Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 23
by Richard J. Young
Part I: A Comparative Study
Blockhouses and Harbour Defence
Blockhouses played only minor roles in the extensive, sometimes elaborate fortifications built for the security of harbours such as St. John's, Newfoundland, Halifax, Saint John, New Brunswick and Kingston. They were used, for the most part, as temporary expedients for defence in times of crisis or war, while the plans for permanent works of fortification for these harbours were endlessly shuffled between the engineers, the Board of Ordnance and parliament.
The regulations of the Board of Ordnance permitted a local commander to undertake only temporary, emergency fortifications on his own authority. Small batteries, blockhouses and redoubts inexpensive works which could be built quickly in moments of crisis accounted, therefore, for many of the works of defence in these harbours. Such works were built by different engineers with conflicting ideas, often on the fragments of earlier plans or on the ruins of earlier works. In England the prevailing attitude of the government was that the security of ports in British North America could be achieved much more cheaply and effectively by maintaining the superiority of the British fleet than by building permanent land defences. The commander of a colonial station and his chief engineer may have held contrary opinions, but the superior wisdom of Whitehall usually prevailed.
The geographical contours, the different uses and varied strategic importance of each harbour and town determined the nature and history of the fortifications built in the four harbours mentioned above. The variation was considerable. Blockhouses were usually advanced posts to the main point to be defended, and provided defensible barracks which could occupy a redoubt, support a battery, protect a road, or be joined by picketing to other blockhouses to defend an extensive tract of land which could not be regularly fortified.
St. John's, Newfoundland
From the year 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert finally and officially claimed the harbour for the Elizabethan crown, St. John's became the main refuge of the British fishing fleet in the North Atlantic. In times of war, the fishing vessels were convoyed to St. John's in the early spring, dispersed to favourite fishing waters in summer, and reassembled in the harbour in October to be convoyed back to Britain. As well, St. John's became the administrative port for the "admiral" of the fishing fleet. Although the economics of the English West Country fishing industry discouraged long-term settlement, seasonal habitation gradually gave way to a permanent establishment. In the long struggle between England and France for control of the Newfoundland fisheries during the first Elizabeth's reign, fortifications were begun for the defence of the harbour.
Although a small stockaded fort (Fort William) had been built in 1790 for the accommodation of troops, measures for defence of St. John's had, from the beginning, been concentrated at the harbour's narrow entrance. The soaring cliffs which formed the small gut at St. John's made the harbour a natural stronghold. Until early in the 19th century, the succession of sea-level batteries, chains and towers in this entrance provided the main defence of the harbour. Little more was needed. A few guns at the mouth of the harbour made St. John's almost impregnable to assault from the sea.
The gradually sloping ground at the back of the harbour behind the town could not be defended, however. Four times the town of St. John's was attacked and forced to surrender. (It was taken by Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1696, by Saint-Ovide de Brouillan in 1708, by D'Haussonville in 1762, and finally by Amherst, who recaptured the fort in 1762.) Each time, the successful assaults came from the landward side behind the town. The tiny Fort William was destroyed and rebuilt no fewer than three times. Several coves and bays to the north and south of St. John's provided a number of easy landing places for troops. If an attacking fleet went unobserved, a surprise attack from the land could not be repulsed.
The British government was unwilling to spend huge amounts of money to fortify St. John's against a regular siege. As long as the fleet was considered secure and the small regular garrison housed, a seasonal town could not justify further expense. After the embarrassment caused to the British crown by the easy French victory at St. John's in 1762, Captain William Debbeig was sent out to investigate the harbour defences and to look for possible alternatives to the existing defences of St. John's. Debbeig's instructions clearly outlined government opinion of fortifications in Newfoundland.
