Volume II - No. 2
SIMON BERNARD AND AMERICA'S COASTAL FORTS
By Thor Borresen,
[Note: Fort Pulaski and Fort Jefferson National Monuments, now famous units among the historical areas administered by the National Park Service, as well as Fort Macon State Park, of North Carolina; Fort Pike and Fort Macomb State Parks, of Louisiana, and Fort Morgan, at Mobile Point, Alabama, where the Service has cooperated with state authorities in joint supervision of rehabilitation programs, all had their origins approximately 120 years ago in the mind of a brilliant engineer who surveyed the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and laid plans for their defense against sea attack. Much has been written about the fortifications themselves, yet but little general knowledge of their planner has become current. The article which follows points out some interesting facts about the life of General Bernard, the French patriot who chose the sites and determined the general character of the six forts enumerated above along with a number of others built during the nineteenth century.]
From the time of the Revolutionary War until 1789 few coast defense fortifications of a permanent nature had been constructed in the United States. Those which did exist had been built for the most part by the French, Spanish and English. The American defense consisted principally of batteries, or, as they were then called, "works". Even these were mainly temporary, constructed of disintegrating material. But these works in our military history are referred to as our "first system".
Not until 1797 did our coast defense problem receive more serious attention. Many works were built between that date and 1812, although none were large. Fort Washington on the Potomac and Fort McHenry in Baltimore are good examples of this period, which was known as our "second system". (1)
However, these fortifications had not prevented the English during the War of 1812 from landing at any chosen place and pillaging our coast with the aid of their powerful fleet. When peace was declared in 1815, really serious attention was given to the proper protection of our long coastline. The recent war activities had shown all too clearly the disadvantage of a feebly protected coast, and the government, though laboring under the burden of a heavy war debt, commenced planning a new system for more powerful defense. The old fortifications had proved ineffective; their battlemented fighting tops and narrow embrasures were outmoded, and the guns stationed within the works were confined to a limited field of defense. Now, guns had been improved, had larger calibers, longer ranges; but, most important of all were the new pivot carriages which fired en barbette and gave the guns a much wider range of operation.
The War Department began to look for an engineer of repute, one who was thoroughly familiar with all types of warfare and well versed in the science and art of designing fortifications. President Madison, in 1816, advised the American representative in Paris to secure the services of a prominent military engineer to supervise the fortification of our coast. Paris at the time was filled with French officers unattached to military service by reason of the final downfall of Napoleon at Waterloo. In looking over the field of experienced officers, the representative had the good fortune to encounter General Simon Bernard at a critical moment ---just when he had been warned by the French minister of war that for his personal safety he should leave France without delay. Bernard's reputation as a military engineer was of so high an order that his services were eagerly sought by several European governments. Most flattering offers were tendered him, all of which he declined in order to follow the example of those eminent French nobles who had cast their lot with the American colonies during the Revolution.
Simon Bernard was born at Dôle, France, on April 22, 1779. He was educated at the Polytechnic School and entered the Engineer School when all Europe was an armed camp. To follow the fortunes of this distinguished officer leads one into a diversity of places. In the unpretentious dormitory of cadets he laid the foundation of a career, the course of which brought association with the Emperor at the height of that ruler's glory. While Bernard's ability and his professional accomplishments produced a great demand for his services, yet chance, too, played its part and his achievements in public life were influenced by environment. Bourrienne, one-time private secretary to Napoleon, graphically described, in his memoirs, how young Bernard first came to the notice of the Emperor and his subsequent activities:
"At the commencement of the campaign of Austerlitz a circumstance occurred from which is to be dated the future of a very meritorious man. While the Emperor was at Strasburg he asked General Marescot, the commander-in-chief of the engineers, whether he could recommend from his corps a brave, prudent and intelligent young officer, capable of being intrusted with an important reconnoitering mission. The officer selected by General Marescot was a captain in the Engineers named Bernard, who had been educated in the Polytechnic School. Bernard set off on his mission, advanced almost to Vienna and returned to the headquarters of Ulm. Bonaparte interrogated him himself, and was well satisfied with his replies; but not content with answering verbally the questions put by Napoleon, Captain Bernard had drawn up a report of what he had observed and the different routes which might be taken. Among other things he observed that it would be a great advantage to direct the whole army upon Vienna, without regard to the fortified places; for that once master of the capital of Austria, the Emperor might dictate laws to all the Austrian monarchy. 'I was present,' said Rapp, (then and for a long time previously one of Napoleon's aides), 'at this officer's interview with the Emperor. After reading the report, would you believe that the Emperor flew into a furious passion? "How!" cried he, "You are very bold, very presumptuous! A young officer to take the liberty of tracing out a plan of campaign for me! Begone, and await my orders."
