Outside of the Revolutionary War, New York City is rarely viewed in terms of its military history. This is unfortunate since the City is home to a large number of military sites spanning its history. Presented below are some of its more prominent forts by historical era, beginning with the Dutch period.
Dutch New York
According to the Seal of the City of New York, the City was founded in 1625. That date was chosen because it is the year in which Fort Amsterdam was first constructed. The Fort which was situated at the tip of Manhattan (near present day Battery Park, which received its name from the artillery batteries that were once located there) and remained until 1790. There are currently two plaques commemorating its existence, one is affixed to the facade of 1 Broadway and the other is inside of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House.
Revolutionary War Era
During the Revolutionary War, numerous forts were constructed throughout the City. None of the forts remain today. After the Colonists were defeated, and retreated, the forts were utilized by the British for the remainder of the War.
Fort Washington is commemorated by an ornate plaque in Bennet Park. Fort Tryon is designated by an ornate plaque in Fort Tryon Park, and Fort George is noted by a simple plaque on a boulder on the grounds of George Washington High School. In 1776, Fort Putnam was constructed, in Brooklyn, under the supervision of General Nathanael Greene, after whom the fort was later renamed. Constructed in 1794, and dismantled in 1861, Fort Gibson was located on Eillis Island and its remnants can be seen today.
War of 1812 Era
In preparation for, and during the course of the War of 1812, New York City sought to protect its many waterways to ensure that the British would not be able to sail inland as they had during the Revolutionary War. A number of forts from the War of 1812 remain, though they never ended up being used during the War.
Originally a series of earthenworks created in 1794, Fort Jay was rebuilt using sandstone and granite in 1808. This Governor’s Island fort was renovated again in the 1830s.
Built in 1807, Castle Williams was another component of the City’s harbor defense system. It was also situated on Governor’s Island. During the Civil War, it served as a Prisoner of War facility. Allegedly, Captain William R. Webb was the only Confederate prisoner to escape from the Island and went on to become a United States senator from the state of Tennessee.
Constructed between 1807 and 1811, Fort Wood on Liberty Island (then Bedloe’s Island) was in the shape of an eleven sided star. The pedestal of the Statue of Liberty was constructed within the old fort.
Castle Clinton was originally situated off the coast of Manhattan. However, as a result of landfill, it is now fully surrounded by land and sits in Battery Park. It was constructed between 1808 and 1811. After being decommissioned, the fort was used as the country’s first immigration center, a theater, and an aquarium before almost being demolished by Robert Moses. It was designated a National Monument in the 1940s and is currently run by the National Park Service.
The Blockhouse, located in the northern section of Central Park, was completed in 1814, two days before the treaty that ended the War of 1812 was signed. It was constructed on the remains of a Revolutionary War era fort.
Civil War Era
After the War of 1812, the United States began to buttress its harbor defense system. New York City, with its numerous waterways, greatly benefited from this construction boom.
Fort Layfayette, originally Fort Diamond, was an island coastal fortification constructed between 1812 and 1818 off the coast of Fort Hamilton. It was demolished in 1960 to make way for the foundations of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Fort Schuyler was constructed in 1833, on what is now the Bronx side of the Throgs Neck Bridge. During the Civil War, the fort housed prisoners of war. It was decommissioned in 1911 and became the home of SUNY Maritime College (formerly the New York State Merchant Marine Academy). In addition to the school, it currently houses the Maritime Industry Museum.
Located on the Queens side of the Throgs Neck Bridge, Fort Totten was constructed in 1862. It is currently overseen by the New York City Parks Department and open to the public. It also houses the Bayside Historical Society which is located in the former Fort Totten’s Officer’s Club.
Fort Wadsworth is located in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in Staten Island. Its military roots date to the 1660s and prior to closing in 1994, it was possibly the longest continually-manned military installation in the country. Its most prominent feature is Battery Weed, which was completed in 1861. When it was decommissioned, it was transferred to the Park Service and is now open to the public.
Located on the Brooklyn side of the Verrazano Bridge, Fort Hamilton is the only active military fort in New York City. Construction was begun in 1825 and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both served there. It currently houses the Harbor Defense Museum and is the second oldest continuously garrisoned federal post in the nation after West Point.
The Twentieth Century
New York City’s only twentieth-century fort is Fort Tilden, located in the Rockaways. After serving as a coastal artillery installation, the fort went on to house Nike missiles. It is currently run by the National Park Service and is open to the public.