Fort Constitution

In Defense of Portsmouth Harbor

Portsmouth NH

September 12th, 2006

Ever since British ships brought the first settlers from the old world, attack from the sea was a feared reality  The earliest fortifications were around the inland waterways and navigable rivers.  England went through a series of wars with it's neighbors, first France then Spain and then back to France. With England's island state, a good navy was a requirement for doing battle and the varies countries shifted back and forth across the oceans, battling each other.  These conflicts by nature extended to every part of the known world at that time. With limited military presence in the New World, land fortification seemed to be the most effective for the smallest  amount invested.  The Piscataqua River which wanders from deep inland, dumps into the Atlantic at the town of Portsmouth .  The Portsmouth harbor was deep but not so wide that a good size cannon couldn't reach over half way across.  Two strategically located forts could defend the entrance quite effectively. Fort William and Mary, later renamed Fort Constitution located on Great Island on the south side of the harbor and Fort McClary on the north side.  The earliest  fortifications date back to 1631. Known as "The Castle", this early defense was an earthen redoubt with 4 large cannons.  Some 30 years later, a blockhouse was built by local builders.  1692 saw the name changed to Fort William and Mary for the reigning British monarchs.  War with France brought further changes as concerns of a French naval attack grew.  Breastworks for 19 guns were constructed.  1705 saw the first of several stone walls and a well was dug on the south side outside the fort.  The water was pumped into the Fort. Over the next 70 years, some repairs and several more guns were added but the Fort remained basically the  same. The normal compliment of British soldiers present at the Fort most of the time was just 4, with another 20 to 40 men added as crises arouse. Things changed radically on December 14th 1775, just 4 months before the "shot heard round the world" was fired at Lexington.  An organization known as the "Sons of Liberty" attacked the Fort with some 400 men.  Captain John Cochran and his 5 men, first warned the advancing party then fired cannon and rifle into the crowd.  Before his men could reload they were overrun and captured.  Over the next 2 hours the raiders emptied the powerhouse, gathered up all the muskets and removed cannons they were capable of carrying away. The Captain and his men were then released.  This is believed by some to be the first organized military action of the Revolutionary War. "The shot not heard round the World"  The timely arrival of British ships preserved the remaining cannons in British hands.  After the raid, the British lost interest in the Fort, and moved the remaining guns to Boston. After the Revolutionary War, the State had no further need of the fort and gave it to the Federal Government.  With the creation of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the fort was rebuilt and renamed Fort Constitution.  It's most violent day was not the result of a raid or attack, but a  July 4th 1809 accident involving an explosion that killed both soldiers and civilians.  The next 2 wars, the War of 1812 and the Civil War saw the fort rebuilt and fortified but the invention of the iron clad warship put an end to its usefulness.  The last re-outfitting occurred in 1897 when Battery Farnsworth was located under the hill that the Walback Tower sands.  Two 8 in. breech-loading rifles on disappearing carriages were installed.  They would never see action.  Ownership returned to the State in 1961 and became a popular attraction, the disappearing rifles having been long removed and sold for scrap.

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