Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Massachusetts

Ship Island came to the forefront of U.S. history during the War of 1812 when a British fleet assembled at Ship Island to prepare for an attack on New Orleans. The troops of Commander Andrew Jackson soundly defeated them, however. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. War Department planned for the construction of an extended system of masonry forts for coastal defense. Ship Island was considered important to the defense of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast because of its deep water harbor and location along a shipping route.

Early in the Civil War, the Confederates seized the unfinished fort on Ship Island. Federal forces regained control of the fort in late 1861 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resumed construction of the fort in 1862. Federal forces used Ship Island as the staging area for their successful capture of New Orleans in the spring of 1862. A hospital, barracks, mess hall and bakery were a few of the 40 buildings constructed during the Civil War. In addition, the Army used the island as a prison camp for captured Confederate troops . It was probably during the Civil War, the fort was first called Massachusetts in honor of the Union blockade ship by the same name.

Masonry forts were designed to withstand the impact of cannonballs fired from smoothbore cannon. But, they were no match for rifled cannon, developed during the Civil War, with greater range, accuracy, and destructive power. The fort that was once a vital part of the nation's coastal defense, is now preserved for the benefit of future generations.

Construction Challenges

Construction of Fort Massachusetts stretched over a seven year period, beginning in 1859 and ending in 1866. During that time, inclement weather, the Civil War and isolation were a few of the many challenges the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faced.

From the start, construction was hampered. Storms and gales destroyed the warehouse, pier, supply vessel and construction materials. After two years of construction, the outer wall of the fort stood only six to eight feet high. The Civil War created even are after problems. In early 1861, Confederate troops seized the unfinished fort and forced the engineers off the island. Building resumed that year after Union troops regained control of the fort. Now the work party was faced with labor shortages, limited local sources for supplies and rising labor costs. The red bricks, slate, and granite had to be shipped from the New England states. The isolation of island living was difficult. Superintending Engineer Palfrey claimed that the men were working at every disadvantage on a most disagreeable island, and in an unhealthy latitude, with the roughest provision for shelter and food.

In light of these challenges, the fort's masonry work is impressive. The ceiling of each room, called a casemate, and passageway is arched or vaulted in order to support the weight of cannon mounted on top of the fort. The outer wall reaches widths of up to eight feet. The concrete foundation extends more than nine feet below sea level. Although several million bricks were used in its construction, the fort contains more concrete than brick.

Fort Massachusetts was one of the last masonry coastal fortifications to be built in the U.S. Although the fort became a victim of advancing military technology, its beauty and craftsmanship remain as symbols of a strong, yet passive coastal defense.

An Invitation To Step Back In Time

Take a stroll through history to see how Fort Massachusetts was planned to oppose enemy naval forces.

1. Sally Port
The fort was designed with only one entrance - the sally port, and although a drawbridge was planned, it was never completed. The word"sally" means to rush forth.

2. Observation Area
To the west is Ship Island Pass, one of the few natural deepwater channels on the Gulf Coast. The channel was part of an important navigation route to and from New Orleans before ships were powered to steam up the Mississippi River. To guard the pass, the island's harbor, and to protect shipping, the United States chose this strategic location to construct Fort Massachusetts. When Fort Massachusetts was completed in 1866, the west end of the island was 500 feet from the fort. Since that time the island has migrated one mile west and sand from dredging projects has been placed on the island to protect the fort from shoreline erosion.

3. Parados and Service Magazines
The upper level of the fort was divided by large earthen embankments, or parados which provided additional protection to the gun positions and storage for powder and ammunition. Four service magazines were completed within this mound.

4 . 15-inch Rodman Cannon
The 15-inch Rodmans were among the largest smoothbore cannon manufactured; the barrel weighs 50,000 pounds. This type of cannon fired a 15-inch diameter cannonball weighing more than 300 pounds, with a range of approximately three miles. In 1873, men, using a system of blocks and tackles, slowly raised two Rodmans over the outside wall and mounted them into position.

5. l00-Pounder Parrot Rifle Positions
Rifled cannon differed from smoothbore cannon in that they fired bullet shaped projectile that would spin. This gave the projectiles greater accuracy, range and penetration power which could destroy masonry forts. Development of rifled cannon was one of the factors that eventually made masonry forts obsolete.

6. Cannon Debris
Although the fort was designed to house 37 cannon, only 17 were mounted. The cannon in the fort eventually became obsolete and were sold for scrap iron in 1901.

7. Stair Tower
The spiraling granite staircase was designed to use less space and provide protection against potential enemy fire.

8. Shot Furnace
This coal-fired furnace was constructed to heat 60 cannonballs. Red-hot ammunition damaged and set ships on fire. Special implements were used to carry hot cannonballs from the furnace to the guns.

Although these rooms were designed to house soldiers, most lived either in tents or in the wooden barracks outside the fort. The north guardroom is used as an information station and book sales area.

9. Guardrooms
Guardrooms, one on either side of the sally port were part of the defense system for the fort's only entrance. The narrow opening in the wall permitted the guards to observe enemy fire and provided cover in the event of a land attack.

10. Powder Magazines
Powder magazines, located next to the guardrooms, were used for storing the fort's supply of black powder. To help keep the powder dry, the magazines were lined with wood. Although local folklore often refers to the powder magazines as dungeons, there is no evidence that they were used for that purpose.

11. Half Bastions
The areas that project out at each end of the east wall, known as half bastions, extended the fort's field of fire for cannon. These half bastions were used to set up a cross fire, if needed, to protect the entrance.

12. Casemates
Thirteen 10-inch Rodman Cannon were mounted in this level of the fort in the late 1860's. The cannon were arranged to fire through the openings in the wall or embrasures which were protected by heavy iron shutters.

Located at the west end of Ship Island, the fort is protected by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Information and books are available in the Guardroom. A Ranger Station, First Aid Room, rest rooms and shade shelters are near Fort Massachusetts. Rest rooms, showers, and shade shelters are also near the South Beach.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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