The period following the Civil War saw revolutionary improvements in artillery, particularly in Europe. Smoothbore, muzzleloading guns of iron that used black powder were replaced by rifled, breechloading guns made of steel and firing smokeless powder. Annual reports of the United States chief of engineers in the early 1880s reflect the opinion that these new weapons had made American coast defenses, once the strongest in the world, obsolete. A West Point professor writing at the time noted that the forts had become, "not only weak, but absolutely more dangerous to the defenders than to the enemy." A hit from a modern ship's gun would have turned Fort Adam's granite walls into splinters as deadly as shrapnel.
Recognizing this weakness, Congress added a provision to its 1885 Fortifications Appropriation Act requiring the president to appoint a special board similar to the earlier Bernard Board to study the issue of coast defense. In May of that year, President Grover Cleveland appointed a board headed by his secretary of war, William Crowninshield Endicott. The board, which included civilians as well as military and naval officers, became known as the Endicott Board. The board issued a comprehensive report in January 1886 that recommended a coast defense system consisting of modern ordnance mounted in up-to-date concrete fortifications. Implementing the board's report represented an incredible challenge. At the time, for example, the United States had no ordnance facility capable of manufacturing such modern steel artillery pieces. The cost of implementing the board's recommendations was estimated at $126,377,800, a figure that shocked Congress. Rather than implement parts of the report's recommendations, Congress failed to enact a fortifications appropriation at all for the next two years. Once started, work proceeded slowly, but was given an impetus by the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and scares of bombardments by the Spanish fleet along the eastern seaboard.
Construction of the new system required the cooperation of several branches of the Army, the engineers who designed and built the fortifications, the ordnance experts who designed the guns and supervised their emplacement, and the artillerymen who manned the guns. The artillery had not yet split into field artillery and coast artillery. The engineers were forced to balance cost against protection in designing the new forts. As a result, they once again rejected armored casemates and turrets-which afforded gun crews great protection-in favor of open emplacements of concrete banked on the sides facing the enemy with thick layers of earth and sand. This type of fortification offered reasonable protection from direct fire that would be expected from an enemy ship. Such emplacements had the added advantage of being very difficult to spot from the sea. Added protection was expected from the manner in which the new guns were to be mounted.
Armament for the new coast defense system can be grouped into four classes. First, large caliber guns would perform the traditional role of attacking enemy warships. Designers of the gun batteries were confronted with the problem of protecting the gun crews from enemy fire. Having rejected armored casemates and turrets because of cost, engineers found a compromise solution in the form of a gun mount known as the disappearing carriage. The disappearing carriage was a complex mechanism that allowed a gun's barrel to project over a high concrete parapet for firing. When fired, the gun's recoil caused it to descend below the parapet where the crew could load the next round. In the loading position, the crew was protected from direct fire by the concrete parapet and as much as forty feet of sand and earth in front of it. While providing relatively cheap protection, disappearing carriages had several important weaknesses. Obviously they offered no overhead protection. Additionally, technical considerations limited both the traverse and the range of guns mounted on this type of carriage. To overcome this disadvantage, some guns continued to be mounted on barbette mounts. Second, were seacoast mortars. Instead of firing directly at an enemy ship as would a gun, a mortar lofted a large caliber shell toward an enemy ship along a high trajectory. Rather than hitting a ship on the side, where the armor was thickest, a mortar shell would pierce the ship's relatively weak deck and explode deep within the vessel. The mortars' high trajectory also allowed them to be emplaced well back from the shore line where they were relatively protected from the flat trajectory fire from ships' guns. Because the target could not be seen by the gunners, however, mortars required a sophisticated system of observation and fire control. Third, were electrically-fired mines, which had assumed an increasingly important role in coast defense. Finally, small-caliber, rapid-fire guns were developed to deal with a new threat, the swift torpedo boat that could sneak into an anchorage and wreak havoc. These guns could also cover minefields to prevent an enemy from sweeping them.
