Fort Constitution

Fort Constitution
Fort Constitution (Castle William and Mary), Great Island, Near Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The records of the War Department at Washington say that Fort Constitution reservation “contains twelve acres. It is situated on a rocky projection in the Piscataqua River at the entrance to the harbor of the City of Portsmouth. It is about three miles below the city on the west side of the river, on the eastern end of ‘Great Island,’ being the most eastern end of New Hampshire. It was formerly an English fort called ‘William and Mary’ and was occupied by United States troops in 1806.”

The location of Fort Constitution may be fixed more exactly by saying that it is very close to Newcastle, one of the outlying dependencies of Portsmouth. A long low stone structure thrust out on a wave washed spit of rock, its picturesque appearance stimulates the fancy of every visitor who approaches Portsmouth by water. Adjoining the fort is a lighthouse erected in 1771, and on a rocky eminence overlooking the fort is a ruined martello tower of striking aspect.

The history of Fort Constitution goes back to the early beginnings of settlement on the New England coast. In 1665 the commissioners of King Charles II began to erect a fortification on the point here, but were halted by the prohibitions of the Massachusetts fathers. In 1700 there existed a fort on Great Island and probably on the site of the present structure. This fort was visited by the Earl of Bellemont and declared by him incapable of defending the river, notwithstanding the fact that it mounted thirty guns.

A new defensive structure was planned by Colonel Romer, who recommended as additional works a strong tower on the point of Fryer’s (Gerrish’s) Island and batteries on Wood and Clark’s Islands. His main plans were carried out and with slight alterations formed the fortification which was known at the time of the Revolutionary ferment as Castle William and Mary, its name sufficiently emphasizing the period of its conception. While Castle William and Mary had an honorable career in a passive fashion during the French wars by frightening off French descents upon the flourishing little city which it guards, it does not spring into the limelight until 1774, when it becomes the scene of the first capture of arms made by the Americans in the struggle against the Mother Country.

In the year we have under consideration the Governor of New Hampshire was the able and passionate Sir John Wentworth. An account of the seizure of the supplies at Fort William and Mary may be succinctly given by means of extracts from Sir John’s letters of that period, a series of which was published in 1869, in the “Historical and Genealogical Register” by the Honorable John Wentworth, of Chicago.

In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth, dated Portsmouth, December 20, 1774, Governor Wentworth says:

On Tuesday the 13th instant, in the afternoon, one Paul Revere arrived with letters from some of the leaders in Boston to Mr. Samuel Cutts, merchant, of this town. Reports were soon circulated that the Fort at Rhode Island had been dismantled and the Gunpowder and other military stores removed up to Providence and it was also falsely given out that Troops were embarking at Boston to come and take possession of William and Mary Castle in this harbor. These rumors soon raised an alarm in the town; and although I did not expect that the people would be so audacious as to make any attack on the castle yet I sent orders to the captain at the fort to be upon his guard.

Distant View of Fort Constitution
Distant View of Fort Constitution

On Wednesday news was brought to me that a drum was beating about the town to collect the populace together in order to go and take away the Gunpowder and dismantle the Fort. I immediately sent the Chief Justice of the Province to warn them from engaging in such an attempt. He went to them where they were collected in the centre of the town near the townhouse, explained to them the nature of the offence they proposed to commit, told them it was not short of Rebellion and entreated them to desist from it and to disperse. But all to no purpose. They went to the island and, being joined by the inhabitants of the towns of Newcastle and Rye, formed in a body of about four hundred men and the Castle being in too weak a condition for defense (as I have in former letters explained to your lordship) they forced their entrance in spite of Captain Cochrane who defended it as long as he could; but having only the assistance of five men their numbers overpowered him. After they entered the Fort they seized upon the captain and triumphantly gave three huzzas and hauled down the King’s colours. They then put the captain and men under confinement, broke open the Gunpowder magazine and carried off about 100 barrels of Gunpowder but discharged the Captain and men from their confinement before their departure.

On Thursday, the 15th, in the morning a party of men came from the country accompanied by Mr. (Gen. John) Sullivan one of the New Hampshire delegates to the Congress, to take away the cannon from the Fort, also. Mr. Sullivan declared that he had taken pains to prevail upon them to return home again; and said, as there was no certain intelligence of troops being coming to take possession of the Castle, he would still use his utmost endeavors to disperse them.

While the town was thus full of men a committee from them came to me to solicit pardon or a suspension of prosecution against the persons who took away the Gunpowder. I told them I could not promise them any such thing; but if they dispersed and restored the gunpowder, which I most earnestly exhorted them to do, I said I hoped His Majesty may be thereby induced to consider it an alleviation of the offence. They parted from me, in all appearance, perfectly disposed to follow the advice I had given them; and having proceeded directly to the rest of their associates they all publicly voted to return home.

But, instead of dispersing, the people went to the Castle in the night headed by Mr. Sullivan and took away sixteen pieces of cannon, about sixty muskets and other military stores and brought them to the out Borders of the town.

On Friday morning, the 16th, Mr. Folsom, the other delegate, came to town that morning with a great number of armed men who remained in Town as a guard till the flow of the tide in the evening when the cannon were sent in Gondolas up the river into the country and they all dispersed without having done any personal injury to any body in the town.

On the Fourth of July 1809, an explosion of powder took place at Fort Constitution in which four men and three boys were killed and a number of bystanders wounded. The cause of the explosion was the carelessness of a sergeant with a lighted fuse, and the unlucky hour that he chose for his celebration was a time when his colonel (Colonel Walbach) had a number of guests to dinner. None of the diners were injured, and a quaint contemporary account tells their natural distress at several of the phenomena around them. “One poor fellow,” says this account, “was carried over the roof of the house and the upper half of his body lodged on the opposite side near the window of the dining room; the limb of another was driven through a thick door over the dining room leaving a hole in the door the shape of the foot.”

The appearance of Fort Constitution today is not very warlike and it does not play a very active part in the city’s defenses. The walls of the older part of the fort are of rough stone topped with brick. Over the arch of the sally port here is a date, 1808. These walls have been partly enclosed by unfinished walls of granite of later construction.

The martello tower, to which reference has already been had, was constructed during the War of 1812 and was begun one Sunday morning while two British cruisers were lying off the Isle of Shoals. Its purpose was to prevent a landing on the beach at the south side of the main work. An assault on that work was not attempted at the time, but who can say that the promptness of the New Hampshire men in thus adding to their defenses in the face of the enemy did not have its moral value in forestalling an attack? The tower had three embrasures.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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