The History of Fort Adams

The History of Fort Adams

"The Rock on Which the Storm Will Beat."

Researched and Written by John T. Duchesneau.
Images Courtesy of Daniel Titus.

View of the East Wall of Fort Adams Circa 1895.

Text Only Version - Recommended for printing and faster download.


Pre-Revolution Revolutionary War
Old Fort Adams Construction Pre-Civil War

Part 2 (1824 - 1861) Part 3 (1861 - 1901)
Part 4 (1901 - 1939) Part 5 (1939 - Present)

Artillery at Fort Adams Living Quarters at Fort Adams

Return to the Fort Adams Trust Website

Part One (1639 - 1824)

Pre-Revolutionary War Era(1639 - 1775)

The city of Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1639 by a spinter group of the settlers who had founded Pocasset (today known as Portsmouth) the previous year. Newport was blessed by Nature with a large and deep natural harbor making it an ideal location from which to conduct maritime trade.

The earliest known coast defense fort in Newport is mentioned in Arnold's History of Rhode Island. This was a battery of guns emplaced near the northeast corner of the intersection of Thames and Pelham Streets in the late 1600's. From this position its guns could command Newport Harbor and engage any vessels which may have entered it.

As Newport's importance as a seaport grew so did its defenses. During Queen Anne's War, about 1703 a permanent fortification was built on Goat Island. This position not only controled the harbor itself but its approaches as well.

Fort Wolcott from Historical Sketch of Fortifications of Narragansett Bay by G. W. Cullum, 1884

The fort was progressively improved throughout its life and was known variously as Fort Anne (1703 - 1724), Fort George (1724 - 1775), Fort Liberty (1775 - 1789), Fort Washington (1789 - 1798) and Fort Wolcott (1798 - 1879). Fort Wolcott (refered to henceforth by this name as it was the name the fort had when it served with Fort Adams) was Newport's primary means of coastal defense until the new Fort Adams was first garrisoned in 1841.

Fort Wolcott was manned by the militia until 1794 when it was garrisoned by the United States Army and ownership of the fort was soon transfered from the State of Rhode Island to the federal government.

Fort Wolcott was active until 1836 when its garrison was transfered. The fort was finally transfered to the Navy for use as the Naval Torpedo Station in 1869 and served that function until 1950.

For more information on Fort Wolcott please see A Brief History of Fort Wolcott.

Revolutionary War Era (1775 - 1781)

The present Fort Adams is actually the third fortification occupy its site (known in Colonial times as Brenton's Point - which should not be confused with the location now commonly known as Brenton Point on the Ocean Drive in Newport) at the entrance to Newport Harbor.

Newport Harbor in 1777 (Map by Charles Blaskowitz.)

Earthwork on Brenton's Point
(From French Map c. 1780.)

The first fortification on the site was an unnamed earthwork built on the night of April 6th, 1776 to protect Newport Harbor from British warships which menaced Rhode Island early in the Revolution. It was armed with one 18, one 9, one 6 and two 4 pounder cannons.

On Sunday morning April 7th the battery opened fire at about 5 o'clock AM when the fort fired on the 24 gun frigate H.M.S. Glasgow and a hospital ship which were anchored near Goat Island. Colonel Richmond of the Rhode Island militia fired 35 cannon shots at the ships in the space of half an hour. The ships cut their anchor cables and went across the passage to relative safety near Jamestown. (Source - Cullum's Historical Sketch of the Defenses of Narragansett Bay and The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, Vol. 2 pg 5.)

The earthwork also saw action at 11PM on Wednesday, April 10th when it fired on the H.M.S. Scarborough and H.M.S. Cimetar. This action forced the ships to seek refuge beyond Rose Island towards Jamestown. (The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles, Vol. 2 pg. 8.)

This action led to Rhode Island being temporarally free from British warships and helped pave the way for the colony's declaration of independence on May 4th, 1776, two months prior to the other colonies. The Brenton's Point battery was active until the British occupation of Newport started on December 8th, 1776.

French Map showing the defences of Newport Harbor circa 1780.

