A Flashpoint for the Revolution

Return to Table of Contents

'Defenses of the Seacoast'

By John Hirtle, Beach News Staff Writer

Beach News, Friday, July 13, 2006

[The following article is courtesy of the Atlantic News/Beach News]
The Gateway to Fort Constitution -- Erected in 1808 and restored in 1974, the gateway into the fort's parade grounds is an impressive sight.
[Beach News Photo by John Hirtle,

Fort Constitution is the oldest surviving fort guarding Portsmouth Harbor. Even today, it still stands guard, not against a foreign invader, but against disaster at sea, as the United States Coast Guard maintains a station out on the point. The old fort has made its presence known for posterity, as the town it is located in -- Newcastle -- was inspired to take its name from the fortress. Indeed, Newcastle itself, while the smallest town in terms of physical size in the state of New Hampshire was also the most fortified, with no less than three forts built to guard against invaders. What is now Fort Constitution is the oldest of those forts, with a history spanning over three hundred years.

The first foundations for the fort were built in 1631, consisting of earthworks- great mounds of earth- and four 'great guns'. This initial fort was simply dubbed "The Castle" from which the town drew inspiration for its name. A timber blockhouse was eventually added in 1666, and the position was given a more proper name of Fort William and Mary, after the newly installed British monarchs.

No major improvements were made until 1692, when a breastwork was built to protect nineteen guns from the French Fleet during King William's War. A more solid stone wall was built to protect 16 light cannon and 70 heavy cannon. By now, Portsmouth was becoming a vital port for the Royal Navy, which depended on New Hampshire's supply of straight tall pine to provide masts for their ships. With such commerce coming and going in and out of the Piscataqua River, a Naval Officer was stationed at the fort to collect duty money from all ships entering the harbor. Not surprisingly, the residents of Kittery responded by erecting a more permanent fort at Fort McClary between 1715 and 1720 (the area had been used as a fort since 1689) so they could install their own Naval Officer who would collect money from Maine-bound vessels. Not surprisingly, wily New Hampshire captains found a better solution of putting off some of their cargo at Little Harbor on the other side of Newcastle. There it would be brought up the maze of back waterways to Portsmouth as the ship proceeded to Fort William and Mary to face the Naval Officer and pay for the remainder of the onboard cargo.

While the fortification may have been impressive for its day, it was lightly manned, usually by four to eight men with an additional twenty to forty soldiers in the summer or for an emergency. The men would also tend a 'light'-little more than a lantern run up the flagpole to warn ships of the fort's position at night. By the 1770's, the fort had a seven foot tall stone wall, improved earthworks, and wooden platforms where the guns were mounted. The first real lighthouse was built outside the fort's walls in 1771. This wooden lighthouse would be rebuilt and remodeled several times until 1877 when the current cast iron lighthouse was erected atop the same site as the original.

With the American Revolution brewing, Fort Constitution would play its most important role in history. On December 13, 1774, Paul Revere made a lesser-known ride to Portsmouth to warn the local chapters of the Sons of Liberty that a fort in Rhode Island had been dismantled, and the British were coming to do the same in Newcastle. This sparked what is considered to be the first overt act of the American Revolution as a historic marker near the access road to the fort states: "December 14-15, 1774, several hundred men overpowered the six-man British garrison at Castle William & Mary, now Fort Constitution, New Castle, and removed quantities of military supplies. These raids, set off by Paul Revere's ride to Portsmouth on December 13, were among the first overt acts of the American Revolution." In all the two raids seized 16 light cannon, 97 barrels of gunpowder, and other military stores before the arrival of two British ships and 100 British marines prevented a third raid. This in turn created an air of tension between the locals and the British. The Royal Governor John Wentworth, his wife Lady Frances and their infant son took up residence in the fort as the summer of 1775 began for their safety. They would leave on August 24, 1775 as the British finished removing the last of the fort's cannon and remaining military supplies and shipped them to Boston, leaving the empty fort to the local militia. Interestingly, the gunpowder and cannon seized by the Sons of Liberty were also sent to Boston where they were put to use by the Army of New England at the Battle of Bunker Hill and helped put Boston under siege.

During the Revolution, the fort may have been dubbed Fort Hancock after John Hancock of Massachusetts, but most records refer to the site as "Castle Fort" or "Fort Castle". Either way, the fort saw little use during the Revolution and fell into disuse after 1778. In 1791 the fort and the land was given to the newly formed United States of America by New Hampshire. The fort would receive its current name of Fort Constitution in 1802, as work began to improve the long-neglected site. Renovations which were completed by 1808 resulted in much of the stone and brick structure you see today as you approach the fort from the parking area. The walls rise to twice the height of the original Colonial fort, and contained emplacements for 36 gun mounts which were usually manned by a company of some fifty soldiers although there was room in the barracks to house 150 men. Today, only the outer walls on the landward side, including the impressive gatehouse and restored portcullis and one of the powder magazines still stand from these improvements. The overgrown remains of the barracks can also be seen on the parade grounds within the original walls.

Upon entering the interior parade grounds through the gate house, you will note the walls open out into the harbor it protects. The immense outer granite walls on the harbor side appear broken apart, as if some battle took place. But the only battle ever fought here was the battle for the budget. While improvements continued on the original fort, it was apparent it was becoming obsolete.