Captain Debbeig duly made his recommendations, which were ignored for almost a decade. During the American Revolution, when Britain was again forced seriously to reconsider the defences of the port, a strengthening of the works and the erection of new fortifications were ordered. Captain Robert Pringle superintended the works, which followed closely Debbeig's earlier recommendations. New batteries were built at the harbour mouth, a chain was installed across the gut, and Fort Townshend, an earthwork, rose above the town behind Fort William.2
In 1793, war between England and revolutionary France again brought the fortifications of St. John's into focus and under criticism. Colonel Thomas Skinner, the Commanding Royal Engineer at St. John's, finally turned the opinion of the government toward considering a citadel. Neither Fort William nor Fort Townshend adequately covered the town or harbour. Each fort provided only security for its own garrison but even this was an uncertain safety: it had been conceded by all the engineers ever stationed at St. John's that these forts were commanded from the ranging hills behind the town. Signal Hill, the north-side eminence at The Narrows, could, with proper fortification, be made into a final, safe retreat against a regular siege. It commanded the harbour but could not completely protect the town. If the British were to keep Newfoundland, Skinner and all the engineers who followed him argued, Signal Hill was the point to be fortified.
It was at the back of the highest ridge on Signal Hill that the British built the only blockhouse for defensive purposes in the history of St. John's. The blockhouse was begun in 1795 and was intended to be the focus and high point of the Signal Hill defences. The lower storey was 30 feet square and built of stone. This storey was considered bomb-proof and contained space for 150 barrels of powder and other artillery stores. The upper storey was used as quarters for officers and artillerymen; it was wooden, and was turned diagonally on the storey below. The roof was flat and was intended to mount ordnance. Two batteries, east and west of the blockhouse, were built at the same time.3
In the two succeeding decades an extensive system of fortification was built to occupy Signal Hill, but under no systematic plan. The blockhouse was demolished in 1814 to make way for a Martello tower part of an extensive proposal for a permanent citadel by Captain Elias Walker Durnford, R.E. This tower and most of the works which Durnford proposed were never built. Two blockhouses were built later on the hill, but were used mainly as signal towers and seem to have had no defensive significance.
With this one exception, the absence of blockhouses at St. John's is, for the most part, explained by the government's reluctance to fortify the town. The only measures taken for defence at the back of the harbour were Fort William and Fort Townshend, which were established solely for the security of the government and regular troops. Wooden musket-proof blockhouses would have done little to defend the batteries located in The Narrows. Batteries were established at various times at the out-harbours and coves near St. John's but, unlike the rest of Canada, no blockhouses were built to barrack the troops or protect the batteries at these points.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Like St. John's, Halifax was an important naval base from the day it was founded, but the geographical features of Halifax harbour, unlike St. John's, provided no easy answers for protection against sea assaults. The relative vulnerability of the harbour, however, was balanced against the fact that an attack on Halifax had to be made directly by sea: no suitable landing place for troops existed short of St. Margaret's Bay, 25 tortuous miles to the west. Consequently little attention was ever given to the landward defences at Halifax except in the very early period. Efforts at fortification were concentrated at points on each side of the harbour entrance, and on a series of citadels behind and above the town. The ultimate safety of the harbour rested with the power of the British navy. Frantic attempts at fortifying Halifax in times of war alternated with extended periods of total neglect in times of peace. The 14 blockhouses built in the Halifax defence system between 1749 and 1808 were temporary buildings erected in emergencies.
The three peninsular blockhouses described earlier were the first to be built at Halifax. These blockhouses were constructed early in the first winter of the settlement in an attempt to seal off the peninsula from Indian attacks. The rapid growth of the town, however, and the large garrison stationed there continued to discourage any attempt by the Indians against the peninsula. The three small blockhouses built to meet the rumoured emergency of that first winter very soon became unnecessary defences.
The Naval Yard
In 1762 the rumour that a large French squadron was cruising the North Atlantic and the subsequent capture of St. John's, Newfoundland, in July of that year necessitated hurried preparations at Halifax. Work on Citadel Hill was halted in order to provide men to strengthen the batteries at the south end of the peninsula. Attention was also given for the first time to the defences of the naval yard. Building of the dockyard had been started in 1759, and its site, north of the town, was a bad choice from the point of view of defence. Major John Henry Bastide, the Commanding Royal Engineer at Halifax, had informed General Amherst a year earlier that "the Naval Yard [could] not possibly be brought within the line of Defense proposed for the Town."4 The naval yard's security lay in the fact that an enemy could attack it only after passing the fortifications farther out the harbour. In the emergency of 1762 the sole measure taken for the defence of the dockyard and the stores deposited there was the entrenchment of Maugher blockhouse.5 This blockhouse placed on a small hill above the dockyard had been built before the crisis.
