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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Defending America's Coastline


Military men have long recognized the value of the Sandy Hook peninsula at the southern entrance to New York Harbor. Early in the Revolutionary War the British captured the peninsula and built defenses around its lighthouse. In the summer of 1778, after an inconclusive battle in New Jersey, the British army retired to Sandy Hook. From there, the Royal Navy shuttled troops across the bay to New York City, which the British also controlled.

During the War of 1812 it was the U.S. military that occupied the peninsula. In order to protect their navy, which lay in Sandy Hook and Raritan Bays, the American army built fortifications and emplaced cannon. Together these forces prevented the British from using the harbors in another attempt to occupy New York City. When the war ended, the troops left and the temporary defenses deteriorated.

In the 1840s the United States pushed westward, particularly toward Mexican territory. Although most people in the East supported these efforts, they feared that the military's emphasis on the West would leave their coast vulnerable to European attacks. As a result, the public pressured the federal government to ensure that the Atlantic ports were well protected. As part of this program, in the 1850s a large granite-wall structure known as the "Fort at Sandy Hook" was erected at the peninsula's northern end. Its thick walls and tiers of cannon illustrated key elements of modern design.

The Civil War, however, revealed the limitations of forts like Sandy Hook. More powerful cannon and exploding shells could breach walls that had recently been considered impenetrable. Maritime engineers found that iron armor added to the sides of warships such as the Monitor and the Merrimack provided them with significant protection from the shells most forts, including Sandy Hook, fired.

For the two decades following 1865, the U.S. concentrated on economic growth, not military preparedness. The government spent little on defense during this period, relying instead on many of the methods it had used before the war. Starting in 1817 the U.S. and Canada had agreed to sharply limit the number of warships each nation could have in the Great Lakes, and over time the border became demilitarized. Mexico continued to suffer from internal conflicts, limiting any threat from the south. Most importantly, the U.S. relied on the thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean to protect itself from European nations.

By the 1880s, however, some Americans had grown increasingly worried that the European attack they had long feared could happen at any time. The danger had increased, these men argued, for several reasons. European nations such as England and France had become increasingly expansionist, claiming colonies throughout the world. To carry out their policy they were building many technologically-advanced warships that featured steam power, improved armor that protected them from Civil War-era weapons, and new guns that could shatter the masonry walls of American forts. The American navy would provide little resistance in case of attack. Although the U.S. had developed some of the earliest ironclad ships during the Civil War, 20 years later the country's small navy was made entirely from wood. As a result, a Congressman from Michigan argued, "You might as well try to stop a mad rhinoceros by firing green peas out of an old-fashioned pop-gun as to try to stop a modern warship from sailing into any harbor in the United States."1

Economic changes in America provided reason for increased concern. Since the 1840s major cities had developed thousands of new factories and more elaborate port facilities to ship goods around the country and the world. According to New York Senator Samuel J. Tilden, "the property exposed to destruction in the twelve seaports—Portland [Maine], Portsmouth, Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Galveston, and San Francisco—cannot be less in value than $5,000,000,000."2 Whether or not Tilden's figures were accurate, the cities he named did contain an enormous amount of valuable property.

In 1885 President Grover Cleveland responded to these fears by appointing a committee to recommend new policies for coastal defense. Led by Secretary of War William C. Endicott, this nine-man board included seven military men and two politicians. Over the next six months they studied existing U.S. technology and that of European nations, concentrating particularly on the latest artillery weapons. New guns from England and Germany produced 20 times as much force as the cannon of the Civil War era, but no American factory could manufacture them.

In January 1886 the board issued their recommendations. Generally known as the "Endicott Report" after the chairman, it emphasized how the Europeans had leapt far ahead of the Americans in military technology and the commitment necessary for a strong defense. The U.S. needed, the report said, to build or strengthen forts in 27 locations. The need was most urgent in New York, but the first 11 on their list all required immediate attention.3 The new system would include long-range guns and mortars mounted in concrete bunkers; floating gun batteries; torpedo boats; minefields; and rapid-fire guns to protect the minefields.

Such a program would not come cheaply. The Endicott report estimated the Army, which would man the forts, would have to spend over $126 million on this program. It suggested an initial appropriation of $21 million and annual supplements of $9 million until completion. This was an enormous amount for the time: in 1887 the entire federal budget was only $268 million, and the War Department as a whole that year received $38 million. For further perspective, around this time the average worker made about one dollar for a 10-hour day. The Endicott report then went to Congress, which would have to fund its recommendations. The subsequent debate over this spending revealed a great deal about American attitudes toward defense and the rest of the world.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did military leaders in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 want to control Sandy Hook?

2. Why did Americans want better coastal defenses before the Civil War? What were their reasons after 1865?

3. What did the Endicott Board recommend?

4. Why did the membership of the board make it likely they would favor large expenditures on defense? Did their backgrounds make the nine men better or worse choices to be on the committee? Why?

Reading 1 was compiled from Edwin C. Bearss, Historic Resource Study—The Sandy Hook Defenses, 1857-1948, Gateway National Recreation Area, National Park Service, September 1983; Harry Butowsky, "Fort Hancock and the Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District" (Monmouth County, New Jersey) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1982; U.S. Congress, House, Board on Fortifications or Other Defenses, 49th Cong, 1st sess., 1886; Edward Ranson, "The Endicott Board of 1885-86 and Coastal Defense," Military Affairs, vol. 31, no. 2 (Summer 1967), 74-84.

1Quoted in Robert S. Browning III, Two If By Sea: The Development of American Coastal Defense Policy (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983), 150-51.
2Quoted in the Congressional Record, volume 17, part 7, 49th Congress, 1st session (July 1886), 7100.
3According to the Endicott Report (page 8), these were the "Ports Arranged in Order of Urgency": 1) New York; 2) San Francisco; 3) Boston; 4) the Great Lake Ports; 5) Hampton Roads; 6) New Orleans; 7) Philadelphia; 8) Washington; 9) Baltimore; 10) Portland, Me.; 11) Narragansett Bay, R.I.; 12) Key West; 13) Charleston; 14) Mobile; 15) New London; 16) Savannah; 17) Galveston; 18) Portland, Ore.; 19) Pensacola; 20) Wilmington, N.C.; 21) San Diego; 22) Portsmouth; 23) Jacksonville; 24) mouth of the Kennebec River; 25) New Bedford; 26) mouth of Penobscot River; 27) New Haven.

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