Thus as the Civil War broke out in 1861, plans were made to enlarge and modernize the fort. Where 25 pieces of artillery were mounted on the original fort, no less than 149 pieces of the newest cannon were to be emplaced behind a thick granite wall. Work on the wall progressed through the war, and the seaward side of the original fort was blasted away in 1866, just before all work was halted on the granite wall in 1867, leaving it incomplete- but preserving a perfect spot to have an unobstructed view of all of Portsmouth Harbor. Apparently, work was underway to dismantle the other brick walls, since some of them are open to the air, revealing that there are two brick walls- an interior and an outer brick wall, which are partially filled with rubble- a common building practice of the period.

Astute observers exploring the site will also note small doors on the north and south walls. These were the sally ports, from which armed soldiers would 'sally forth to do battle' or in more modern terms, the soldiers would go out, and repel any invaders in combat. A 'jog' in the tunnel prevented a straight line of fire in or out of the fort. Today, the tunnels are off limits, since they exit onto the Coast Guard reservation. Also of note along the earthen peak of the northern interior wall are the empty mounts for Parrott rifled cannon. Incidentally, their inventor, Captain Robert Parrott served at Fort Constitution as a lieutenant from 1829 to 1831.

Following the Civil War, Fort Constitution was placed on 'caretaker' status where a minimum amount of effort was made to maintain the armaments until war struck again in 1897 as the Spanish-American War broke out. While Fort Constitution guarded the harbor during this conflict with obsolete cannon, it was apparent that a new coastal defense system needed to be built to protect the shores of the United States against modern seapower. Fort Foster in Kittery and Fort Stark in Newcastle were built or enhanced during this time, which became known as the Endicott Era of American forts.

Rather than improve the old fort, two new batteries were built outside its walls. One, seen at the parking area, was Battery Farnsworth, which held two eight-inch guns on disappearing carriages. They would be raised above the concrete wall of the battery, and the recoil from their fire would bring them back down again for reloading. The lighthouse keeper's cottages was moved from near this site prior to construction, and now rests nestled between the inner and outer walls of Fort Constitution. The guns of Battery Farnsworth would be removed for shipping to the American Expeditionary Force in 1917 as the United States entered World War One. The battery would never be rearmed, and was generally used for storage of cables and mining equipment until the fort's closure. Battery Farnsworth is now overgrown and off-limits to visitors.

Battery Hackleman once stood between the fort and Battery Farnsworth. Mounting two three inch guns, it was a duplicate of Battery Hayes at Fort Stark, and Battery Chapin at Fort Foster. Battery Hackleman formed the third point in a triangulation method by which the position of ships could be plotted within the minefields guarding Portsmouth Harbor during wartime. The battery was demolished in 1965 make way for the U.S. Coast Guard station which now stands on its site.

A brick mine storage building was built between the inner and outer northern walls of the fort in 1903. From Fort Constitution and Fort Foster mines would be deployed during the two world wars to guard the harbor. Today, the building is used as the Coastal Marine Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire. A mining casemate was built in 1901 under Battery Farnsworth to control the detonation of the mines. This would be replaced by a larger casemate in 1931 As World War Two approached, Fort Constitution became strictly a mine operation depot and a weather and tide monitoring station as the local harbor defense command was relocated to Camp Langdon (now Great Island Common) and Fort Stark. From the Fort Constitution, the harbor's mine operation was essentially maintained and controlled. Atop the southwest bastion (to the right of the gate as you enter) you will see a small crumbling concrete tower which was a lookout post during World War Two.

With the end of World War Two, Fort Constitution, like others along the coast, was deactivated in 1948. The National Guard used the fort for training until 1958, as the land was slowly divided up, and the original 1.75 acres Fort Constitution stands on was returned to the State of New Hampshire in 1961. Fort Constitution was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the gatehouse was refurbished in 1974.

Getting to Fort Constitution is a simple affair of getting off Scenic Route 1A and onto Scenic Route 1B, which is the only road leading in and out of the island-town of Newcastle. At a particularly sharp turn in the center of the island near a white picket fence, you will see a sign pointing towards the Coast Guard Station Follow the sign, and you will find a road leading out to the point where the Coast Guard, and Fort Constitution are located. Parking is a short walk away from the actual fort. Admission is free to the fort, but Coast Guard buildings and property are strictly off limits. Please follow the blue line to the gate of the fort. Also, please note that there are no rest rooms at this historic site. There is no playground equipment here, and visitors should exercise some caution when scaling the earthen slopes and rough stairs inside the old brick portion of the fort.

From the point, it is possible to see much of Kittery Maine's coastline, including (from north to south) Fort McClary's white blockhouse; a cove with many sailboats; Fort Foster's Battery Chapin and the dock; the old Wood Island lifesaving station; Whaleback Lighthouse; on a very clear day, the Isles of Shoals; and on the New Hampshire side of the river, Great Island Common. After exploring the old fort, you can either turn right onto the side street and slowly drive along the picturesque shoreline roads of Newcastle as you head back to Portsmouth, or turn left onto Route 1B to head towards Rye, and possibly visit Great Island Common which has public rest room facilities as well as a playground and excellent picnic facilities. Admission is charged. Further down Route 1B, is Wild Rose Lane on the seaward side, which will take you to Fort Stark, the best preserved Endicott Era fort on Portsmouth Harbor. There are few facilities at this park to speak of, and it is not a safe place for children to visit.

Return to Table of Contents