Work on the Halifax fortifications was completely suspended with the coming of peace in 1763. The problem of the naval yard defences was left without attention until the American Revolution. By that time, a great quantity and variety of naval stores for the north Atlantic fleet was deposited at the Halifax dock yard. Concern about the safety of these stores was responsible for the government's taking more temporary measures for the defence of the yard in 1775. Lord Suffolk wrote to Governor James Legge on the subject,
A month later, in November, Legge reported to Dartmouth that Captain William Spry, R.E., was employed "in preparing some Temporary Works for the security of the [naval] Yard."7 In September 1776 Spry advised General Eyre Massey that three bastions behind the naval yard were finished, and a double stockade with loopholes completely surrounded the yard. Two blockhouses had been constructed outside the north and south walls of the enclosure. Spry also reported that the blockhouses intended for guardrooms to the bastions and as secondary defenses of the lines were "ready to raise."8
Fort Needham, north of the naval yard, was also begun in 1776. It was an earthen redoubt constructed on Pedley's Hill, and was intended to cover both The Narrows and the naval yard. It contained barracks for 50 men. A blockhouse called Fort Coote was built at the northwest end of the naval yard on a projecting point. It covered the naval yard and protected the approach to Fort Needham. Three 18-pounders were mounted at Fort Coote.9
None of these defences for the naval yard was ever tested, but Captain James Straton, R.E., wrestling with the same problem in 1796, criticized the earlier temporary works.
Two other blockhouses were built at Halifax during the Revolution. A large octagonal blockhouse three storeys high, 50 feet in diameter and designed to barrack 200 men was constructed in 1776; it was built in a large square redoubt on the summit of Citadel Hill.11 The hill's defences consisted, at that time, of a maze of batteries and irregular earthworks begun by Bastide in 1761 and elaborated by Spry during the Revolution. The earthen redoubt which occupied the top of the hill mounted 14 24-pounders in its embrasures. The blockhouse was built in the centre of the square. Eight six-pounders mounted on the building's second storey could be fired through portholes in all eight faces of the octagonal blockhouse, and effectively covered the guns of the redoubt.
Fort Massey, a square earthen redoubt on a small hill south of the citadel at the junction of present-day South and Queen streets, was also built in 1776. Spry reported to Massey on 4 September 1776 that "two 24 pounders [are] mounted, the post defencible, and will be finished in ten days."12 This redoubt covered the southern approach to the citadel and protected green-bank and barbette batteries situated below it. A blockhouse designed to accommodate 39 men was built in the southeast corner of the redoubt. Two barracks and a small magazine were also included in the work.13
The fortifications at Halifax were again permitted to fall into disrepair after the end of the American Revolution. The next crisis to erupt was the war between England and France in 1793. His Royal Highness, Edward, Duke of Kent, had taken command of the forces in Nova Scotia in 1792. The war with France provided Edward with the excuse he needed to proceed with his plans for reshaping the defences at Halifax. In spite of the Board of Ordnance's attempts to obstruct him, Edward managed, during his command at Halifax, to carry out an extensive revision and strengthening of the Halifax fortifications. Among his works were two blockhouses.
In 1795 Edward ordered a blockhouse to be built in the rear of the York Redoubt. Construction of this eight-gun battery had been started the year before to guard the western entrance to the harbour. The blockhouse was intended as a keep for the battery and for the small powder magazine nearby. Artillerymen stationed at the battery were lodged in the blockhouse, and its second storey mounted two small carronades.14
Another blockhouse 40 feet square was built inside Edward's star fort on Georges Island, and provided barracks for the regular troops stationed on the island. The blockhouse was designed to lodge 40 men.15 Its roof was left flat in order to mount additional ordnance within the fort.
The renewed war with France in 1807-08 occasioned the building of more defence works at Halifax. The works which the Duke of Kent had built a decade earlier were patched up, and two new works were begun at the north end of the peninsula. Fort Needham had fallen into ruins since the American Revolution, and it was completely rebuilt in 1808. A battery was constructed to protect The Narrows at the same time. Midway between the refurbished fort and the new battery, a blockhouse was built in 1808. It stood slightly to the north of Fort Needham, and mounted two 12-pounders in its second storey. It also contained a small magazine. This blockhouse covered the battery and protected the northern approaches to Fort Needham.16 Another blockhouse was constructed inside Fort Needham redoubt in order to replace the barracks, which were out of repair. General Hunter had received approval to erect a stone tower in the fort, but the shortage of time and manpower forced him to build the blockhouse as a temporary measure.
