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In 1816 our population was eight millions; we had just come out of a trying and expensive war with the most powerful nation in the world; our soil had been invaded, the Capitol burned, towns had been besieged, villages laid waste, and the people greatly harassed by the presence among them of an insolent foe.
The application of steam' as a motive power, even to river craft, was but an experiment, and men had not yet waked from their dream in which they first saw upon the ocean visions of steam navigation. Railroads had not then begun to thread themselves over the country, nor had the first telegraphic wire streaked the horizon. The country had been and might again be invaded; the alarm could be spread only at the rate of one hundred miles a day; and to repel the enemy our generals could bring up their forces only at the rate of what, in this day of steam and railroad car, would be considered as a snail's pace; twenty miles was a good day's march for an army.
Under these circumstances, with the horrors of war and the dread of invasion fresh in the minds of the people, it was natural that the attention of the government should be directed to a system of detence along our borders which, in another war, should make the weak points strong, the salient impregnable, and the exposed, the rich, and the tempting secure; thus rendering the country in another war safe from invasion. Accordingly, the plan was to line the seaboards with forts and castles, which should oppose the advances of the enemy, beat him back, resist sieges, and support garrisons for defence, until re-enforcements should arrive or the patience and the energies of the assailants should become exhausted. Under these circumstances the present system of fortifications was commenced.
For defending the approaches to any particular part of the coast, the engineer, in planning his works, had to take into account the importance to us of the place to be defended; the importance which the enemy would probably attach to its occupation by himself; and the force that he would or could, probably, bring against it. Also an element which entered largely into the engineer's plans was the kind of force, the calibre of guns, &c., that his fort would have to withstand.
But since that time great changes have taken place. The relative importance of ports and harbors, and places to be defended along the coast, has greatly changed. The implements of warfare and the means of attack and defence have changed; structures that were well calculated to resist the batteries of the best appointed ships in 1816, would now tumble down before the appliances of modern warfare. The improvements which have since taken place in ships, their armaments and locomotion, are vast; and therefore works may be found along our coast which, though sufficient in their day, would now be wholly inadequate to the purpose for which they were intended.
At best, a fort can actually defend so much of the coast only as lies within the range
of its guns; outside of this and enemy may disembark an army, land his heavy ordnance in the very sight of the strongest castle, as we our. selves have since done at Vera Cruz, and proceed to invest, from the rear, the strongholds of the country. It was therefore practicable for a bold and dashing enemy, notwithstanding the powerful and costly works at Old Point Comfort, in Virginia, to land in sight of these works an army, in Lynn Haven bay, march up to Norfolk without coming in reach of the protecting battery, and invest the city and the navy yard—the very places the guns of these forts were intended to protect.
True, it was practicable to erect works of defence at Lynn Haven bay; but being erected, the sagacity of our engineers perceived there were still other places and times at which an enemy might land and march up to Norfolk without once coming in range of the Lynn Haven guns. The country saw this, and perceived that effectually to prevent an enemy of naval resources from landing on our coast in war would require a structure but little short of a
Chinese wall, with bastions mounting guns to range and rake every point, from one end of our extended sea-front to the other.
Solomon's exchequer could not withstand the drafts which such a complete system of defence would make upon the treasury; and neither the minds of the people nor the purse of the public was prepared to incur it. Accordingly, the most important points were selected for fortifications, which, even if completed, would not have protected the country from invasion; they would only have prevented the enemy from anchoring with his fleet in the most safe roadsteads, and from landing with his forces at the most convenient places, and from battering down our cities with the guns of his men-of-war.
And upon the carrying out of this system, as incomplete as it necessarily was, there was involved, according to the estimates of the most skilful and accomplished engineers, a sum of money which it would be difficult for the imagination to conceive, for it required eight or nine places of figures to comprehend it, so enormous was the amount.
While this system, expensive and defective as it was, was in progress, commenced those changes in the country to which I have alluded; a change of population from eight to twenty odd millions, in the means of spreading the alarm of an intended invasion; a change from the signal fire on the mountain and the horse and his rider, to the fiery footed messenger of heaven, to raise the. country. For the foot pace of twenty miles a day, as the weary rate of our advancing armies, a change which ties infantry, cavalry, and artillery all to the tail of the iron horse, mounts them on railroads, and speeds off with them at the rate of twenty times twenty miles a day, with the ability to land them at the appointed place at the appointed time, refreshed with the ride and ready for battle; a change in ordnance and missiles of death, which are far more destructive and much more terrible in battle than any ever known in the annals of military warfare, Anno domini 1816.
These changes are enough to revolutionize the system of coast defences.. They have rendered effete in part the system of 1816.
Railroads are now already completed, or actually in process of construction, leading from New York up among the granite hills of New England—back to the lakes and beyond the mountains—cuts the great Miami bottom, and spread.. ing themselves out over the rich prairies beyond.
From Norfolk they go north and south, and are ramifying themselves far: away into the back country, with the intent of reaching the very heart of the nation in the good valley of the west.
