Unearthing Fort Sumner

Following the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization's published position on the preservation of the treasured vista from Fort Sumner Park, the Observer continues its coverage of the site. 

In August we republished Ken Thompson's February, 1983 treatise on the Revolutionary War era fort. Since then, there has been little movement in the development of the downhill site at 155 Sheridan which threatens to compromise the historic panorama with the exception of a reworked, yet still obtrusive, design submitted to the City. No level-III site plan has yet been submitted by developer Bernard Saulnier.

In this installment of historical coverage of Fort Sumner, an 1886 volume brings into relief several aspects of the site not commonly understood. Notably, the nature of the covered way (more of a trench) connecting the hilltop citadel to the Monument St. battery, which was never completed due the high cost of remediating the loose earth in that area.

The Fort was surrounded by a moat and accessed from the slope side by drawbridge.

Also of note is the author's statement that at the time of publishing (1887), a little-known section of the original wall remained hidden in the backyard of a house on North Street "a few rods south" of Shailer School, a "rod" referring to a distance of about five-and-a-half yards.This would put the ruin at about 44-48 North St. Goold's 1887 book is available online for sale in a reprinted edition.

Much else remains for the casual historian online in the War Department papers, a massive cache of scanned correspondence from the time. Included here are communications to and from the Fort about needed supplies, poor conditions and morale within the garrison, pay and rank, etc.

Portland in the Past (With Historical Notes of Old Falmouth) 

By William Goold 

Published by B. Thukston & Co. Portland, Maine 1886

Excerpt, Chapter XI:

DURING the complications of France and England, in 1793, President Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality, to which the people of Portland heartily responded in a public meeting. For this they were much better prepared than for defence; there was not a gun mounted on the shores of the harbor, nor at its entrance. 

In March, 1794, Congress appropriated one hundred and seventy-two thousand dollars for defensive works on the eastern coast. Colonel Rochefontaine, a French officer of
engineers in the employ of the United States, in rebuilding the fortifications of West Point, was sent to Portland to lay out and build fortifications. A town meeting was called, at which a committee was chosen "to confer with the engineer and to purchase land for the use of the United States." 

After consultation, a square work without bastions was laid out on the highest point of Munjoy's hill, at the southwest of the present North street, and south of its junction with Cumberland street. A deep and wide ditch, or moat, was excavated on the four sides of the enclosure. A leaning wall of boulders, of about fifteen feet high, was built from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the parapet. This was surmounted by a heavy wooden capsill and palisade, with a jointed projecting cheval-de-frise from the outside of the capsill. The entrance gate was at the southwest side, the approach to which was over a draw-bridge. The principal building was a large square block-house, intended
both for barracks and defence. 


Colonel Jonathan Williams, who was superintendent of West Point military academy, in company with Captain Alexander McComb, inspected the New England forts in 1808. A copy of their report is at West Point. They say of "Fort Sumner, Portland, Maine, a square block-house." 
In his report to Congress the secretary of war called this fortification a "citadel," and it was so considered by the citizens of the town. In 1801 the selectmen advertised that
they had arranged with Captain Henry, the commander, that his sentinels should "watch for fires, and discharge a six-pounder pointed towards the town if fire was discovered between eleven P.M. and four A.M., and also give notice to Mr. Burns of the second parish, and Mr. Fernald of St. Paul's, to ring the bells." Evidently this idea was borrowed from Quebec or Halifax, both having high citadels, which always performed this service. 

So enamored were the people with the music at the evening parade of the garrison, the outlook from the fort, and the sunset gun, that crowds gathered on the glacis each fair evening.

So enamored were the people with the music at the evening parade of the garrison, the outlook from the fort, and the sunset gun, that crowds gathered on the glacis each fair evening. This interfered with the drill of the soldiers, and became a serious inconvenience to the officers, to such a degree that in the autumn of 1802, the commander, Captain Henry, published in the papers of the town an order forbidding "the citizens from coming within the limits of the

The plan of Colonel Rochefontaine included a battery on the brow of the hill between the burying-ground and the observatory, facing the harbor, to be connected with the citadel by a covered way. The battery had an earthern breastwork on three sides with ten heavy guns mounted; but the covered way was never completed, owing to the loose kind of earth through which it was to pass. Within the work was a brick furnace for heating shot. The battery overlooking the harbor and within short range, to repel an
attack by water, would have been a very effective work. 