Repeated proposals had been made since 1760 to provide once more for the defence of the narrow neck of the peninsula. The recommendations made usually suggested a series of redoubts with blockhouses and batteries en barbette to occupy the high points of land between the Northwest Arm and Bedford Basin. Fort McAlpine, which General Hunter ordered built in 1808, was the only defence ever erected for this area. It was a large pentagonal redoubt with a two-storey pentagonal blockhouse inside which was begun in the summer of 1808. The work was intended to cover the approach to Halifax from the Bedford road, and to prevent troops from landing on the north shore of the peninsula.17 The three blockhouses built in 1808 were the last to be erected in Halifax.
Saint John, New Brunswick
The harbour and town of Saint John was a post of only minor importance to the British. But by the time of the American Revolution the supply of timber from the Saint John River area was becoming absolutely necessary for providing masts for the British navy; moreover the river was the only communication route between Quebec and Halifax in time of war. The troublesome raids made by Ethan Allen and his company of rangers into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia prompted General Massey to write to General Howe in 1777 asking for reinforcements to establish a post at the mouth of the Saint John River, a request which Howe approved. In November 1777, Massey sent Captain Shudholme with 50 men and two frigates to establish the post. With them were a small blockhouse (prefabricated in Halifax) and four six-pounders to be mounted in it, to facilitate the troops' task.18 The blockhouse was erected, palisades dug in, and an abatis thrown up before winter set in. A barracks for 100 men was added during the winter. The post was named Fort Howe. It was situated on a high ridge at the northern extremity of the harbour, which it commanded; immediately across the harbour from it were the ruins of Fort Frederick. Another blockhouse was built the next year, at the other end of the high ridge overlooking the Saint John River.19
In the crisis of 1793, Governor Thomas Carleton thought it proper and necessary to build some temporary defences against sudden attack. Dorchester Battery was erected at the southern end of the Saint John peninsula. Behind it, a 20-foot-square blockhouse was built to protect the new work. The blockhouse mounted four four-pounders in the second storey. Mortar Battery, Graveyard Battery and Prince Edward Battery were built in the same year. Carleton informed Dundas that he had undertaken these works on his own authority, but that "by the voluntary assistance of the Inhabitants, I was Enabled to execute [the works] without incurring any expence to Government."20
Not until the War of 1812 were any further measures undertaken to defend Saint John. With the outbreak of the war, attempts were made to put the town and harbour into a state of defence sufficient to repulse any small, sudden American attacks. If there was ever a large regular siege, the troops at Saint John were to embark in a flotilla of boats and retreat up the Saint John River, which could be easily defended against a pursuing army.
The fortifications built at Saint John during the War of 1812 were concentrated on the peninsula where the town stood and along the western shore of the harbour. (The eastern side was considered indefensible.) The British strategy was that, if the harbour could be adequately covered by the guns of the peninsula, the western shore and Partridge Island, then the enemy could not land on the eastern side. If a hostile fleet could be kept out of the harbour, there was no suitable landing place closer than 50 miles to the east.21
The line of defence began with Dorchester Battery and blockhouse, which were located on the southwestern tip of the peninsula. The battery and blockhouse were built in 1793 and were strengthened during the War of 1812. In 1815 the battery mounted two 24-pounders on traversing platforms. The blockhouse, which was 20 feet square in the lower storey, stood immediately in the rear of the battery. The blockhouse's upper storey mounted two four-pounders to cover the guns in front and to prevent an assault by land in the rear.22
Mortar Battery was located 211 yards west of the Dorchester emplacement. In 1811 this battery mounted three 24-pounders on traversing platforms, two eight-inch mortars and one eight-inch howitzer.23 The battery was a semicircular earthwork which was intended to cover the entrance to the inner harbour.
Graveyard Battery was located 150 yards north of Mortar Battery. It was a semicircular work which mounted three 24-pounders on traversing platforms24 and commanded the inner harbour. It had no blockhouse.
