Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Fort Pike and Fort Macomb

Fort Pike and Fort Macomb, located in the marshlands of eastern New Orleans, played an important part in defending St. Tammany and Orleans Parishes by controlling access to Lake Pontchartrain. Fort Pike is located on the south bank of the Rigolets, and Fort Macomb is located  on U.S. 90 at Chef Menteur Pass.

Both structures were also built using brick that was hauled in from St. Tammany by boat. 

While both structures played a key historic role in the area, both are now closed to visitors because of their deteriorated state. Both have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, however.

According to the Louisiana State Parks website, the construction of Fort Pike was begun in 1819 and completed in 1826. Fort Pike was named for the explorer and soldier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) whose name is also attached to Pike's Peak in the Rocky Mountains.

Fort Pike is the first of the Third System fortifications, a group of brick and masonry structures built between 1816 and 1867. The fort was designed to withstand attack from land or sea. 

Although the United States survived the War of 1812, the British destruction of our nation's capital and their attack on New Orleans emphasized the weakness of our country's defense. To prevent a foreign invasion from occurring again, President James Monroe ordered the placement of an extensive coastal defense system. 

These new fortifications, together with existing ones, stretched along the entire Atlantic and Gulf coasts and protected strategic ports and rivers such as New Orleans and the Mississippi. Forts Pike and Macomb (also called Fort Wood) were two of six new masonry forts built in coastal Louisiana at this time. Together with Forts Jackson and St. Philip on the Mississippi River and Fort Livingston on Barataria Bay, these fortifications protected New Orleans from a seaborne invasion.

The original armament of Fort Pike consisted of 32-pounder and 24-pounder cannons; the exact number of each type is unknown. At various times the fort held other types of cannons. The wartime garrison was approximately 400 men; in peacetime it varied between one and 80 soldiers.

Fort Pike's role in the military affairs of the United States prior to the Civil War varied considerably. During the Seminole Wars in the 1830s, Fort Pike served as a staging area for many troops en route to Florida, and also as a collection point for hundreds of Seminole prisoners and their black slaves who were being transported to Oklahoma. Cannons were removed from some of the casemates to convert them to cells. At one point in this conflict, only 66 soldiers guarded 253 Indian and black prisoners.

Similarly, during the Mexican War in the 1840s, Fort Pike was a stopover for soldiers bound for Texas and Mexico. In between these wars, Fort Pike was largely abandoned and left in the care of a single ordnance sergeant.

In 1861, the silence of Fort Pike was broken. Before the actual start of the Civil War, the Louisiana militia captured the fort. Confederates held it until the Union forces took New Orleans in 1862, whereupon the Confederates evacuated Fort Pike. Union forces then reoccupied the fort, using it as a base for raids along the Gulf coast and Lake Pontchartrain area and as a protective outpost for New Orleans.

The Union also used Fort Pike as a training center, where former slaves were taught to use heavy artillery. These troops became part of the United States Colored Troops, who played an important role in the outcome of many battles, including the siege at Port Hudson. Yet, in spite of all this activity, not a single cannonball was ever fired in battle from Fort Pike.

Fort Pike was again left to the care of an ordnance sergeant from 1871 until it was officially abandoned in 1890. In 1972 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation for significant historic sites.

Here are some pictures taken of Fort Pike in 1972:

The following picture of Fort Pike was taken in 2007

Fort Macomb

Again, reading from the Louisiana State Parks website, it is noted that Fort Macomb, a 19th-century United States brick fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was constructed to protect New Orleans as part of President Monroe’s 3rd system of fortifications. The United States built the current brick fort in 1822 as Fort Wood. 

It was renamed Fort Macomb in 1851 after General Alexander Macomb, former Chief of Engineers and Commanding General of the US Army. The main works of Macomb and Pike are almost identical to each other (Fort Pike being the larger of the two) and the initial construction was taken on by the same contractors, James Bennett and Peter Morte. 

The fort saw the most of its military action during the Civil War when a Confederate States of America garrison took control of and occupied the fort early in the American Civil War. The Union regained control of the fort after the occupation of New Orleans. In 1867, the barracks caught fire, after which the fort was largely abandoned by the US Army. It was decommissioned in 1871.

In 1977 Stella Pitts wrote a history of Fort Macomb, prompted by current attempts to develop it. Here is a copy of the article she wrote, available in PDF format.

While not actually in St. Tammany Parish, it was built of brick from St. Tammany and helped play an important part in the defense of St. Tammany and Orleans Parishes. 

More information on Fort Macomb is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here's a link to a PDF showing its historic places application. 

The following pictures of Fort Macomb were taken in 1977.

The National Parks Service, through its National Register of Historic Places, said of the two structures: "Forts Macomb and Pike were designed simultaneously, and were the first forts built in a nationwide policy of coastal fortification construction, a policy which was in force from the end of the War of 1812 to the Civil War.

"Large masonry forts were no longer constructed after about 1860 when refled artillery rendered them obsolete. This interwar period may therefore be regarded as the zenith of American military architecture.

"Inasmuch as the main work at Ft. Macomb retains its original design in total, it is one of the best extant representatives of this period. In 1816 President James Madison placed the distinguished French General Simon Bernard, who served brilliantly
as an engineer under Napoleon, in charge of planning a system of coastal defense for the United States.

"Upon receiving his commission in America, Bernard immediately turned his attention to the defense of the Mississippi Delta where memories of recent British penetration were vivid. In 1817 he personally surveyed the Chef Menteur Pass and designed the magnificent semi-circular, bastioned, casemated fort to replace a small earthern battery erected on the site by American forces during the Battle of New Orleans.

"This fort, along with Ft. Pike (National Register) was the first of a new type of large bastioned casemated forts which was to replace the simple earthwork batteries which had been in use since the colonial period."
See also:

Wikipedia article about Fort Macombe

Wikipedia article about Fort Pike