Due to its key position at the entrance of Newport harbor, both the British and the French maintained the battery on Brenton Point as a vital component of the defenses of Newport harbor. After the Revolution the earthwork fell into disuse and its guns were most probably transferred to Fort Wolcott on Goat Island.

Early Fortification Plans (1781 - 1798)

The years from 1781 and 1794 were uneventful from a military perspective in Rhode Island. In July of 1794 the U.S. Army placed a garrison at Fort Liberty (aka. Wolcott) which marked the beginning of the federal military presence in Newport which continues to this day. That same year a Frenchman named Stephen Rochfontaine, a Major in the Corps of Engineers, was placed in charge of planning fortifications in the northeastern United States.

After visiting Newport, Rochfontaine called for Fort Wolcott to be armed with 20 guns and four guns on traveling carraiges to be placed in Newport which could quickly respond to any emergency (such as an amphibious landing on Easton's Beach). (American State Papers, Volume 016.)

It was also decided that Narragansett Bay should be defended by several forts which would include the fort on Goat Island, Fort Greene in the Point section of Newport (today known as Battery Park), a fort on the Dumplings in Jamestown (commonly known as Fort Dumpling) and a fort on Brenton's Point, as it was referred to in those days, at the entrance to the harbor.

Fort Dumpling, Jamestown, RI c. Late 1800's.

Fort Dumpling (also known as Fort Louis or Fort Brown) in Jamestown was more notable as a landmark than a fortification. It was a round tower about 50 feet in diameter and about 20 feet tall. It stood on the high ground where the Jamestown Department of Public Works yard is today. It was a common motif for artists and features in most partraits of the approaches to Newport Harbor made in the 1800's. In an official report dated December 11th, 1818 it was listed as being armed with 10 guns which were probably emplaced during the War of 1812. However, there is no evidence that it was ever garrisoned or figured in defense plans for Newport after the War of 1812.

Fort Hamiliton from Historical Sketch of the Fortifications of Narragansett Bay
by George W. Cullum, 1884.
Another fort which was started but never finished was Fort Hamilton on Rose Island. This fort was to be square in shape and mount sixty cannon. Construction started in 1798 but was never finished. However, evidence of the fort it is still present. The most noteable remains are a row of stone barracks (designed to house 300 soldiers and considered the finest in the country in the 1802 report of the Secretary of War) and the circular northwest and southwest bastions. The picturesque Rose Island Lighthouse sits atop the southwest bastion.

Although Fort Hamilton was never activated there is an advertisement in the Newport Mercury in 1808 by Captian Baen of the Fourth U.S. Infantry offering a reward for a deserter from his company on Rose Island. From the late 1800's to 1950 Rose Island was part of the Naval Torpedo Station and was used as a gun cotton storage facility. In the Second World War anti-aircraft guns were emplaced on the island. Today, Rose Island is owned by the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation.

Old Fort Adams (1798 - 1824)

President John Adams by Gilbert Stuart

The new fort to be built on Brenton's Point was designed by Major Louis Tousard (a Frenchman who served as a volunteer in the Continental Army in the Revolution) and was built between 1798 and 1799 and was called Fort Adams after then president John Adams. (To avoid confusion with the later Fort Adams it will hereafter be referred to as Old Fort Adams.) This fort was active through the War of 1812 and mounted seventeen cannon. (American State Papers Vol. 016. Report of 1811.)

Old Fort Adams drawn by George W. Cullum after the original by Tousard (now in the National Archives).

Land for the fort was purchased from Susanna Mumford in three parcels on May 2nd, 1799, October 32rd, 1799 and October 30th, 1800 with a total area of more than 20 acres. (United States Military Reservations, etc.; Office of the Judge Advocate General, United States Army; Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.; 1916. pg. 356.)

Old Fort Adams was activated on July 4th, 1799 with an impressive ceremony presided over by Major Tousard. A brief but detailed account of the opening ceremony was recorded in the Newport Mercury newspaper on July 9th, 1799 which records that salutes were fired by the Artillery Company of Newport and that a motto was placed over the entrance to the fort which said - "Fort Adams, the Rock on Which the Storm Will Beat".