About a quarter of a mile from the Graveyard Battery guns was a small circular barbette work called Prince Edward Battery. The five 18-pounders mounted there commanded the inner harbour.25 The work was situated near water level.
At the back of the town, on a hill commanding the main road into the settlement from the interior, Johnston's battery and blockhouse were built. This work was begun in 1811 and was completed during the war. The battery mounted two nine-pounders on wooden platforms. The second storey of the blockhouse contained two four-pounders.26
At the northern end of the harbour, at the base of Fort Howe hill, stood the stone powder magazine capable of containing 750 barrels of powder. On the hill above the magazine, Fort Howe, the small stockaded work built in 1777, lay in near ruin. The rotten stockades and four six-pounders in the blockhouse provided a focal point for the defence of the town and magazine below.27 Slightly to the west and rear of Fort Howe stood the blockhouse built in 1778. This position commanded Fort Howe and the mouth of the Saint John River.28
The fortifications defending the western shore of the harbour began with Fort Frederick. This fort, which had been established in 1758 by Colonel Robert Monckton, was in almost total decay. The fort stood at water level, on a small point of land near the mouth of the river directly across the harbour from the town and Fort Howe. In July 1812, Captain McLaughlan, the resident Royal Engineer at Saint John, decided that the fort should be reconstructed. He believed that guns situated at this point would provide a good extra defence of the inner harbour and the town, and would support the batteries on the opposite shore. If an enemy succeeded in taking Fort Frederick, he could not turn the guns against the town; the fort was commanded by the heights of Fort Howe.29 Nicolls, the Commanding Royal Engineer at Halifax, could see little sense in spending money to rebuild a fort which was commanded on all sides.30 However, Major General George Smith, the commander of the New Brunswick forces, instructed McLaughlan to proceed with his plans for reconstructing Fort Frederick and to begin the one-storey blockhouse the latter recommended be built there.31
A blockhouse called Fort Drummond was begun in July 1812. It was built 1,400 yards along the western shore from Fort Frederick and was identical to Dorchester Battery blockhouse. It mounted one four-pounder and one six-pounder on wooden carriages in the upper storey.32 The ammunition for these guns was stored at Fort Frederick. The Drummond blockhouse stood on a hill which commanded the road to Musquash. If an enemy were to land in Magaguadavic Bay, he would have to pass the work in an advance on the town.
Carleton Tower, the first Martello tower to be built at Saint John, was begun in July 1814. The tower stood on a hill 200 yards behind Drummond blockhouse and commanded both the blockhouse and the road to Musquash as well as the western side of the harbour. Three four-pounders were mounted in the second floor of the tower and two long 24-pounders were mounted on its top.33
Partridge Island, at the southwest end of Saint John Harbour, was the final and most important defence on the western side. Late in 1812, the lighthouse on the island was converted to a musket-proof barracks for 60 men. The level ground on which the lighthouse stood was enclosed with an earthen parapet 5.5 feet high. Six 24-pounders mounted behind the parapet34 commanded both the eastern and western channels of the harbour. In November 1812, McLaughlan began a blockhouse in the opposite quarter of the parapet curve from the lighthouse.35 This blockhouse was built to provide quarters for the officers stationed on the island, and a cookhouse for the men lodged in the lighthouse.
The seven blockhouses described above were the only ones constructed at Saint John.
The necessity of establishing an alternative post at the head of the St. Lawrence River developed in 1794, when Britain finally agreed to withdraw her troops from those western posts which lay, it was determined, in American territory. The post at Carleton Island, which Twiss had begun in 1778 and which had served as the naval depot for Lake Ontario and as the transshipment point for supplies to the western posts, had to be abandoned. Despite some serious objections about shallow water and the problems of fortifying the place, the British chose as their alternative Haldimand's Cove, near Kingston. Approval of the site and authorization to fortify it came from England in 1794. The Duke of Portland wrote to Dorchester,
The problem of strengthening the cove to protect the naval depot proved to be a formidable one. The high ground at Point Henry could not be occupied as a citadel without an elaborate and expensive system of fortification. The rising ground on the west side of Kingston harbour behind the town commanded the harbour, Point Frederick, Navy Bay and the dockyard. No single system of defence could occupy the whole area. In the absence of any simple, inexpensive solution to the problem of defending Kingston, the British relied on continuing peace with the United States and ignored the question of the harbour's fortifications. A report on the state of the fortified military posts in Upper Canada, prepared by Lieutenant Colonel Bruyeres for Prevost in August 1811, did not mention Kingston.37
Sir George Prevost was aware of the undefended state of Kingston, and fully realized that an American attack on the post would cut communications between Upper and Lower Canada and deprive the British of the naval resources of Lake Ontario.38 Several times in the first year of the War of 1812, Prevost considered moving the naval stores to York in order to get them away from the American frontier; but the need for a strong post at the head of the line of navigation of the St. Lawrence and the momentum of the war delayed his decision.