The Endicott Board recommended twenty-seven ports be protected under the new system. New York and Boston were first and third in order of priority. Narragansett Bay was number eleven. Because of this relatively low priority, construction was barely underway around Newport when the Spanish-American War broke out in April 1898. Had the Spanish Fleet attempted to enter Narragansett Bay, it mainly would have faced United States guns from the Civil War period augmented by a few modern weapons in temporary batteries. The Spanish would have had to contend with the minefield blocking the East Passage, however, as did Joshua Slocum when he returned to Narragansett Bay in June 1898 from his historic, single-handed cruise around the world. When construction of the new forts began in Narragansett Bay shortly before the turn of the century, changes in ordnance required the engineers to rethink the locations of the forts. The increased range of guns presented the main challenge. A 12-inch gun could fire eight miles, for example. Instead of firing across the entrances to the bay in the manner of earlier muzzleloaders, the new guns required a location that would allow them to be fired out to sea along the line of a column of ships attempting to sail into the bay. The high ground at Fort Adams adjacent to the Third System redoubt provided room for four gun batteries, including Battery Reilly with two 10-inch disappearing guns. Two batteries of 12-inch mortars were also located at Fort Adams. Across the East Passage from Fort Adams, Louis Tousard's old fort on the Dumplings was finally demolished to make room for several batteries of a new work called Fort Wetherill.
Fort Wetherill had some of Narragansett Bay's biggest guns of the period, including two batteries of 12-inch disappearing guns. The wharf built below where Tousard's fort once stood became the base for the mine defenses of the East Passage. Across Conanicut Island at Beaverhead, a new position was constructed to protect the West Passage. Named Fort Getty, this new work contained three gun batteries, including one with three 12-inch disappearing guns that was named for Louis Tousard. Two other works were also placed to guard the West Passage. Dutch Island was transformed into a full-fledged fortified position named Fort Greble. The fort's armament included three gun batteries and a battery of mortars to complement those at Fort Adams. Construction of Fort Kearny, the last of Narragansett Bay's Endicott works, began in 1906 near the South Ferry landing at Saunderstown. Containing three batteries of 3- and 6-inch guns, this fort protected the mainland shore of the West Passage. The Sakonnet River continued to be a weakness in the defenses of Narragansett Bay. Although the depth of the channel prevented major warships from gaining access to the bay by this route, coast defense commanders worried that smaller enemy vessels might take advantage of this "side door." During joint Army-Navy maneuvers in 1902, the commander of Fort Adams periodically trained his searchlights up the bay in hopes of detecting any enemy ships that might have sneaked in through the Sakonnet River. During World War I, the army moved two 4.72-inch guns from Fort Adams and emplaced them temporarily at Sachuest Point to protect the mouth of the Sakonnet River.
World War I saw no enemy fleets attempting to force Narragansett Bay or shell the cities along its coast. The war did see technical developments that were to force a reconsideration of United States coast defenses, however. On one hand, ordnance designers made great strides in increasing the range and power of artillery pieces. Technical considerations involving the construction of naval turrets of the period meant that for a given size of gun, a coast defense weapon would have a greater range than its shipboard equivalent. The United States Army's 16-inch coast defense gun, Model 1919, had a range of 49,1d> ards. In comparison, the 16-inch guns of the battleship Maryland, which was laid down in 1917, had a range of 35,000 yards. Army engineers decided to rely on this sizable differential to protect long-range coast defense batteries in lieu of costly concrete cover for them. Long-range 12- and 16-inch guns were once again mounted on barbette carriages which allowed 360-degree traverse and drastically reduced construction costs. Unlike many other important harbors, Narragansett Bay did not receive any of these new weapons. Unfortunately, another World War I development, the bomber aircraft, was to force engineers and artillerymen to reconsider this latest approach to coast defense. World War II and the End of Coast Defense Airplanes were to affect coast defenses in several important ways. In the view of some Army officers, the airplane was the ideal instrument to continue the trend of increasing the range of coast artillery. Instead of extending ranges hundreds of yards with a new cannon, they argued, extend ranges hundreds of miles with a new bomber. A variety of circumstances combined to encourage the proponents of aerial coast defense. Disciples of air power believed that strategic bombing alone could win wars without the carnage that attended ground fighting of the type that had occurred in Europe during World War I. The key to such bombing was the development of a modern long-range bomber. This development, in turn, rested on money from Congress.
