previous next

The value and Necessity of sea-coast Defences.

It is unnecessary to specify examples from the wars of the French Revolution; the whole history of these wars is one continued proof of the superiority of fortifications as a maritime frontier defence. The sea-coast of France is almost within stone's throw of the principal British naval depots; here were large towns and harbors, filled with the rich commerce of the world, offering the dazzling attraction of rich booty. The French navy was at this time utterly incompetent to their defence, while England supported a maritime force at an annual expense of near ninety millions of dollars. Her largest fleets were continually cruising within sight of these seaports, and not unfrequently attempting to cut out their shipping. ‘"At this period,"’ says one of her naval historians, ‘"the naval force of Britain, so multiplied and so expert from long practice, had acquired an intimate knowledge of their (the French) harbors, their bays and creeks; her officer knew the depth of water, and the resistance likely to be met with in every situation."’ On the other hand, these harbors and towns were frequently stripped of their garrisons by the necessities of distant wars, being left with no other defence than their fortifications and militia.--And yet, notwithstanding all this, they escaped unharmed during the entire contest.--They were frequently attacked, and in some instances the most desperate efforts were made to effect a permanent lodgement; but in no case was the success at all commensurate with the expense of life and treasure sacrificed, and no permanent hold was made on either the maritime frontiers of France or her allies. This certainly was owing to no inferiority of skill and bravery on the part of the British Navy, as the battles of Aboukir and Trafalgar, and the almost total annihilation of the French marine, have but too plainly proven. Why, then, did these places escape? We know of no other reason than that they were fortified, and that the French knew how to defend their fortifications. The British maritime expeditions to Quiberon, Holland, Boulogne, the Scheldt, Constantinople, Buenos Ayres, etc., sufficiently prove the ill success and the waste of life and treasure with which they must always be attended. But when her naval power was applied to the destruction of the enemy's marine, and in transporting their land forces to solid bases of operations on the soil of her allies, in Portugal and Belgium, the fall of Napoleon crowned the glory of their achievements.

Let us now examine the several British naval attacks on our own forts, in the wars of the Revolution and of 1812.

In 1779, Sir Peter Parker, with a British fleet of nine vessels, carrying about two hundred and seventy guns, attacked Fort Moultre, in Charleston harbor, which was then armed with only twenty-six guns, and garrisoned only by three hundred and seventy-five regulars, and a few militia. In this contest the British were entirely defeated, and lost, in killed and wounded two hundred and five men, while their whole two hundred and seventy guns killed and wounded only thirty-two men in the fort. Of this trial of strength, which was certainly a fair one, Cooper, in his Naval History says: ‘"It goes fully to prove the important military proposition, that ships cannot withstand forts, when the latter are properly armed, constructed and garrisoned."’ Gen. Moultrie says only thirty rounds from the battery were fired, and was of opinion that the want of powder alone prevented the Americans from destroying the men-of-war.

In 1814, a British fleet of four vessels, carrying ninety-two guns, attacked Fort Boyer, a small redoubt, located on a point of land commanding the passage from the Gulf into the Bay of Mobile. This redoubt was garrisoned by only one hundred and twenty combatants, officers included; and its armament was but twenty small pieces of cannon, some of which were almost entirely useless, and most of them poorly mounted ‘"in batteries hastily thrown up, and leaving the gunners uncovered from the knee upward,"’ while the enemy's land force, acting in concert with the ships, consisted of twenty artillerists, with a battery of two guns, and seven hundred and thirty marines, Indians, and negroes. His ships carried five hundred and ninety men in all, This immense disparity of numbers and strength did not allow to the British military and naval commanders the slightest apprehension ‘"that four British ships, carrying ninety-two guns, and a land force some what exceeding seven hundred combatants, could fail in reducing a small work mounting only twenty short carronades, and defended by a little more than a hundred men, unprovidedalike with furnaces for heating shot, or casements to cover themselves from rockets and shells."’ Nevertheless, the enemy was completely repulsed; one of its largest ships was entirely destroyed, and eighty-five men were killed and wounded on board the other; while our loss was only eight or nine. Here a naval force of five to one was repelled by the land battery.

Again, 1814, a barbette battery of one fourteen pounder and two eighteen-pounder guns at Stonnington, repelled a British fleet of one hundred and thirty-four guns. During the engagement the Americans exhausted their ammunition, and spiked their eighteen-pounders, and only one of them was afterwards used. Two of the enemy's ships, carrying one hundred and twelve guns, were engaged during the whole time of attack, and during much of this time bombarded the town from a position beyond reach of the land-battery. They were entirely too far off for the four-pounder guns to be of any use. Supposing the two eighteen-pounders to have been employed during the whole action, and also all the guns of the fleet, one eighteen-pounder on land must have been more than equivalent to sixty-seven guns afloat, for the ships were so much injured as to render it necessary for them to withdraw. The British loss was twenty killed and more than fifty wounded; ours was only two killed and six wounded.

The fleet sent to the attack of Baltimore, in 1814, consisted of forty sail, the largest of which were ships-of-the-line, carrying an army of over six thousand combatants. The troops were landed at North Point, while sixteen of the bomb-vessels and frigates approached within reach of Fort McHenry, and commenced a bombardment which lasted twenty-five hours. During this attack, the enemy threw ‘"fifteen hundred shells, four hundred of which exploded within the walls of the fort, but without making any impression on either the strength of the work or the garrison,"’ and the British were compelled to retire with much loss.

In 1815, a squadron of British ships, stationed off the mouth of the Mississippi, for the purpose of a blockade, ascended the river as high as Fort St. Philip, which is a small work capable of an armament of only twenty guns in all. A heavy fire of shot and shells was continued with but few and short pauses for nine days and nights; but making no impression either on the fort or garrison, they retreated to their former position at the mouth of the river.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Peter Parker (1)
Moultrie (1)
Indians (1)
Holland (1)
Cooper (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1814 AD (3)
1815 AD (1)
1812 AD (1)
1779 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: