Military exercise exposed Fort Mansfield’s flaw

Military exercise exposed Fort Mansfield’s flaw

The Westerly Sun


It was 1907 when a fleet of imaginary battleships playing war games launched an equally imaginary attack on Fort Mansfield, a military reservation on Napatree Point at Watch Hill at the entrance to Long Island Sound.

It was a test to determine how well prepared the fort was to deny an enemy fleet a pathway to New York City where it could unloose its arms.

Unfortunately the guns at the base couldn’t draw down effectively on the invaders and the trial was a flop. Oh Boy.

The red-faced military conceded the games had exposed great weakness when it came to protecting Long Island Sound, with correspondence from Col. Charles D. Parkhurst, commanding officer of the Headquarters Artillery District of New London concluding “that any enemy desirous of attacking New York would come this very way, and would, as a matter of course, attack this district at its weakest point.” A diagram of the fields-of-fire of the three batteries at the fort showed that an enemy fleet could lie to the northeast of Watch Hill and not be touched.

Fort Mansfield had nine years of a full life, 1902 to 1910, and was the pride of the eastern defenses of Long Island Sound until its fatal flaw was exposed. The conception, birth, life and death of the military complex, and the so-called mimic war, were detailed in a 43-page booklet by Clement A. Griscom, which was sponsored by the Westerly Historical Society in 1984.

A joint Army-Navy Board report a century earlier had drawn attention to the lack of defenses along the coastline and the federal government had responded by purchasing two tracts of land on Napatree Point totaling little more than 98 acres for $5,650 in anticipation of providing adequate protection.

Built in 1899, the fort was named after Maj. Gen. J.K.F. (Joseph King Fenno) Mansfield, inspector general, and a military engineer who died at the Battle of Antietam in 1862.

The facility was hollowed out of the earth rather than being built up, in order to give the least possible exposure. It was manned in February of 1901 with a detachment of 30 enlisted men but from 1903-1910 the contingent routinely numbered approximately a hundred men. The base boasted barracks and outbuildings for its men and officers, and three gun batteries.

In July of 1898, Watch Hill Life reported, “It may be news to some Watch Hill people that the Hill is included in the government’s plan of fortifying the eastern end of Long Island Sound . Some time ago a tract of sixty [sic] acres on Napatree Point, beginning a little beyond the Halcyon House, was bought by the United States. It is purposed to place there in the near future a battery of two modern disappearing guns.”

A year later the paper noted, “At the elbow of the long arm which reaches out in sweeping curves from the bathing beach, holding under its protection our beautiful Little Narragansett Bay, tall derricks may be seen from Watch Hill, with heaps of stone and mounds of earth. The newcomer is told that here is being forged another link of the chain which Uncle Sam was so suddenly roused into tightening about his eastern coasts by the dangers which seemed to threaten our shores a year ago.”

Uncle Sam wasn’t so gracious to those who simply wanted to walk Napatree Point but were brought to an abrupt halt by warning signs and barbed wire fence “across the bay from bay to sound.” By 1902, Watch Hill Life reported, “The little village of fort buildings is finally completed.” A year later the fort had town water and telephone service, steam heat was introduced, concrete walks laid and (a no-no) “filling in of marsh land almost completed.”

The Westerly Sun in August 1902 reported, “If a truly hostile fleet should suddenly bob up off Watch Hill within the next few days it would produce a hasty exit from the big hotels to supposedly points of safety, but at the same time the vessels composing the fleet would met with a warm reception at the hands of the men behind the guns at Fort Mansfield. This is no idle boast, but is founded on fact for Major General MacArthur’s visit at the fort yesterday showed that everything was in good condition to give the fleet more than it desires when it tries to run the gauntlet of the fortification guarding the entrance to Long Island Sound.”

The fortifications included an 8-inch Battery, an Eastern 5-inch Rapid Fire Battery and a Western 5-inch Rapid Fire Battery. Guns fired in practice were reportedly, “shaking Watch Hill window glass well.”

A couple of years later the Watch Hill Topics newspaper announced lively times at the fort with officers receiving many guests who arrived by yacht or stayed at nearby summer homes. The paper reported that “The fort’s officers continued to be “well received” at nearby hotels while the enlisted men’s baseball team, “continued to be a skilled one.”

Time marched on uneventfully until that fateful day in the summer of 1907 when, on the 22nd of July, and after diligent preparation, the defenses at Fort Mansfield were “shown to be inadequate to resist a fleet of large size.” The die was cast.

Four years later Fort Mansfield was abandoned, except for a skeleton crew, and the reservation, in 1926, sold to local developers.

Seaside Topics endorsed the effort in 1926 of “prominent Watch Hillites” to safeguard the interests of the community at the auction sale for the military property, about one hundred and ten acres appraised at $93,000.”

“Not since 1911 when the purchase of the west side of Bay Street was carried through as a community project has Watch Hill rallied around one banner as it has today,” the paper read.

Of the syndicate formed and approved by a substantial approval of property owners, the paper noted, “Watch Hillites and the people of Westerly generally still owe a substantial debt of gratitude to this syndicate if its efforts succeed in saving Napatree Point from becoming packed with cheap little houses….A new York realtor who investigated this property proposed the division of the Sandy Point alone into 674 plots each 50 x 100 with a toll bridge over to Stonington….”

The Napatree Corporation syndicate, John M. Goetchius, Frank Hibbard, Elton Parks, R.B. Mellon and Thomas Thacher, paid $365,000 for Fort Mansfield. All the fort buildings were torn down during the winter of 1928-29 and salvage was sold.

Seaside Topics noted, “The most splendid opportunity for expansion is now opened to Watch Hill. Over one hundred acres of ocean frontage are made available to summer home builders by the effort of the Napatree Corporation.”

In addition to paying the U.S. government the balance of the purchase price in 1928, the corporation secured a mortgage note on the property with the Washington Trust in the amount of $125,000. Three years later the Washington Trust Company foreclosed and purchased the land itself at a mortgagees’ auction for $100,000.

Of course the Great Hurricane of 1938 had yet to wreak havoc on Napatree Point. Lined with houses before the storm, it was swept clean during Mother Nature’s rampage. But not before the disintegrating remnants of Fort Mansfield provided one more defensive gesture. A young couple, stranded on the beach, sheltered in a subterranean cavity as the raging sea raked the shoreline and they lived to tell the story.

Beachcombers find little to satisfy their curiosity at the abandoned beach today and boaters drop anchor to poke around the ghostly pilings guarding the shallow surf.

But when the sun goes down, Napatree Point, a lonely sandspit, belongs only to the earth and the piercing screech of the birds that prowl its edge.



Gloria Russell has lived in the Westerly-Pawcatuck area all her life and was a reporter for 45 years. She can be reached at harglo@verizon.net.






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