In the meantime, Kingston had become established and would have proved difficult to move. The naval depot, dockyard and shipbuilding yards remained where they were. The post's importance increased as the war proceeded. The garrison was increased considerably in the summer and fall of 1812, and temporary works for the harbour's defence were begun. During the war, extensive work was undertaken at Point Henry for the protection of the naval yard. A series of batteries and blockhouses was erected at various other points in an attempt to protect the town and harbour. These works were all temporary ones, intended to take the best advantage of the ground that time allowed.
In the first months of the war, a battery was begun on Point Frederick to protect the entrances to Kingston harbour and Navy Bay. A small blockhouse was constructed behind the battery in order to cover the work and to provide barracks for the artillerymen. When Lieutenant Colonel Bruyeres visited Kingston in December 1812, he recommended that another blockhouse be built on Point Frederick. This blockhouse was to be much larger than the one supporting the battery: 48 feet square in the lower storey, and capable of barracking 160 men in hammocks. Bruyeres hoped that this blockhouse would provide additional protection for the dockyard.39 Work on the blockhouse began in the spring of 1813. It was located where the Martello tower on Point Frederick now stands.
To protect the outer channels of Kingston harbour, a small blockhouse and single-gun battery were established on Snake Island in 1813. The island is about four miles southwest of the mouth of the harbour.40 Work also began in 1813 on the defences for the western side of the harbour and the defence of the high ground behind the town. The object of the batteries and blockhouses built there was to prevent an enemy landing on the western shore near the town. In addition, if the Americans could have occupied the rising ground behind the town, their cannon would have commanded the entire area, except Fort Henry. However, the ground was too extensive and time was too short to prepare anything but a series of small works connected by a line of palisades.41
The defences on the western side of the harbour began at Murney's Point where a redoubt (consisting of an earthwork battery with blockhouse en barbette) was constructed in 1813.42 About midway between Murney's Redoubt and the battery on Mississauga Point, a small blockhouse was built on the water's edge to protect the end of the line of picketing behind the town.43 On Mississauga Point, a four-gun battery co-operated with the battery at Point Frederick to defend the entrance to the inner harbour. Behind Mississauga Point, on rising ground which commanded the battery, blockhouse no. 1 was built. Blockhouse no. 2 was erected on a triangular piece of land at the corner of Grass and School streets. This work was the second in the line of palisades rising behind the town. Blockhouse no. 3 was the next work in the line. Here the picketing was formed into a bastion and the blockhouse stood in the gorge.44 Midway between this work and blockhouse no. 4, a redan was formed in the palisading and a line barracks established. Blockhouse no. 4 was situated on a hill overlooking the main road entering Kingston from York. The picketing at this point was formed into a bastion with the blockhouse inside. Blockhouse no. 5 commanded the main road out of Kingston toward Gananoque, and was the last post in the line. The picketing was formed into a bastion around the blockhouse, and then continued sharply down the hill to the water's edge.45
Since all the blockhouses built in this line of picketing were erected at the same time and for the same general reasons, it may be safe to assume that they were very similar to each other, if not identical. They were all intended primarily as defensible barracks. Blockhouse no. 5 measured 30 feet square in the lower storey, and was reported to be capable of containing 45 men on iron bedsteads.46 Blockhouse no. 2 was described as being similar to no. 5.47 The only visual evidence available is a painting of an "old blockhouse at Kingston"; the blockhouse is not identified (see Fig. 39) but is probably no. 5.
The ten blockhouses built at Kingston in the War of 1812 were the only ones ever erected there.