THE COASTAL FORTS OF EASTERN LONG ISLAND
At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the U. S. government found itself ill equipped to properly defend Long Island Sound from an invading force. The Federal Government responded by commissioning the construction of a series of four forts across the mouth of the Sound. The forts were to be an addition to Fort Trumbull in Connecticut that was built in 1777, and sited to protect New York City, Providence, Bridgeport and New Haven.
Locations of the Forts that Defended Eastern Long Island
Map reprinted courtesy New York's Forts
These cities were considered very important to the nation's interests. New York, one of the largest commercial centers of the nation, was considered vital for the economic health of the nation. Providence, Rhode Island also was well known for manufacturing and shipping. Bridgeport and New Haven in Connecticut needed to be protected because they were the site of the Winchester and Union Metallic Cartridge Company’s plants, which were the suppliers of ammunition to the army. The planned battlements came to be known as the Long Island’s Eastern Shield or the Harbor Defense System, and ran across the string of small islands that cross from the mouth of Long Island Sound from Rhode Island to Montauk.
The War Department recommended to Congress that funds be provided for a new system of fortifications at the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound and Congress acted promptly. Great Gull Island was transferred to the military in 1896, and in 1897 and 1898 the War Department purchased large tracts of land on Fishers Island and Plum Island, at Gardiner’s Point, and Napatree Point.
The Unfinished Ramparts of of Fort Tyler, early 20th century
Courtesy of Bolling Smith and the Coastal Defense Study Group
The following forts comprised the Defenses of the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound:
Fort Mansfield, Napatree Point, Watch Hill, Rhode Island. The northernmost of the new forts was Fort Mansfield in Rhode Island situated on Napatree Point at Watch Hill. The fort was named after Joseph K. F. Mansfield (1803 – 1862), who fought with distinction in the Mexican American War. He served as a fort inspector until the outbreak of the Civil War. Mansfield, who was then a Brigadier General and nearing 60 years old asked for an active command. He was given command of the Twelfth Army Corp. In 1862, Mansfield’s troops were stationed along the right side of the battle of Antietam in support of Hooker’s troops; Mansfield was rallying his soldiers when he was fatally shot. Fort Mansfield was put into use in 1901. By 1907, war games found that the fort had a blind spot along the Rhode Island coast. The defensive weakness in the location of the fort led to its deactivation in 1909.
Fort H. G. Wright, Fishers Island, Southold, New York. The next fortification in the chain was located on Fishers Island. Fort H. G. Wright was named in honor of General Horatio G. Wright (1820-1899) who was in command of the Sixth Army Corp during the Civil War and was credited with saving Washington D.C. from capture in 1864. Wright was also part in the battle of Petersburg and took part in pinning down General Lee at Appomattox. Fort H. G. Wright, begun in 1898, guarded the passage into Long Island Sound from the Connecticut shoreline to Great Gull Island. By the Second World War, the fort had a small airfield, and Fort Terry and Fort Michie were considered sub-forts of Fort Wright. It was decommissioned in 1948.
Fort Michie, Great Gull Island, Southold, New York. Between Fishers Island and Plum Island are two tiny islands known as Great Gull Island and Little Gull Island. Little Gull Island is barely two acres of land and is dominated by a lighthouse that has stood on the island since 1806. South of Little Gull Island sits Great Gull Island, seventeen acres in length, the entire island was turned into Fort Michie (pronounced My-key). Fort Michie was named in honor of First Lieutenant Dennis Michie who was killed at the battle of San Juan Hill. Initially, Fort Michie housed a small thirty-man unit but was expanded by World War I to house approximately 135 men. A 16 inch guns the nearness of Great and Little Gull islands caused an unexpected problem. Whenever the soldiers of the fort practiced using the cannons, the artillerymen had to notified the head lighthouse keeper at Little Gull Island, so blankets could be hung over the glass in the tower to keep the concussion from the guns from breaking the windows. Fort Michie was manned until just after World War II.
Fort Terry, Plum Island, Southold, New York. Fort Terry was a heavily armed coastal defense fortification on Plum Island just off Orient Point, New York. Its strategic location provided a view of the entrance to Long Island Sound. The fort was established in 1897 and used through the end of World War II and was decommissioned in 1948. The fort was named in honor of Major General Alfred Howe Terry (1827-1890), from Connecticut, a Union general in the American Civil War. He was one of the famous generals of that war, known as the “hero of Fort Fisher.” The capture of Fort Fisher in Wilmington, North Carolina harbor, was considered very important to the war and the thanks of Congress were given to General Terry and his officers and troops for “the unsurpassed gallantry and skill exhibited by them in the attack and the brilliant and decisive victory by which that important work has been captured from the rebel forces and placed under the authority of the United States and for their long and faithful service and devotion to the cause of the country in the midst of the greatest difficulties and dangers.” Following the Civil War, General Terry stayed in the military and participated in military maneuvers. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) ending Red Cloud’s campaign. He was the last military governor of the Third Military District (1869) based in Atlanta where he strongly opposed the Ku Klux Klan. He led a column of troops into the Battle of Sitting Bull and later went to Canada to negotiate with Sitting Bull.
Fort Tyler, Gardiner’s Point, East Hampton, New York. On the other side of Plum Island was the final fort in the chain of defensive structures built to protect Long Island Sound. Fort Tyler was named in honor of President John Tyler (1790 – 1862), whose second wife was had family connections to the east end of Long Island. Julia Gardiner(1820 – 1889), was the daughter of David and Juliana Gardiner of Gardiner’s Island. Julia Gardiner met John Tyler shortly after the death of his first wife, in 1842. The next year, Julia, her sister Margaret, and her father joined President Tyler on a trip to view a new naval steamship, the Princeton. During the review of the ship one of the guns exploded, killing David Gardiner. The following year President Tyler and Julia Gardiner married even though there was a thirty-year difference in their ages. Fort Tyler was built on a small peninsula that was once attached to Gardiners Island, three miles off the coast of Orient. Of all the forts built in the chain, Fort Tyler was the only fort that was never finished or manned. The fort was built on a piece of land on whicha lighthouse had stood twenty-three years earlier. The property, which was low and sandy, had been connected to Gardiner’s Island, until a fierce storm in 1875 wrecked the lighthouse and cut off the spit of land from the rest of the island. In 1898, the military decided that the property where the lighthouse had stood was needed to complete the harbor defense system and work began on Fort Tyler in 1899. Construction was soon abandoned, when it was discovered that the land was rapidly washing away. An inspector general sent to inspect the site, thought his guides were joking when they brought him to the fort. His report stated that as a place for tired seagulls it was fine but not for coast artillerymen. Work on the fortifications was quietly halted, and the guns were never installed. In 1924, the property was turned over to New York State for use as a state park. A dock, picnic areas and bathrooms were installed for use of visiting boaters. Named Gardiner’s Point State Park in 1927, the island was swept clean of all improvements in a storm three years later. Giving up, the state turned the property back over to the military who during World War II used the remains of Fort Tyler as a practice target for bombers stationed at Mitchell Field, which was west in Garden City, New York. Known locally as “the Ruins,” Fort Tyler and its history has faded from the memory of most local residents.