The report to the President of the secretary of war, in 1796, gives a reliable description of those fortifications. He says : 

At Portland is built a fort-- a citadel, a battery for ten pieces of cannon, an artillery store, a guard-house, an air furnace for heating shot, and a covered way from the fort to the battery. The works are substantially executed except the covered way. To complete this, (the earth on the spot being of a bad quality,) with the necessary support of stones and sods, is estimated at four hundred dollars. Leveling earth round the works, fencing the land, a pump for the well, painting the woodwork, four hundred and seventy-one dollars. 

These works remained without any name except " citadel, the fort, or the battery," until 1799, when Increase Sumner, governor of Massachusetts, died. His warm partisans conceived the idea of giving the fort on the top of the hill his name, which was carried out in July of that year. The Portland Gazette says, July 1, "Fort Sumner was christened
by a salute of fifteen 24 pounders, and a smart peal from two brass six-pounders taken with Burgoyne. An oration was delivered by Capt. Stoddard its commander.'' 

In December, 1800, Captain John Henry, the commander of Fort Sumner, advertised for proposals for the erection of a house for officers' quarters, which was built outside of the moat. 


The Duke de la Rochefoucauld Liancourt, in company with Talleyrand, Bonaparte's future prime minister, made a tour of the United States and Canada, in 1795, 1796, 1797. He
published an account of his travels, in London, in 1799. He visited Portland during the time of the building of Fort Sumner. He thus notices it: 

They are at present constructing on the site of an old earthern breastwork, a fortification which they expect to command the town, and to render it at least secure from the invasions of an enemy. This new fortification stands at the extreme point of the peninsula on which Portland is established, and consists of a battery of fifteen or twenty heavy cannon of large calibre, commanding that wide entrance to the bay, which was above mentioned. This battery is to have, by means of a covered way, a communication with a small fort, at a distance of four or five hundred toises, which it has been thought necessary to erect on the highest point of the isthmus. The fort is sufficient to hold two hundred men. 

Fort Sumner and its battery below were the only fortifications in the town or vicinity until the erection of Forts Preble and Scammell in 1808-1809. The height on which Fort Sumner was erected obtained the name of Fort Hill
and is so called in the notice of fireworks exhibited there on the fourth of July, 1808. That year the fort was offered for sale or for exchange for a site for another fort. It however remained intact until the war of 1812, when the guns were remounted and it was occupied by a garrison. 

During the war two deserters were ordered to be shot there on a Sunday morning. They were carried there in a cart with their coffins. Their graves were dug on the spot chosen for the execution, and the coffins placed by their side on which the condemned men were made to kneel. The
whole garrison were on duty and the squad to do the execution was drawn up with guns charged, at the proper place, when an officer rode up holding a commutation of the pun- 
ishment in his hand. None but the officers in command knew of the interruption until the horseman's arrival on the ground. It was previously so arranged to make the scene
impressive. One of the condemned men was afterward for many years an industrious mechanic of the town. 

My first personal knowledge of Fort Sumner was as it stood sixty years ago. Then all the woodwork, buildings, and guns were gone, but the walls and earthworks were perfect. A description of the fort and battery as they stood at the commencement of the century I received from an aged gentleman who recollected it at that time. In 1827 the late John Neal set up a gymnasium within the old fort, after setting a high paling round the parapet. He had just returned from a long sojourn in England and was the first to set up the parallel bars and leaping poles in New England, and this was the last occupation of the fort.

During the war two deserters were ordered to be shot there on a Sunday morning. They were carried there in a cart with their coffins. Their graves were dug on the spot chosen for the execution, and the coffins placed by their side on which the condemned men were made to kneel.

The battery originally intended to be connected with Fort Sumner was made a very formidable work for defence when
there were fears of an attack in 1814. Sixty years ago, on its parade stood two gun houses for the field pieces of the artillery companies of the town, but one company had disbanded. There was also a long range of low buildings filled with the cannon belonging to Massachusetts, and so remained until the erection of the State Arsenal, where the Maine General Hospital now stands, in about 1830, when they were
removed with the small buildings to that enclosure. The old battery was finally undermined to obtain earth for filling at the foot of India street. 

In about 1830, Fort Sumner was sold to Hon. John Anderson, while he was a representative to Congress, for about fifty dollars. The lot contained about three acres, 
and is now covered with buildings. The Shailer schoolhouse lot takes in the northern corner of the fort lot. A few rods south of the schoolhouse, in a yard, a part of the
original wall of the fort can now be seen in its place.