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Pt I | Napatree Point’s Fort Mansfield and the Fatal Flaw

A Brief History

In 1885, US President Grover Cleveland appointed a joint Army, Navy, and civilian board, headed by Secretary of War, William Crowninshield Endicott. The findings of the Board in its 1886 report, illustrated a grim picture of neglect of America’s coast defenses. They recommended a massive $127 million construction program for a series of new forts with breech-loading cannons, mortars, floating batteries, and submarine mines for some 29 locations on the US coast.

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This period of time saw an emphasis on offensive warships and many foreign powers were building more heavily armored warships with larger guns. These factors combined to create a need for an improved coastal defense system.

Endicott Era Forts were constructed with concrete walls that concealed large, breech-loading rifled cannons mounted on “disappearing carriages”. These disappearing carriages allowed the new, rifled cannons to be raised above the walls, aimed, and fired – then quickly moved back underneath the walls. These cannons were “breech loading” and allowed for a much more rapid and accurate fire.

Watch Hill’s strategic position at the head of Long Island Sound, guards one of the approaches to New York City. This made Napatree Point a prime location for one of the Endicott Forts. The new fort was to be named Fort Mansfield, in honor of Major General Joseph Mansfield. He was a Union officer who died of his wounds in the Civil War battle of Antietam.

The Plan

In 1898 the federal government purchased 60 acres of land at the end of Napatree Point and began construction. Fort Mansfield opened in 1901, complete with three large gun emplacements – the fort had plenty of firepower. Battery Wooster sported two eight inch guns and Batteries Crawford and Connell both had two five inch guns.

The fort had a total of 27 buildings and was manned by 228 soldiers. There were 3 sets of officer’s quarters, 2 sets of NCO quarters, a permanent 100-man barracks, a temporary 30-man barracks, a guard house, an admin building, a small 6-bed hospital and even sported a bowling alley for recreation.

The Narrative

As it turned out, Fort Mansfield suffered from a disastrous defect. The fort’s main battery’s eight inch guns could not cover part of the seacoast. Seaside Topics described the scene in 1907 when a mock battle was held to test the fort’s effectiveness.

“Uncle Sam let loose the dogs of war around Watch Hill this week and they did some furious barking. Fort Mansfield was the bone they wanted to chaw and according to the rules of the war games they succeeded.”

“A fleet of imaginary hostile battleships appeared from the direction of Block Island and bombarded the fort. As the forts guns could not be trained effectively on the enemy vessels the fort was considered bested.”

“The bombardment was in plain view from the beaches and hills around Westerly. Summer residents laid aside all other diversions to watch. Automobiles were drawn up along the beach road while the occupants climbed over the sand dunes for a better view as the fort’s searchlights scanned the sea in search of the enemy ships.”

Fort Mansfield - Napatree Point, Westerly, RI

Colonel Charles Parkhurst had predicted the fort’s weakness and reported the battle resulted in a complete victory for the attacking fleet. Quote,

“The enemy silenced the fort from a dead angle to the east of Watch Hill Point where the forts guns cannot reach. I believe I could capture Fort Mansfield with a fleet of coal barges equipped with six inch guns.”

The mimic War of 1907 coupled with the analysis of Colonel Parkhurst signaled the end of Fort Mansfield.

The Adventure

To determine what was still left of Fort Mansfield, Westerly News took its cameras out to the end of Napatree point to explore the ruins.

In Part 2 of the series we’ll show you what we discovered – go to Part 2 now

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  1. Thank you for the picture and the background story. I tried to hike up to the fort and was rewarded with briar cuts and scratches and a wicked case of poison ivy. Glad to see what it looks like.

  2. Greg, thank you so much for sharing that and looking forward to part two.

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