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Fort Constitution Historic Site
Phone: 603-436-1552

Location: On Route 1B at U.S. Coast Guard Station, New Castle

Activities: Self-guided walking trail.

Amenities: None

Fee: None

Operation Schedule: None

Acreage: 2 acres

Waterfront: Atlantic Ocean

Number of Campsites: None

More Information: Coastal Defense
Fort Constitution State Historic Site is located on a peninsula on the northeast corner of New Castle Island. It overlooks both the Piscataqua River and the Atlantic Ocean. Fort Constitution is one of seven forts built to protect Portsmouth Harbor. The others in New Hampshire are: Fort Washington, Fort Stark and Fort Dearborn (Odiorne Point State Park); and in Maine: Fort Sullivan, Fort McClary and Fort Foster.
The earliest forts were built to protect the colonists. As Portsmouth Harbor's importance increased with the Revolutionary War shipbuilding industry and the establishment of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1800, additional fortification was needed.

Following the Spanish American War (1898) the improved defense of key harbors became a national priority. Fortifications such as Fort Constitution were constructed on both coasts during the Endicott Period (1890-1920) and at Forts Stark, McClary and Foster. The basic defense concept was to mine the harbor entrances and erect gun batteries.
The final coastal fortification occurred during World War II (WWII) when batteries were added to Fort Foster, and Fort Dearborn was constructed. The five remaining forts are obsolete and today considered historic sites or parks which are open to the public.

Fort William and Mary
The first military installation on this site was an earthwork fort (redoubt) with four "great guns" erected in 1632. This early fort was followed by a timber blockhouse built in 1666. By the time William and Mary came to the throne of England a strong rivalry with France had developed and stronger defenses were required. Cannon and military stores were sent from England in 1692 and a breastwork was constructed to protect them. This fort was named Fort William and Mary and took its place as on the line of so-called castles along the coastal area of the colonies. Although additional guns were sent and repairs made to the fort from time to time during the French and Indian Wars, the breastworks remained essentially the same until the time of the Revolution. Each breastwork was a rampart of turf three feet high on which batteries of guns were clamped to wooden platforms protected by a stone wall about seven feet high. The stone walls had window-like openings called embrasures through which the guns were fired.

It was on the eve of the revolution the fort played its most dramatic role in history. On December 13, 1774, Paul Revere rode from Boston with a message that the fort at Rhode Island had been dismantled and troops were coming to take over Fort William and Mary. The following day the drums beat to collect the Sons of Liberty, and 400 men from Portsmouth, Rye and New Castle raided the fort and removed 98 barrels (approximately 5 tons) of gun powder.

The next night a small party led by John Sullivan carried off sixteen pieces of small cannon and military stores. This raid took place months before the incidents at Concord and Lexington, and was an important event in the chain of events leading to the revolution. Governor John Wentworth immediately sent to Boston for help. The sloop Canceaux arrived December 17, followed two days later by the frigate Scarborough. The latter had forty guns and carried one hundred British marines on board. This prevented further raids by the patriots, but produced a dangerous state of tension.

By the summer of 1775 Governor Wentworth, with Lady Frances and their infant son took refuge in the fort and lived there two months in hope that a conflict should be avoided. Admiral Graves sent a transport under the Falcon to dismantle the fort and carry off the cannon to Boston. Finally on August 24, 1775, the governor and his family sailed to Boston on the Scarborough. Wentworth made a brief visit a month later when, from the Isles of Shoals, he issued a proclamation discontinuing the assembly. This was the last act of royal authority in New Hampshire.

Fort Constitution
In 1791 the state of New Hampshire gave the United States the neck of land on which Fort William and Mary and a lighthouse were situated. The fort was repaired, renamed Fort Constitution and garrisoned with a company of United States artillery. Renovations which included a wall twice as high as that of the colonial fort and new brick buildings were completed in 1808. It is the ruins of this fort that are seen today. The fort was used during the War of 1812 and was still serviceable during the Civil War when various units were trained there.

Improvements in artillery during the nineteenth century made it clear the old fort would have to be replaced. A new one was begun during the Civil War. It was to be a massive, three-tiered granite structure, but like others begun at the same time, was never completed. Armored steam powered warships with heavy guns made the masonry fort obsolete.
Outside the old fort in the area now occupied by the coast guard, a completely new system of fortifications was built between 1897 and 1903. This included a battery of two eight inch guns on disappearing carriages, a mines casement, cable tank and a storage house for mines. The harbor was protected by mines during the Spanish American War and during World War I and II. Fort Constitution was returned to the state in 1961 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 2, 1973.