Now, were it possible for an enemy, with the greatest army that ever was led. into battle by the greatest captain, to take the country by surprise, and to land at Long Island sound, or in Lynn Haven bay, and to be disembarking his last piece of artillery before he was discovered, these railroads, the power of steam, with the aid of lightning, would enable the government, before he could reach the heights of Brooklyn, or the outskirts of Norfolk, to have there in waiting: and ready to receive him and beat him back into the sea, a force two to one greater than his, however strong.
Suppose that in 1847 there had been in active operation between Vera Cruz and the city of Mexico a line of magnetic telegraph and such a railroad as is. the Erie road of New York, can it be supposed that our generals, being cogni-. zant of the facts, would have so much as entertained the idea of landing there as they did and laying siege to the town. All the world knows where our railroads are, and that the country is
protected from military surprise and invasion from the sea by a net-work of telegraphic wires; the mere knowledge of the fact that Norfolk and New York. can bring to their defence such resources will forever prevent even the thought in the mind of an enemy of landing in force at Lynn Haven bay or on Long Island.
Those roads, therefore, render a siege to any of the works of defence before those places out of the question.
To lay siege to any place aloug our sea-front involves not only the disembarking of an army, but the landing also of the siege-train. This requires time.
From the time that the head of our invading column jumped out of the boats, up to their waists in the water, at Vera Cruz, till General Scott was ready to send his summons to the city, was thirteen days, and it was four days more before his heavy artillery drew overtures from the besieged-total, seventeen days.
Imagine an army, the best equipped it may be the world ever saw, that should attempt to beleaguer one of our strongholds for seventeen days. Within that time we could bring against him, by railroads and steamboats, millions of the freemen, which this country ever holds in reserve, to fight its battles. It might be Boston, before which this imaginary army is supposed to set down in imaginary siege, or it may be New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Charleston, or New Orleans—it is immaterial where. In less than half the Vera Cruz time we could throw millions of men into any one of these places, and subsist them, in the meantime, by a daily market train of cars and steamboats, catering for .them in the abundant markets of the Mississippi valley.
It is impossible that any army, however brave, spirited, and daring, should •ever think of invading a country like this; and attacking us upon our own ground, when we have under our command such powers of concentration and such force in reserve as twenty millions of freemen, the electric telegraph, the railroad car, the locomotive, and the steamboat.
The present system of fortifying the coast is founded on the principle of making the fortifications “strong in proportion to the value of the great objects to be secured.'*
This is the principle upon which every system of national defence must rest; and as to this principle itself there can be no difference of opinion. The question is, in what shall the strength of a fortification consist? For a fortification that is strong against the most powerful weapons and modes of attack known to our age may be weak before those that the inventions and improvements of another age may call forth.
In the feudal times castles were built to enable those within to withstand the attack of spearsmen and archers. These old castles were strong in their day, but in ours they are impotent and of no avail.
The fortifications of 1816 were built to withstand the armaments which were mounted upon the ships of that day; and what were they?
In 1812 the Duke of Wellington, when preparing to besiege Badajos, wrote to Admiral Berkley, commanding the Lisbon station, to request the loan of twenty twenty-four pounders from the fleet. Admiral Berkley, in reply to the request for twenty-four pounders, stated that no ship under his command carried guns of so hearý a nature; but offered to supply twenty eighteen pounders, with carriages and ammunition complete.f It would be difficult to find now-adays any ship in any fleet with guns so small as a twenty-four pounder.
Now it has been proven, or made probable, that it is practicable to put on board ships, carry to sea with safety, and manage with effect, long guns with a calibre for shot of one hundred and thirty-five pounds at least; and it would be as reasonable to expect a fortification which was built to resist shot of eighteen or twenty-four, or even of thirty-two or forty-two pounds, to withstand the concussion of shot of one hundred and thirty-five pounds weight as it would be to
Sev report of the board of army officers, 1840, on the millitary defences of the country—a paper that is drawn with great ability, and to which I shall occasionally refer. It is contained in Pub. Doc. No. 206, House of Reps., 1st session 26th Congress.
† Journal of Sieges in Spain and Portugal, vol. 1, p. 145.
expect a thirty-two pounder to strike harmlessly against a wall which was built only to resist a ten pound shot.
In 1816 our fortifications had to be provided with the means of withstanding sieges. Hence, they were required to be as strong in the rear as in the front, and to be equally invulnerable from every direction. But now steam and electricity render our seaboard fortifications invulnerable in the rear and protect them against sieges. Attempts to carry by storm may be made; but as for an enemy who sees and understands, as the leader of every army must see and understand, the powers of concentration which steam gives us—as for such an enemy to think of setting down before one of our strongholds and proceeding regularly to invest it, by executing parallels, building fascines, digging trenches, throwing up enbankments, making approaches and the like, it is out of the question. Our railroads perfectly protect the entire coast line from Maine to Georgia from any such attempt. We may be blockaded by sea, and harassed from ships, but we cannot be beleagured on the land.
These are the changes which have rendered necessary a change in the whole system of national defence, and the chief stationary works of defence which we now want along the Atlantic seaboard, are those that will protect our cities and touns from the great guns of big ships.