Congress was in no mood to provide money for a weapon that could be used only in another overseas war. An improved way of defending the United States, however, was a different matter. The eventual result of this effort was the Boeing B-17. When this bomber became famous in World War II as the Flying Fortress, most Americans assumed the name referred to the unprecedented amount of defensive armament it carried. In fact, the name referred to the plane's initial mission as a flying coast defense fort. In a series of tests in 1921, Army bombers led by Major William "Billy" Mitchell sank several former German and United States warships that had been adapted for use as targets. Although Mitchell demonstrated that, under certain conditions, aircraft could sink large ships, a question remained whether aircraft could locate an enemy fleet at sea in the days before radar. On May 12, 1938, Army Air Corps B-17s intercepted the Italian liner Rex 776 miles off the United States coast. In addition to demonstrating the ability of land-based aircraft to locate ships far at sea, this action renewed rivalry between the Navy and the Army over the responsibility for such missions. Improvements in aircraft also caused problems for the proponents of conventional coast defense methods.
The problems involved the protection of coast defense forts from aerial attack by an enemy. Part of the solution was to add antiaircraft guns to the types of ordnance already in the coast artillery's arsenal. This effort required not only new guns, but a new array of fire control equipment such as height finders. The second part of the solution involved the redesign of gun emplacements. Construction of the new long-range barbette gun positions had hardly begun before they were obsolete. The answer to this new problem was an old idea, the casemate. Paralleling the transition from Vauban to Montalembert, coast artillery guns were once again mounted in covered positions that protected them, but limited their fields of fire. This time, however, the casemates were massive structures of reinforced concrete covered with tons of earth instead of the elegant brick vaults of General Totten's time. As so often had happened in the past, emphasis on America's defenses declined following the end of World War I. Many of the guns were removed from the forts around Narragansett Bay. In one sense the loss of these guns made no difference. At the start of World War II in 1939, a modern battleship could have shelled Newport while remaining at sea beyond the reach of the area's longest range guns.
The outbreak of fighting in Europe emphasized the weaknesses of America's defenses and prompted measures to overcome the problems. For the first time since the colonial period, entirely new locations had to be found for the modern casemates. Rather than defending the three entrances to the bay separately, the range of the new 16-inch guns permitted a single defense of all three. In 1940 and 1941, the United States government acquired property at Sakonnet Point and Point Judith to create Forts Church and Greene respectively. The twenty-six-mile range of these huge guns allowed them to take an enemy under fire long before his ships were close to entering Narragansett Bay. To the east, the guns could reach out as far as Martha's Vineyard; to the west, almost as far as the tip of Long Island. At Fort Church, a battery of two 16-inch guns was complemented by a battery of two 8-inch guns, also in casemates. A battery of two modern 6-inch guns in steel shields was also located at Sakonnet point as were positions for 155mm mobile artillery pieces. At Fort Greene, one battery of 16-inch guns in casemates was completed. Another was started, but construction was suspended in 1943 when the direction of the war indicated that United States coastal defenses would probably never see action. Point Judith also had a modern 6-inch battery and prepared positions for 155mm mobile artillery.