The first commanding officer of Fort Adams was Captain John Henry of the 2nd Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers (the Artillery and Engineer branches of the Army were united at that time). (Captain Henry's company was the "ancestor" of the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment which was an active unit in the U.S. Army as recently as 1991.)

Captian Henry was stationed at Old Fort Adams for a short time before being reassigned to Fort Sumner in Portland, Maine. He later became a "secret agent" who and shortly before the outbreak of the War of 1812 and sold to the Madison Administration correspondence proving that the British were attempting to subvert the established government in the State of Massachusetts. The "Henry Papers" were instrumental in building the public outrage which led to the outbreak of the War of 1812. Henry then left for Europe for further intriques (including spying on the wayward wife of the Prince Regent of Britain) where his eventual fate is unknown.

Old Fort Adams was garrisoned only until April 1st, 1802 when reductions in the Army consolidated the two artillery companies assigned to Newport into one company at Fort Wolcott. From that time until the War of 1812 the fort was unmanned.

A report of Secretary of War Eustis dated December 19th, 1809 (American State Papers, Volume 016, page 245.) records that Fort Adams was "calculated for 12 guns with 6 mounted" and Fort Wolcott had 12 guns mounted within the fort itself with 18 more mounted on the fort's flank batteries to the north and south.

In July of 1814, seeing a growing threat of British warships operating off the coast of New England, the Army had Fort Adams garrisoned by three companies of Rhode Island militiamen (about 200 men total). They were called Wood's State Corps after their commander, Major John Wood, and would serve at Old Fort Adams until the war ended and were released from service in February of 1815.

After the war, Old Fort Adams was usually garrisoned by a company of artillerymen and was a subpost of Fort Wolcott where another company was also stationed.

President James Monroe

President James Monroe vistied Fort Adams while visiting Newport on June 28th, 1817. He was making a tour of the northern states following his innauguration in March. He arrived at noon in the Revenue Cutter Vigilant, which was stationed in Newport for many years. The Mercury reported, "In the course of the day the president visited and inspected the garrisons of Forts Wolcott and Adams, with the order and neatness of which, he expressed himself highly gratified." President Monroe left the next morning for Providence. Monroe was the first of several presidents to visit Fort Adams. (Newport Mercury, July 5th, 1817.)

At 10 O'clock PM on July 4th, 1819 Private William G. Cornell shot and killed Private William Kane at Fort Adams. There was, apparently, some dispute between the soldiers and Cornell shot Kane with a musket loaded with a ball and three buckshot. The ball entered Kane's hip and severed an artery causeing Kane to bleed to death.

Cornell was held for trial in the Newport County Jail (today known as the Jail House Inn on Marlborough Street) and was found guilty at trial on November 18th, 1819. The trial was presideded over by United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Story. (As there were much fewer court cases in those times the only federal judges were the members of the Supreme Court. Between supreme court sessions the justices would travel a circuit of major cities and preside over trials in several states. This was the predcessor the the current federal circuit courts of appeals.)

An appeal for a new trial was heard on June 15th, 1820. The appeal was heard by Justice Story who, predictably, denied the appeal. After some time had passed, Cornell finally obtained a pardon from President Monroe. The reasons why the pardon was granted have yet to be discovered.

An interesting sidelight to this case is that Cornell's appeal, on the grouds that the federal government had no jurisdiction over the fort, led to a landmark decision which stated that the federal govenment did have jurisdiction over the fort. (United States v. Cornell, 2 Mason, 91, 105, also cited as 25 Fed.Cas. 646, No. 14, 867 (C.C.D.R.I., 1819).)

Fort Adams was garrisoned by a company of regular Army artillerymen until 1821 when, once again, force reductions caused the garrison to be withdrawn. From 1821 until 1836 Fort Wolcott was the only garrisoned fort between Boston and New London. In May of 1836 the garrison was withdrawn from Fort Wolcott and Newport's forts were unmanned until the new Fort Adams was garrisoned in 1841.

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