We may admit, in imagination, now, a dashing enemy again into the Chesapeake; we may suppose him landed, with all his forces, and to be, without opposition, in the act of taking up his line of march again for this city,
Now, is it not obvious—supposing the country to be in a reasonable state of preparation at the commencement of war-supposing this much, is it not obvious, by sending telegraphic messages, and using the powers of steam for conveyance, the American general might sit down here, in Washington, and at daylight the next morning commence an attack upon that enemy, both in front and in rear, with almost any amount of force, consisting of regulars, volunteers, and militia, that can be named. Retreat, for such a foe, would be out of the question, and re-embarkation an impossibility.
Therefore, so far as the system of 1816 was intended to defend the country from invasion along the Atlantic seaboard, steam, railroads, and the telegraph have rendered it as effete as did the invention of fire-arms the defences which the military science of that age had erected against the shafts of the archer.
It is not going too far to say that, as for invasion, we might raze every fortification along the Atlantic coast without exposing the country to the danger of being overrun by an enemy in war. He might, in such a case, take possession of our seaports, destroy our dock yards and arsenals, and do an incalculable amount of mischief, but as for his venturing to leave the strongholds on the seabord, and attempting to penetrate, even for a few miles into the interior, would be out of the question.
He would be besieged from the moment of his landing; he might return to us our cities in ruins, our dock yards in ashes; but as for invading the country, and marching his armies over it from place to place, our steam machines forbid it. Hence I maintain, we now want fortifications only to do what railroads and steam never can, viz: as before said, to protect our seaport towns from the great guns of big ships.
Suppose the system of 1816 to have been completed; that the fortifications therein contemplated had all been built, provisioned, equipped, and garrisoned. Now, saving only those which protect the large cities from the guns of men-ofwar, suppose the alternative should be presented to our military men, whether they would undertake to defend the country from invasion, with such a complete system of fortifications, but without the assistance of railroads, steamers, and telegraph, or with the assistance of railroads, steamers, and telegraph, but without the aid of the fortifications.
I suppose, could such an alternative be submitted to every officer of the army, from the oldest down to the youngest, that there would be but one answer, and that would be, "down with the forts, and give us the railroad, the locomotive, the steamboat, and the telegraph."
I do not mean to advance the opinion that railroads, steam, and the telegraph, with the military powers of concentration which they give us, have rendered fortifications entirely useless. By no means: steam and electromagnetism on the land can do but little against the tremendous power of armed ships on the water; and if these can bring any one of our large cities within the reach of their guns, its destruction is inevitable, despite all that the powers of the locoour motive and the telegraph can do. It is chiefly to keep such ships from burning cities and havens, within reach of their broadsides, that we want forts and castles.
Therefore seeing that, in 1816, when the present system of defending the coast was planned, railroads and the magnetic telegraph were unknown, they now ought to involve modifications of that system. In military operations they are powerful auxiliaries. They introduce new elements and new features into the arts of war; they bear upon the whole system of attack and defence. They, therefore, cannot fail to make necessary certain modifications in any system of coast defence which was planned without regard to them.
With this exposition of my views, I proceed to answer your first question, viz:
“1. To what extent, if any, ought the present system of fortifications for the protection of our seaboard to be modified, in consequence of the application of steam to vessels-of-war, the invention or improvement of projectiles, or other changes that have taken place since it was adopted in the year 1816 ?"
Let us first consider the modification applicable to the Atlantic seaboard, and then those that are applicable to the Pacific.
The only fortifications that are wanted along our Atlantic seaboard, except those at Key West and the Tortugas, at Ship island, and at one or two more such places, are those which will protect our cities and towns from the broadsides of men-of-war.
The forts already completed, or well advanced towards completion, are believed to be sufficient for this. T'hey should, however, be mounted with heavier ordnance, and pieces of the most effective calibre for throwing explosive shot and shells.
In 1840, the House of Representatives, by resolution of April 9th, called upon the War Department for a report-among other things, "of a full and connected system of national defence."
The subject was referred to a board of engineer officers, who presented their views in a masterly manner.
I have before referred to this well-drawn paper, and shall have frequent occasion to refer to it again. That report sustains the system of 1816. The source whence it comes entitles it to far more weight than is attached to any of my opinions. Nevertheless, honestly differing with that board in some of its positions, I hope I may be permitted to express that difference of opinion without laying myself liable to the charge, from any quarter, of want of respect for the distinguished officers who composed that board.
That report, which is by far the most able paper that I have seen in favor of the system of 1816, does not contemplate any guns for our fortifications heavier than a forty-two pounder, or an eight-inch howitzer; of course I speak technically, and do not allude to mortars.
It may be considered as a fact pretty well established, that two or three erplosive nine or ten-inch shells, well aimed and properly planted, are enough to tear out the side of the largest ship, and completely to disable, if not wholly to destroy her.
I quote from the experiments made with nine-inch explosive shot, in the harbor of Brest, upon the Pacificateur, an eighty-gun ship.*
Vide an account of experiments made in the French navy for the trial of shell guns, &c., by J. H. Paixban s Lieutenant Colouel-translated from the French by Lieutenant John A. Dablgren, U. S. N.