Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Fort Pike, Fort Macomb and Fort Petites Coquilles

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. 

Fort Pike in 1956

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."

Fort Petites Coquilles

A lesser known fort across from Fort Pike on the Rigolets, but facing Lake Pontchartrain instead, is Fort Petites Coquilles, the foundations of which lie underwater and are said to be a good fishing spot. 

An 1821 painting of Fort Petites Coquilles
(Louisiana Digital Archives)

Fort Petite Coquilles (1793 - 1817) was a small Spanish wooden fort located about three-quarters of a mile west from the future site of Fort Pike. Rebuilt and garrisoned by the Americans in 1813 as a nine-gun work. It was a parallelogram with two bastions on the west end, a half-bastion on the southwest corner, and a semi-circular battery on the north side. There were also two barracks, a magazine, and Officers' quarters. Shown as Coquille's Fort on some period maps of 1814. A hospital was built on or near the site in the 1840's. The site is now under water. 

The plans for Fort Petites Coquilles
(Library of Congress)

Here's an article from the Dixie Roto Magazine about Fort Petites Coquilles published in 1956. 

 FORT PETITES COQUILLES near the Rigolets gradually is fading away. It was built late in the 18th century for a fort and later became a hospital, but today what remains is a fishing spot.

Known now as "the hospital foundations" to the anglers who crowd around it every week end, the spot is considered one of the best for fishing in the entire New Orleans area. The fishermen well know how good a spot it is, but few of them--if any—know exactly what it is and how it came to be there.

To get to Fort Petites Coquilles from New Orleans, follow Hwy. 90 east towards Mississippi. The highway swings to the right to cross the Rigolets. At that point there is a smaller, shelled road to the left. Follow this shelled road until you come to Lake Pontchartrain. The foundations of Fort Petites Coquilles will be visible dead ahead.

Fort Petites Coquilles, or Fort des Rigolets as it was sometimes called, was built in 1793 or '94 upon the orders of Baron de Carondelet, the Spanish governor of Louisiana. Carondelet felt that this and other forts in the New Orleans area "would not only protect the city against the attacks of an enemy but also keep in check its inhabitants themselves, who have lately shown a disposition to embrace the newfangled doctrines of France and have manifested the desire of returning under her domination."

The fort fronted Lake Pontchartrain. Its cannon were set in a semicircular pattern so that some of them also guarded passage through the Rigolets. It originally was known as Fort Petites Coquilles because it was on what the French called the Island of Petites Coquilles ("little shells"), although the land was actually a peninsula. The Spaniards apparently never manned the fort.

When the British invaded Louisiana in 1814, however, Petites Coquilles was one of three coastal defense points against invasion from the Gulf of Mexico. The others were Fort St. Philip, down the Mississippi river from New Orleans, and Fort Bowyer, now' known as Fort Morgan, on Mobile Point outside Mobile, Ala.
Plans show that the fort had a moat and was 82 feet long by 52 feet wide. It was of mud and pallisade construction.

When the American gunboat squadron was defeated by the British on Lake Borgne on Dec. 14, 1814, Gen. Andrew Jackson ordered Capt. Francis Newman of the Corps of Artillery "to defend his post to the last extremity." In case the captain couldn't hold out, he was to spike the guns, blow up the fort and evacuate his men to a breastwork at the confluence of Bayou Sauvage and Chef Menteur, to cover the road to New Orleans.

On Dec. 22 Capt. J. Songy's company of volunteer mariners, containing many of Jean Lafitte's Barataria pirates, was ordered to reinforce the garrison at Petites Coquilles.

The British bypassed the fort, understandably enough, to approach New Orleans through the one unobstructed avenue—Bayou Bienvenue. But Fort Petites Coquilles continued to be garrisoned since the Americans didn't know whether the British might still strike there.

The fort was garrisoned from October, 1814, to June, 1816. When Fort Pike, across Hwy. 90 and about three-fourths of a mile away, was completed in 1824, Fort Petites Coquilles came to be known as "The Old Fort" and was used as a hospital for troops of the new fort.

During the 1830s the hospital was abandoned. Gradually Lake Pontchartrain has cut into the fort. Today only the foundations are visible, and the fish and the fishermen have moved in.


Click on the image below to make it larger.

An 1893 map shows the road going to the "hospital" that Fort Petites Coquilles became after Fort Pike was built. 

In this 2012 aerial photo from Google Earth, the underwater location of Fort Petite Coquilles is seen as a discolored area of water just west of the end of Hospital Road. 
A 1945 Article about the Forts
Below is an article from the October 28, 1945, edition of the Times Picayune/New Orleans States Magazine Section on the forts and their history. Click on the image to make it larger and more readable.



See also:

Wikipedia article about Fort Macombe

Wikipedia article about Fort Pike