Fort Columbus

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Fort Columbus
Governors Island, New York City, New York
Site information
Controlled by United States
Site history
Built 1795, 1806, 1833
In use 1806-1904
Materials brick, granite, sandstone

Fort Columbus was the name of a fortification and later the army post that developed around it from 1806 to 1904. Located on Governors Island in New York Harbor, a half mile from Lower Manhattan, it was originally constructed as Fort Jay about 1794 and named in honor of New York Governor, later Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay.

Fort Columbus[edit]

With the election of Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800 there was a shift of power from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republican Party. Jefferson's party objected to the negotiations of John Jay with Britain, which resulted in the Jay Treaty of 1794, which resolved outstanding issues from the American Revolution. The Democratic-Republicans therefore renamed the fort in New York Harbor as Fort Columbus after famous European explorer Christopher Columbus. In 1806, under the direction of Jonathan Williams, chief of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Columbus was reconstructed and enlarged with granite and brick walls.[1]

Fort Columbus played an important role in the military life of New York City as the largest army post defending the city. The fortification, in concert with Fort Wood on Liberty Island, Fort Gibson on Ellis Island, Castle Clinton at the Battery in Lower Manhattan, and two other fortifications on Governors Island, South Battery and Castle Williams, provided protection for New York City and Upper New York Bay. This system of coastal fortifications discouraged the British from taking any naval action against the city during the War of 1812.

Peacetime role[edit]

In subsequent years, Fort Wadsworth, Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette at the Narrows of New York Harbor reduced the need for the Upper Harbor forts, and in time, the Army transferred most properties in Upper New York Bay to other federal agencies or sold them to the state of New York. Fort Columbus, however, included 68 acres (280,000 m2), a sufficient land mass for a modest garrison at a reasonable proximity (1000 yards) from Manhattan, making it the most practical of the War of 1812-era forts for the Army to retain and continue to garrison.

Personnel stationed at Fort Columbus began to record meteorological observations in the 1820s.

As the closest major army post to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, Fort Columbus for many years served as a first posting or a major departure point for newly graduated cadets shipping to army posts along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Many future generals in the Civil War were posted to or passed through Fort Columbus as young junior officers. They included Abner Doubleday, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, John Bell Hood, Theophilus H. Holmes Thomas Jackson, Henry Wager Halleck, James B. McPherson, John G. Barnard and others.

In the 1830s, the protective value of Fort Columbus diminished with the advance of weapons technology, but other uses evolved for the army post. The Army renovated the fortification beginning in 1833 with the construction of four barracks that remain to the present day. That same year the Ordnance Department established the New York Arsenal as a separate installation, adjacent to but not part of Fort Columbus, as a major depot taking delivery of contracted manufactured arms and weapons and distributing both contract and federally manufactured weapons to army posts across the nation.

The army located its General Recruiting Service for infantry troops at Fort Columbus in November 1852 and many regiments in the army detailed officers to Fort Columbus on recruiting details.[2] In 1836, South Battery became the Army School of Music Practice, training young boys to become company drummers and fife players and regimental musicians.

Role in the beginning of the Civil War[edit]

Twice in early 1861, the Army secretly dispatched troops and provisions from Fort Columbus to relieve the besieged garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Outgoing President James Buchanan initiated the first effort, but cadets from The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, fired on the Army-chartered New York-based steamship Star of the West on 9 January 1861 as it entered Charleston Harbor. The incident provoked a crisis while other southern states began to more seriously consider secession from the Union. The second effort, which marked the beginning of the Civil War, also failed when it prompted South Carolina forces to fire on Fort Sumter early in the morning of 9 April 1861.

During the Civil War, Fort Columbus served as a recruitment center and hospital. Fort Columbus and Castle Williams also served as a temporary prisoner of war camp and confinement hospital for Confederate prisoners during the war. Major General William H. C. Whiting (CSA) died of dysentery in February 1865 while in captivity in post hospital shortly after his surrender at the Battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina. He was the highest ranking Confederate officer to die as a prisoner of war.

Division and departmental headquarters[edit]

In the years after the American Civil War, New York Arsenal served as a major center for disposing of surplus and excess cannons and munitions for war memorials, scrap, or sale to foreign governments.

In 1878, as part of a nation-wide cost-cutting effort, the United States Army relocated many of its administrative functions from rented quarters in large urban centers to neighboring army posts. In New York City, nearly all army functions in the city were relocated to Governors Island, making Fort Columbus the headquarters for the Division of the Atlantic and later the Department of the East. Both commands then included almost all army activities east of the Mississippi River. The prestige of a command at Fort Columbus as a premier posting ranked second only to high-ranking army positions in Washington, D.C. and many commanders went on to become Commanding General of the United States Army. Its departmental commanders from the 1880s to the 1900s included Winfield Scott Hancock, Wesley Merritt, Oliver O. Howard, Nelson Miles, Arthur MacArthur, and other combat commanders in the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War.[3]

Fort Jay again[edit]

Secretary of War Elihu Root, an appointee of President Theodore Roosevelt, redesignated the fortification Fort Columbus as Fort Jay in February 1904, shortly before leaving office. Root, a New Yorker was an admirer of John Jay and his Federalist Party. He ordered the name of the fortification restored and extended it to the army post that evolved around it on Governors Island.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Smith, Edmund Banks (1913), Governor's Island: Its Military History Under Three Flags, 1637-1913 (1st ed.), New York: Edmund Banks Smith, p. 112 
  2. ^ Smith, Edmund Banks [1913]. 106.
  3. ^ Smith, Edmund Banks [1913]. 158-159.

Additional resources[edit]

  • Smith, Edmund Banks (1913), Governors Island: Its Military History Under Three Flags, 1637-1913 (1st ed.), New York: Edmund Banks Smith, p. 178 
  • Smith, Edmund Banks (1923), Governors Island: Its Military History Under Three Flags, 1637-1922 (2nd ed.), New York: Valentine's Manual, p. 243 
  • Glen, Susan L.; Shaver, Michael B. (2006), Images of America: Governors Island, Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia, ISBN 978-0-7385-3895-2 
  • "Governors Island". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. 2007-09-11. 

Coordinates: 40°41′28″N 74°00′59″W / 40.69111°N 74.01639°W / 40.69111; -74.01639