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Forts in the City

When people think of New York City, they tend to imagine a modern, sprawling metropolis, and not – necessarily – a heavily fortified municipality, even though it arguably contains more military fortifications than any other major American city. As a matter of fact, some of its oldest forts were built while New York City was still known as New Amsterdam and was, at various points, under Dutch and British control.

"Our National Coast Defenses" (between 1880-1900) by artist, Coffin, George Yost (1850 - 1896) via Library of Congress
"Our National Coast Defenses" (between 1880-1900) by Coffin, George Yost (1850 - 1896) via Library of Congress

Fort Amsterdam – also called Fort James, Fort Anne, Fort George, Fort William Henry, and Fort William Hendrick – was one of these. Built on the southern tip of what-is-now Manhattan, it served as the administrative headquarters for its occupants from 1625/26 to 1790, when it was torn down after the American Revolution (1775 – 1783). Broadway was built on some of the fort’s former territory.

The violent history of New York City now seems fairly distant, but back in the day, fears of invasion, whether foreign or domestic, led to the construction of many forts that could still be found in and around the Big Apple. It should be noted, however, that not all forts built across the United States were always fortified, though, most of the ones in New York City certainly were.

The construction of fortifications is traditionally referred to as castrametation. The term is derived from the Latin word castrum, which means building, or plot of land used as a fortified military camp. But, in English, castrum is commonly used to refer to a Roman fort or fortress. Of course, forts greatly evolved from their Mediterranean ancestors over the centuries.

Today, most of the forts located in New York City serve as historic monuments and recreation centers. Here is a brief look at the three most popular forts in the city.

Fort Wadsworth | The Narrows, Staten Island, New York

"Evacuation day"  (1883) by artist Gillam, Bernhard (1856-1896) via Library of Congress
"Evacuation day" (1883) by artist Gillam, Bernhard (1856-1896) via Library of Congress

Fort Wadsworth, which now encompasses Fort Tompkins and Fort Richmond, was initially fortified by the British in 1779, and remained under their control until the end of the Revolutionary War. It was crucial in the effort to protect the New York Harbor during the War of 1812 (1812 – 1815); it also served as a defensive military base during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). Fort Wadsworth is famous for being one of the oldest and longest active military installations in the country, and was turned over to the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area in 1994.

According to the National Park Service:

“The present fortification known as Fort Tompkins was constructed between 1859 and 1876…Fort Richmond was constructed [between] 1847 – 1862... It was renamed Battery Weed in 1902... In 1865, the name Fort Wadsworth was given to Fort Richmond to honor Brevet Major General James Wadsworth, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness during the Civil War. The entire post was named Fort Wadsworth in 1902.”

Fort Tilden | Rockaways, Queens, New York

Constructed in 1917, and named after the former New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden (1814 – 1886), Fort Tilden served as a US Army Artillery Post that was intended to protect the New York Harbor from naval attack during WWI (1914 –1918) along with Fort Wadsworth and Fort Hancock. It was also similarly utilized during WWII (1939 – 1945) and then again in the mid-1950s where it was used as a Nike Missile installation site during the Cold War (1947 – 1991). The fort was converted into a national park in 1974.

"After the end of World War II, the Coast Artillery Corps was abolished and the fate of coastal forts throughout the country was unclear...In 1946, the Army allowed forty-six of Fort Tilden's barracks to be converted by the state into 350 apartments. With the Cold War heating up in Korea, the Army needed Fort Tilden for troops again and 281 families vacated the housing in 1951...The garrison became home to the 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion...By the mid-1950s Nike Ajax Missiles were at Fort Tilden.

Fort Hamilton | Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York

Constructed between 1825 and 1831, and named in honor of Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804), Fort Hamilton is the only remaining active-duty military base in New York City. It was used as a staging area for American troops being deployed to fight in WWI and WWII. As the fort is still active, it was a crucial asset in the relief effort after the devastating attack on 9/11/2001, as well as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. According to Curbed New York, after 2012, “the Fort became a Base Support Installation, hosting organizations including the FBI and FEMA, who helped with relief efforts.” It is the fourth oldest military fort in the nation.

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