"Rapp told me that as soon as the young officer had left the Emperor all at once changed his tone. 'That,' he said, 'is a very clever young man; he has taken the proper view of things. I shall not expose him to the chances of being shot. Perhaps I shall some time want his services. Tell Berthier to dispatch an order for his departure for Illyria.' ..However, the Emperor forgot him for some time; and it was only an accidental circumstance that brought him to his recollection ....
"Before the Emperor left Paris for the campaign of 1812 he wished to gain precise information respecting Ragusa and Illyria.
"A few days after Captain Bernard was in the Emperor's cabinet in Paris. Napoleon received him graciously. The first thing he said was, 'Talk to me about Ragusa.' ..he was perfectly satisfied with M. Bernard's information respecting Illyria, and when the Chef de Bataillon had finished speaking Napoleon said, 'Colonel Bernard, I am now acquainted with Ragusa.' ...
"...The Emperor was going to preside at the Council of State and desired Colonel Bernard to accompany him, and many times during the sittings he asked him for his opinion upon the points which were under discussion. On leaving the council Napoleon said, 'Bernard, you are in future my aide-de-camp.'
"As shown by the records of the War Ministry, Bernard rose through the various grades to that of field marshal of France in 1814. After Napoleon's retirement to Elba General Bernard gave adherence to Louis XVIII and was appointed a brigadier-general. Upon Napoleon's quitting Elba he again joined his standard and fought with his beloved Emperor at Waterloo. This was to be expected of an old aide-de-camp, and Louis XVIII forgave him, and again permitted him to enter the service of the King, but having received the warning of the Minister of War to depart, he gathered together his collection of engineering plans and data, unequaled in all Europe, and sailed for America.
"Under the authority already conferred by Congress, President Monroe, on November 16, 1816, commissioned Bernard to be 'an assistant in the Corps of Engineers of the United States, with the rank of Brigadier-general by brevet and the compensation that is allowed to the chief of that corps.'
"The original appointment of General Bernard in the United States Army was specially authorized by Congress (2) and therefore no nomination was sent to the Senate. His name was not borne on the army registers, but in the General Orders of May 17, 1821, his name appears next to that of General Alexander Macomb, Chief of Engineers, as 'Assistant Engineer 16th November, 1816, Brigadier-General, Brevet.'....
"In a letter dated December 14, 1816, addressed to Major-General Andrew Jackson, at Nashville, Tennessee, President James Monroe recited some of the conditions and manner of employment of General Bernard:
"***You have heretofore, I presume, been apprised that General Bernard, of the French Corps of Engineers, under the recommendation of General Lafayette and many others of great distinction in France had offered his services to the United States, and that the President had been authorized by a resolution of Congress to accept them, confining his rank to the grade of the chief of our corps. This resolution being communicated to General Bernard by the late Secretary of War, to whom he was known, he came over in compliance with the invitation which accompanied it. From Mr. Gallatin he brought letters stating that he was the seventh in rank in the corps, and inferior to none in reputation and talents, if not the first. It required much delicacy in the arrangement to take advantage of this knowledge and experience in a manner acceptable to himself, without wounding the feelings of the officers of our own corps.....The arrangement adopted will, I think, accomplish fully both objects.
"The President has instituted a board of officers to consist of five members, two of high rank in the corps, General Bernard, the engineer at each station, . . . and the naval officers commanding there, whose duty it is made to examine the whole coast and report such works as are necessary for the defense to the chief engineer, who shall report the same to the Secretary of War, with his remarks, to be laid before the President. . . The attention of the board will be directed to the inland frontiers likewise . . . We shall have four of our officers in every consultation against one foreigner, so that if the opinion of the latter becomes of an essential use, it must be by convincing his colleagues when they differ that he has reason on his side. I have seen General Bernard and find him a modest, unassuming man, who preferred our country, in the present state of France, to any in Europe, in some of which he was offered employment and in any of which he may probably have found it...***
"On the day that General Bernard's commission was signed a board of engineers was established of which he was the senior member during its many years of existence. The duties of this board were to consider all fortifications completed or under construction, then to select sites and make plans for all new works." (3)
How completely this board studied the military needs of the country can be appreciated only by reading the reports it made at different times during its existence. They are interesting. They cover not only the military history of the period but also contain important data on the development of the country, beginning at a time when the population of the United States was only about 8,000,000 and ending in the 1860's when a population of over 31,000,000 had been reached. First and foremost, the entire coastline was studied; each harbor of importance, both for naval and commercial traffic, was considered in the utmost detail. Next, the means of manning each fortification in time of war was planned; each fort was designed to carry a peace-time garrison for its maintenance, with the method arranged for by which it could be fully garrisoned in time of war.
