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Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton


Where Gumbo Was #509

The oceans have always been a key part of U.S. national defense strategy; having all the most powerful enemies a long sea voyage away seemed like an obvious advantage—except when dealing with powerful maritime nations.


Defending the coasts against invasion by keeping enemy ships from sailing up the rivers and onto the coasts seemed an obvious priority, even from the first days of independence. The Harbor Defense Museum tells a lot of that story.

P1280513P1280474Details of Battle of Brooklyn, above, and a display of Revolutionary uniforms

And, it happens to be located at the very spot in Brooklyn, New York where the first successful seaborne invasion of the U.S. took place, at the end of the beach where in August 1776 the British landed 30,000 troops, marched across the county, outflanked the Continental Army and drove it from New York City.

Congratulations to George G and PortMoresby who identified the site!

P1280475An early version of Fort Hamilton's defenses; below a Civil-War era view

Lesson learned: By the War of 1812, the entryways to Boston, Baltimore and New York harbors were heavily defended against seaborne invasion; Washington, DC was not, and the British were able to land and burn the city.


Fort Hamilton was part of the coastal defense story for nearly 200 years, from firing, with little effect, on the British landing in 1776 to the removal of the last huge coastal artillery weapons in the early 1950s, when bombers had replaced the function of the big guns.

P1280482P1280484Over the years, ammunition used by the coast artillery changed quite a bit

The forts built after the Revolution, starting in 1793 and now referred to as 'First System' forts were relatively crude: Earthworks sloping toward the water with cannon mounted on top. They never had a real test in war.

P1280499P1280500Turn of the 20th century images of practice firing of the big guns

It only took about ten years and worries about growing European wars and the development of more powerful cannon to get a 'Second System' started, designed by experienced European engineers, who specified thick masonry walls, with the guns—many more of them—placed behind them and firing through openings in the walls.


Only one of the Second System forts was involved in a real battle, and it did well. That was Fort McHenry, its success in holding off the British fleet celebrated in the Star-Spangled Banner.

P1280477P1280495The museum is in a building whose role was to stave off any land attack

In 1816, Congress ordered a Third System of forts. Fort Hamilton was among the first to be rebuilt that way, with a double tier of guns in a taller, thicker structure, mostly on Hendricks Reef, yards offshore from the post. On the bluff, a new series of buildings went up, meant to protect the batteries from a land attack. One of those buildings now houses the museum.

P1280517P1280521P1280520Solidly built fortifications (and a gun port turned to use for modern comfort)

Meanwhile, technology moved on, and the batteries that were safe from attack by wooden sailing ships, and effective against them, became outmoded. In the 1870s and on, most of the Third System forts were completely rebuilt with huge guns that could fire heavy projectiles miles out to sea.


Many of the new installations featured 'disappearing guns,' pushed forward to fire, and then pulled back inside the forts, hidden while not in use or reloading. The mechanism for doing that was incredibly complex, as you can see from the diagram above.


The museum lives in a fairly small space, with exhibits laid out along the outer walls and in the center so you're always in sight of something ahead that you'll come to in good time.

P1280507P1280505A soldier's troopship assignment on the way to France during World War I

P1280510Commemorating service in the Spanish-American War

While the coast artillery and harbor defense are its reason to exist, it shows a variety of other military memorabilia from the Revolution to World War 2. Most of the items have some connection with Fort Hamilton. The museum's enthusiastic director is hoping for more space soon, to be able to show more items stored for the museum in Washington. It's a museum worth keeping an eye on for the future.


The Harbor Defense Museum is on an active military reservation; ID and other checks take place at the gate and the Visitor Control Center near the 101st Street gate. At present, visiting the Museum is by appointment, which can be made by phone (718-630-4349) or by email



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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