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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Sandy Hook after the Endicott Report

Little new construction occurred during the five years following the publication of the Endicott Report. In 1886, the year Forney and Butterworth debated, the House and Senate could not even agree on an appropriation, so no money was spent. Before 1890 the government annually allocated roughly $400,000, or one percent of the War Department's budget, for coastal defense. In addition, some special funds provided several million dollars to develop the technology necessary to make large caliber weapons in the United States.

Spending started to rise in the 1890s. Although funding never reached the levels the Endicott report recommended, it tripled from the previous decade. By 1905, for example, coastal forts had received nearly 700 new guns. This figure was only half the 1,300 originally proposed, but that target was not met, at least in part, because new methods required fewer weapons to achieve the same result.

Under this program Sandy Hook rapidly expanded. In 1891 the Army declared the granite fort from the 1850s obsolete and began building new concrete defenses. Construction of new gun batteries began soon after, and by 1899 a large section of the main post was completed. The new base at Sandy Hook—now called Fort Hancock, in honor of Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock—gradually developed into the most important of the complexes guarding the approaches to New York Harbor.

The fort employed a range of weapons to defend itself and the city. An underwater minefield provided the initial protection for the channels going into New York Harbor. The original mines, laid out in groups adjacent to the two channels leading into the harbor, exploded upon contact with a ship. Later, the troops on Sandy Hook used electronics so they could detonate the mines remotely.

One of the first weapons the Army built at Fort Hancock was a battery, or set of guns. Several characteristics made Battery Potter—also named after a Civil War officer—different from previous U.S. weapons. First, for protection from enemy attack it was located in a bunker made from thick concrete rather than stone. Second, a large earthen mound hid the battery from the view of ships in the Atlantic. Third, its two 12-inch rifles fired 1,000-pound shells powerful enough to break through the thinly-armored decks of most warships of the time, the majority of which would sink if such a shell exploded inside them. Finally, Battery Potter's guns were the first weapons in the United States that rode a steam-powered hydraulic lift. These elevators raised each gun independently to the firing position, then lowered it again into the bunker so it could be reloaded. Because attackers could not see these weapons when they were being reloaded, they became known as "disappearing guns." These disappearing guns required large bunkers to house the boilers, coal storage, and other equipment for the steam-powered elevators.

Starting in 1896, two years after the construction of Battery Potter, the Army developed a better type of disappearing gun. These first appeared in Battery Granger, which was also designed to fire on enemy ships approaching New York Harbor. In this case, however, the guns had a counterweighted carriage which used the energy of the recoil to drop the weapon below a wall for reloading. Since batteries like Granger did not need a large steam engine and elevators to move the guns, they could be much smaller. They therefore were cheaper to build and easier to hide from approaching ships.

Fort Hancock also was fitted with smaller caliber, rapid-fire guns. These weapons were developed because of a change in naval tactics. By the late 19th century, most modern navies had destroyers, minesweepers, and torpedo boats—small fast gunboats with the ability to dodge most artillery fire. Because they did not extend very far below the waterline, these gunboats were not limited to using the deep channels of a harbor; they could enter shallow areas during an attack. To counter that advantage, the U.S. Army set up a number of 3-, 5-, and 6-inch gun batteries that could be aimed and loaded rapidly and could fire up to 15 rounds per minute.

Together these systems defended New York Harbor. Those who had supported the modernization of places such as Fort Hancock argued that their importance extended past the reach of their weapons. In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed:

Let the port [New York] be protected by the [Army's] fortifications; the fleet must be foot-loose to search out and destroy the enemy's fleets; that is the function of the fleet; that is the only function that can justify the fleet's existence....For the protection of our coasts we need fortifications; not merely to protect the salient points of our possessions, but we need them so that the Navy can be foot-loose.1

Not everyone shared Roosevelt's enthusiasm. The Army soon found that despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on buildings and hundreds of thousands more on weapons, parts of Fort Hancock had grown obsolete. By 1905 Battery Potter, for example, had been taken out of service because it was slow to reload and expensive to maintain. Some other new guns had been replaced even earlier, since builders quickly created heavier armor that protected ships from the originals' shells. By 1915 Army engineers decided the fort itself was out of date, and so began new construction.

This pattern continued for the next 50 years. Though gun batteries became more powerful, new methods of amphibious warfare made them ineffective and so the Army dismantled them. The introduction of missiles left many of Fort Hancock's weapons defenseless. During the 1950s Sandy Hook became one of many sites where the military installed NIKE surface-to-air missiles to protect the U.S. from planes the Soviet Union might send to attack. But the NIKE system, too, gradually became obsolete and was replaced. Finally, in 1974 the Army decommissioned the base entirely, and Fort Hancock became part of the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area.

Questions for Reading 3

1. What were the weapons that helped defend New York Harbor?

2. What are disappearing guns? Why were they considered an improvement?

3. How did army forts like the one on Sandy Hook help the U.S. Navy?

4. Why did weapons keep having to be replaced?

Reading 3 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; Russell S. Gilmore, Guarding America's Front Door (Fort Hamilton Historical Society, 1983); Emanual Raymond Lewis, Seacoast Fortifications of the United States, an Introductory History (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1993); and Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1973).

1 As quoted in Emanual Raymond Lewis, Seacoast Fortifications of the United States, An Introductory History (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 99.

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