Fort Monroe, for example, was to contain a peace-time garrison of 600 men; in war-time its garrison was to be increased to 2,625; when first designed its armament was to consist of 380 guns of various types, but was later enlarged to contain 412 guns. Fort Pulaski was to be garrisoned in time of peace by one company (about 300 men), but in time of war it was to contain 800 men and 150 guns. Fort Morgan, Alabama, was to contain in time of peace one company, but in time of war, 700 men. The total number of guns to be manned was 132. All the forts planned for our defensive system make too long a list to mention in this brief article.
The next problem was to provide communications between the various defensive posts in dependent of naval support. To do this roads had to be built, and the following system was recommended: "The interior communications desired by the government were macadamized roads; one from Washington City, along the Atlantic coast to New Orleans; another between the same points, but running by the way of Knoxville; another from New Orleans, by way of Tennessee and Kentucky, to Buffalo and Lake Brie; and a fourth from Cumberland to St. Louis." (4)
These, with ordinary roads of the country, it was believed would facilitate adequately the inland transportation of troops and supplies in the event of war, taking care of both the land fortifications and naval depots on the several water frontiers.
For water conveyance a series of canals was recommended, comprising a complete inland waterway along the entire coast, and including a canal across the lower part of Florida to the gulf of Mexico. This canal is as lively an issue today as it was in 1836, its construction being nearer realization in 1936 than at any other time.
General Bernard did not remain in the United States until his plans had been executed. The board of which he had been the chairman went on with the work. The original plans which he had inaugurated and been consultant for, were adhered to and carried forward. As population, commerce and resources grew, so did the extent of the fortifications. But his basic principles were followed, namely, "That the fortifications should be strong in proportion to the value of the objects to be secured." (5) In a letter dated July 11, 1831, he informed General Gratiot, Chief of Engineers, that the President had "deigned to accept with a noble and generous kindness" (6) his resignation.
"Upon his arrival in France he was promoted to the grade of lieutenant-general and soon after his appointment as aide-de-camp to King Louis Phillipe was announced." (7)
"During the period of 16 years he had been in the United States he had not been removed from the officers' roster, but carried as absent "In the service of the United States by authority of 2d September, 1816." (8)
"General Bernard became inspector-general of engineers in 1834, and was Minister of War of France from 1836 to 1839. Prior to his death in Paris November 5, 1839, he was raised to the French peerage with the title of baron. Upon the receipt in the United States of a letter from his son containing the news of his death, the President caused the following order to be issued January 8, 1840.
"'The President, participating in the sincere grief felt for the death of General Bernard by the officers of the army with whom he was so long associated in the performance of important military duties, and desirous of evincing a proper respect, both for his eminent service to this country and for his virtues as a man, directs that the officers of the army wear the usual military mourning for the space of thirty days from the date of this order.'
"This, in brief, is the life story of an educated and talented soldier, recognized as the ablest engineer of his generation, who, having served the Emperor until the pall of Waterloo settled over France, declined brilliant offers of employment from European sovereigns and accepted service in the army of the United States." (9)
(1) Fortification & Sea-Coast Defences, a publication authorized by House of Representatives, 37th Congress, 2d Session. Report No. 86, (1816-1862).
(2) Report of 15th Congress, 2d Session, Volume 2, (1819)
(3) Professional Memoirs, Corps of Engineers, United States Army and Engineer Department at Large [sic], Volume V, Numbers 19 to 24, (Washington, 1913).
(4) Fortification & Sea-Coast Defences, op. cit.
(5) Professional Memoirs, op. cit.
|<<< Previous||> Contents <||Next >>>|