be the most economical. But, in the first place, we are yet and shall be for years inferior in our naval preparation to nations with which we are likely to be in conflict; and next, if we were even far superior, it would be impossible to have, at each of the points to be guarded, a naval force sufficient to secure it, because a hostile squadron of twenty or thirty sail of the line and war steamers would fall with equal ease on either of the important points, and could with no more certainty be expected at one than at another; so that, to resist successfully, we must be ready at each and all, with a force not less than that of the enemy; if less, an unavailing resistance would but augment the calamitous consequences.
An enemy's squadron, assembled at Halifax or Bermuda, must be equally looked for at every important point from the Penobscot to New Orleans, inclusive, for it could with equal ease fall upon either. The same would be true, moreover, of such a force assembled in any Atlantic port of Europe.
Having seen the modes in which we may be assailed, and that no navy we are likely to possess can supply the requisite guarantees, the first question of the Secretary of War leads us to inquire, to what extent we may be aided by our numerous and multiplying railroads. This question is in the following words:
How far the invention and extension of railroads have superseded or diminished the necessity of fortifications on the seaboard?
If there are cases in which fortifications will be aided by these roads—cases in which works of less strength and efficiency may be relied on, because such aid can be afforded in moments of need—there are many others in which any such aid as they could supply would be useless, and many also to which railroads can have no application.
In very rare cases, a fort lying near existing or probable railroads may also occupy a position exposing it to a besieging army. In such a case, undoubtedly, a railroad would have a direct influence; and the strength and cost of the fort would of course be materially lessened, in consequence of the rapidity with which the railroad would bring succor.
In most cases, however, forts are not liable to a siege, nor to any attack that will keep an enemy more than a few hours before them; they are required, by sudden action, to defend the passage of a river or a channel leading to important objects, or to prevent an enemy's squadron from seizing, or cannonading, or bombarding ships, navy yards, cities, &c.—duties to be accomplished only by heavy artillery in its various forms. The question whether the various forms of heavy artillery will be better placed for this purpose within forts or vessels will be examined hereafter; but that this artillery, however arranged, is the only effectual instrument of defence, admits no doubt. This artillery being in adequate numbers, properly placed, sufficiently manned, out of the reach of seizure by the enemy, and too powerful to be silenced by him—all conditions indispensable, whether in communication with railroads or not-is prepared with all useful accessories and ready for its great functions, independent of any aid to be supplied from without.
It happens, moreover, that few of the points necessarily occupied for this defence are so situated as to be benefited by railroads, unless the latter be constructed with the exclusive purpose of communicating with them; and some are wholly unapproachable by such means, were they ever so necessary.
As it is undoubtedly true that these communications, even as they now exist, may bring with much rapidity militia and volunteers from the interior, and from lateral sources, to many points of the coast, it may be worth while to examine a little more in detail, whether such use could be made of these superadded numbers as to justify dependence on them for defence against a powerful enemy.
Suppose a hostile fleet to be in front of the city of New York, which nothing would prevent if the channels of approach were not fortified, in what way could the 100,000 or 200,000 new men poured into the city and environs by railroads, although armed with muskets and field-pieces, aid the half million of people already there? It seems to me very clear that these additional forces would, like the population proper of the city, be utterly powerless in the way of resistance, with any means at their command; and if resistance were attempted by the city would but serve to swell the list of casualties unless they should at once retreat beyond the range of fire. If the enemy's expedition were intended, according to the second supposed mode of attack, for invasion or occupation for some time of a portion of the country, then in many places this resource of railroads would be of value; because then the duty of defence would fall upon the army and militia of the country, and these communications would swell their numbers.
But of all the circumstances of danger to the coast this chance of an attempt by an enemy to land and march any distance into a populous district is least to be regarded, whether there be or be not such speedy mode of receiving reinforcements, and our system of fortifications has little to do with any such danger. In preparing against maritime assaults the security of the points to be covered is considered to be greatly augmented whenever the defence can be so arranged as to oblige an enemy to land at some distance: for the reason that opportunity is thereby allowed, in the only possible way, for the spirit and enterprise of the people to come into play.