Exploiting the full capabilities of these modern forts required the establishment of a new fire control system using both radar and optical instruments. Some of the resulting fire control structures were concrete towers and silos whose looks betrayed their military nature. Others, however, were disguised to look like beach front cottages. Locations ranged from Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard to Block Island, with numerous other sites along the Rhode Island coast. Concern for the security of Narragansett Bay increased after the start of war in 1941 and a second line of defense was begun. In 1942, the government purchased land at Beavertail on Conanicut Island for the construction of Fort Burnside. A modern 6-inch battery was constructed there, and the 3-inch guns from Fort Getty's Battery Whiting were moved to Fort Burnside to cover the entrance to the East Passage. Opposite Beavertail on the mainland, Fort Varnum was established with older 6-inch guns that had been moved from Battery House at Fort Getty and 3-inch guns taken from Fort Kearny. The smaller guns were later moved again, this time to Fort Getty. At various times, 37mm and 90mm guns were mounted for anti-motor-torpedo-boat duty at locations that included Fort Getty, Fort Varnum, Fort Wetherill, and new Brenton's Point, where positions for 155mm mobile artillery pieces were also located.
In addition to the firepower of this wide array of guns, an intricate system of underwater listening devices, minefields, and antisubmarine nets also protected Narragansett Bay. Seaward from the mouths of the East and West Passages lay underwater cables that could detect the magnetic field of a submarine or surface ship passing over them. Closer to the shore were hydrophones that could pick up the sound of a ship's propeller. Command posts ashore analyzed information from these detection systems to determine the nature of any contacts. Next came two lines of electrically controlled mines. Modern mine casemates, bunkers from which the minefields were controlled, at Hull Cove on Conanicut Island replaced earlier ones at Fort Adams, Fort Wetherill, and Fort Greble. Completing the system were the giant steel nets that closed the East Passage at Fort Wetherill. Made in two sections, one end of each section was anchored to the shore. The other ends of the two sections were held by net tending ships stationed in the channel where they could open and close the barrier like a giant bi-fold closet door. The West Passage was blocked by a solid anti-boat boom and net that could not be opened. The ends were anchored at Fort Getty and Fort Kearny. As World War II progressed, the threat of an enemy bombarding Narragansett Bay declined steadily. Most of the guns remaining in Endicott period forts were removed for scrap, and work was suspended on uncompleted modern casemates.
German submarines continued to operate off the coast until the end of the war, but they remained an enemy beyond the reach of traditional coastal defenses. Air attack remained a very real threat, however, and antiaircraft batteries sprang up aroe wethe bay. Many were entirely new installations, such as the ones on Coaster's Harbor Island, on Eustis Avenue in Newport, and on Ruggles Avenue and Old Fort Road near the site of the current Rogers High School. Other batteries showed up in some familiar places. As early as the 1920s, the army had emplaced antiaircraft guns at Fort Greble, between the Endicott batteries at Fort Wetherill, and atop Joseph Totten's redoubt at Fort Adams. During World War II, soldiers also manned naval antiaircraft guns mounted on Rose Island around Louis Tousard's Fort Hamilton. During the war, none of the many guns protecting Narragansett Bay saw action. Had they been called upon to do so, Fort Adams, the masterpiece of the bay's earlier defenses, would have been far to the rear of the battle. General Totten might have been pleased to know, however, that the battle would have been controlled from an underground command center located not far from his Third System redoubt.
After the war, coastal defenses languished for a while in a state of limbo. When the threat shifted from enemy fleets to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the forts were closed and put to other uses. Most are parks, like Fort Adams, which is now part of a state park that includes athletic and sailing facilities and is a favorite place for picnics and other recreations. The fort itself has been the backdrop for musical events, including the Jazz Festival, which began in Newport in 1954. Fort Varnum and parts of Fort Greene at Point Judith are still used by the military. Fort Church is home to a golf course, and Fort Kearny houses a research reactor for the University of Rhode Island. They all stand as silent reminders of the great system of fortifications that once defended the fleet that, perhaps fittingly, is now also gone from the waters of Narragansett Bay.