Instead of being designed to prevent a landing upon any part of the coast, as many seem to suppose, and some to allege in proof of extravagant views on the part of the system of defence, the system often leaves this landing as an open alternative to the enemy, and aims so to cover the really important and dangerous points as to necessitate a distant landing and a march towards the object through the people. It is because the expedition would otherwise easily accomplish its object, without landing and without allowing the population to partake in the defence, that the fortifications are resorted to. For instance, without Fort Delaware, or some other fort low down in Delaware bay, an enemy could place his fleet of steamers in front of Philadelphia by the time his appearance on the coast had been well announced throughout the city. And in spite of all New Jersey, Delaware, and lower Pennsylvania he could levy his contributions and burn the navy yard shipping, and be away in a few hours. But being obliged, by the fort above mentioned, to land full forty miles below the city, the resistance to his march may be safely left to the courage and patriotism that will find ample time to array themselves in opposition.
À distant landing is deemed to be a great advantage to the defence in all cases; and in populous districts, if the forts be sufficient for this particular duty, it makes the security complete.
It is no part of the task assumed by the system of fortifications to guard against the invasion and protracted occupation of a well-peopled district, or of a point around which the forces of the country could be soon rallied. In such
attempts railroads would accelerate the issues; but even the common modes of conveyance would soon bring forces enough to overwhelm them.
But there are places important in themselves, or necessary to the general welfare, that have not the advantage of a large population at hand or within call, and which may nevertheless be very tempting objects to an enterprising enemy. The navy yard at Pensacola will, for instance, in time of war, be of infinite value in reference to the commerce of the Gulf of Mexico. Its destruction would therefore be a great object with a maritime enemy, and it has accordingly been so fortified as to be safe from a coup de main, or, at any rate, will be so when the little remaining to do is complete. A hostile expedition adequate to the reduction of these defences would, however, be able to exclude all relief approaching laterally from the Mississippi, and there is no help to be supplied from the neighborhood, and none but very tardy succor to come from the interior; so that an enemy would find time to reduce the forts established on the islands at the mouth of the bay.
This case illustrates one aspect of the influence of railroads on the coast defence of the United States. While there is no such road by which succor can come from the interior, the security of the harbor and navy yard of Pensacola must depend wholly on the strength and state of readiness of the defences, naval and military, at the mouth of the harbor, there being no neighboring population; and these defences will be liable to a somewhat prolonged as well as powerful attack, giving time for sieges of several days duration.
With a railroad extending into the interior of Alabama, an attacking force, though large, would have to confine itself to comparatively brief and hurried operations, even thongh a short siege may be considered out of the question. But although such a railroad were made, a sudden onslaught would suffice for the destruction of the naval establishments (if there were no fortification) whenever the attacking naval force were larger than that which might be present for defence; that is to say, whenever we had not a large squadron present. As before said, the railroad can supply none of the means of resisting such attacks.
Without fortifications no existing or projected railroad would do anything towards the protection of New Orleans against a squadron of armed steamers; and not more could such communications do for Mobile or for the hundreds of large vessels that lie in the mouth of Mobile bay awaiting cargoes. There are, moreover, very great points in our system of sea-coast defence that derive their importance much more from their general relation to and bearing on general commerce and the security of large portions of the coast than from local interests. Narraganset road, Delaware Breakwater harbor, Hampton roads, Cumberland sound, (Georgia,) Key West, and the Tortugas, are points of this character; and neither of these would derive material aid from any existing or probable railroad communications. It is proper here to say something of these relations.
Narraganset bay.-As a harbor this is acknowledged by all to be the best on the whole coast of the United States, and it is the only close man-of-war harbor that is accessible with a northwest wind, the prevailing and most violent wind of the inclement season. Numerous boards and commissions—sometimes composed of naval officers, sometimes of army officers, sometimes of officers of both services—have at different times had the subject of this roadstead under consideration, and all have concurred in recommending in strong terms that it be made a place of naval rendezvous and repair, if not a great naval depotone or more of these commissions preferring it for the latter purpose to all other positions. These recommendations have not been acted on, but it is next to certain that a war would force their adoption upon the government. With the opening of this anchorage properly defended, hardly a vessel-of-war of ours could come, either singly or in small squadrons, upon the coast in the boisterous season without armning at this port, on account of the comparative certainty of