Fort Sumner: From Seacoast Fortification to Urban Park

Reprinted from the February, 1983 edition of the Munjoy Hill Observer--

Fort Sumner Park, at the top of Munjoy Hill on North Street, adjacent to Shailer School, was the site of an early U.S. Government sea coast fort. In December, the Portland City Council voted to dedicate the site as parkland "in perpetuity," subject to ratification by the Legislature. Dedication would prevent the land from being used for purposes other than recreation or open space without another act of the Legislature.

Ken Thompson of Portland has written an excellent history of the several forts which occupied this imposing site overlooking the city.


Portland's Fort Sumner was built for the U.S. Army in 1794, and formally named in 1799, but its background can actually be traced to 1775. A brief discussion of Portland's prior fortifications is necessary to understand the why and wherefore of Fort Sumner.

From the first settlement in 1632 on the peninsula of present-day Portland until the abandonment of the town in 1675, after the outbreak of King Philip's War, several private garrison houses had served as temporary fortifications in time of alarm or actual hostilities. After the resettlement of the town in 1678, until the outbreak of Revolution in 1775, the peninsula's only formal fortification was located at the foot of present-day India Street. Fort Loyal, an earthen-walled breastwork mounting ten cannon, was built in 1678 and remained in use until a new war with the Indians resulted in the surrender, destruction and total abandonment of the fort and town in 1690. Settlers returned to present-day areas of Falmouth and South Portland by 1700, including the construction of Fort New Casco at Falmouth Foreside in 1703, but the peninsula of Portland remained abandoned until 1716. Although garrison houses were built after resettlement, no formal fortifica-tion was erected on the peninsula until 1742, when new earthen fort was built on the same site as the former Fort Loyal. This fort remained in use during King George's War, 1745 to 1749, but fell into disrepair by 1755, when the fort was rehabilitated after the outbreak of new hostilities. Within a couple of years, neither the French nor the Indians posed a threat to the town, and the fort again lapsed into disuse, although the war continued elsewhere for several years.


The Revolutionary Years, 1775-1780: After the outbreak of the Revolution in April 1775 in the Boston area, the residents of Falmouth (the peninsula was incorporated as Portland in 1786) failed to adequately provide for the town's defense, either in organization, man-power, or fortifications. After Captain Mowat and his small British flotilla bombarded and virtually destroyed the town in October, the townspeople chose James Sullivan, Biddeford's representative to the Provincial Congress, to take charge of local defenses, and a defensive work was quickly thrown up again on the site of Fort Loyal, but it was a little late. In addition, work was started on a new fortification on the highest eminence on the pensinsula, overlooking the land for twenty miles, the site of the future Fort Sumner on uninhabited Munjoy Hill (North Street).

In late November, General Joseph Frye of Fryeburg was sent to command the four hundred men to be stationed in the town. Early the next year, work continued on the waterfront fortification at the site of Fort Loyal, called the Lower Battery, and the Munjoy Hill fortification, called the Great Fort on the Hill, while construction was started on three other positions: the Magazine Battery (present-day Monument Square), the Upper Battery (upper Free Street), and an emplacement at Spring Point (South Portland), named Fort Hancock by 1778.

All the fortified positions were little more than earthen emplacements, surrounded by ditches created by banking up the earthen walls, each mounting a few cannon, and containing a barracks in which the small garrisons lived. The Great Fort on the Hill was designed to be a citadel, a place of refuge and last ditch defense because of its position away from the harbor on the highest point of land, while the other batteries were more for first line defense. Two sides of the Great Fort on the Hill took advantage of the sheer drop of the slope toward Back Cove, causing James Sullivan to believe that this fort was much better adapted for defense than Bunker Hill.

During the Revolution, the total militia force stationed at the several fortifications at Falmouth Harbor varied according to events in Eastern Maine, reaching a high of 450 men in 1776, 120 men in 1777, between 24 and 80 men from January 1778 to May 1780, 300 men during the remainder of 1780, to a little more than a dozen men during the rest of the war. Falmouth suffered no further hostilities after 1775, but retained a varying defensive posture.

After the British successfully established and defended Fort George at Castine in 1779 against American invaders, the coastal residents of Maine south of the Penobscot River became alarmed at the possibility of further British incursions. Accordingly, a regiment of of 600 men was raised in May 1780 to protect the coast from Falmouth to Penobscot. General Peleg Wadsworth, grandfather of the poet Longfellow, commanded the force, of which 300 men were stationed at Falmouth and the remainder positioned further up the coast toward Castine. Since fewer than two dozen men had garrisoned Falmouth during the previous two and a half years, the earthen fortifications had fallen into great disrepair. Massachusetts sent a military engineer to superintend the reconstruction or repair of the Falmouth forts, but he accomplished little before the forces were reduced. General Wadsworth remained in Falmouth for only a short time before he moved his headquarters up the coast to Thomaston. He must have liked what he saw in his short stay, since he moved to Falmouth after the war and built his home, still standing on Congress Street.

After October 1780, the total garrison of Falmouth was reduced to about a dozen men for the remainder of the war. The wooden barracks in the Great Fort on the Hill was dismantled and salvaged after peace in 1783, so that only the earthen walls remained. By the 1790s, the weather-eroded earthen walls of the abandoned fortifications had further deteriorated.


A New Government 1789-1799: After the adoption of the Constitution and the formation of the United States in 1789, the first legislative act provided for the organization of the U.S. Army, although a small military force had existed since the disbandment of the Continental Army in 1783. In 1789, the strength of the Army was established at 886 officers and men. By 1792, the authorized size of the Army had risen to over 5000 men.

Turmoil in Europe following the French Revolution threatened to involve the United States in a new conflict with either England or France. Accordingly, in 1794, President Washington moved to provide for the adequate defense of the country. Congress then authorized the construction of six naval frigates, including the USS Constitution. Congress also authorized the fortification of twenty important harbors along the coast from Portland to Georgia. The size of the Army was increased by 20 percent, mostly in the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, which grew from fewer than 100 to over 1000 men. Clearly, great emphasis was placed on the construction and manning of defensive fortifications. Since the country lacked skilled military engineers, several French engineers who had fled the terror in France were hired to design and construct these harbor defenses, the so-called First System of the U.S. Army forts.

Etienne Bechet, Sieur de Rochefontaine (anglicized to Stephen Rochefontaine) designed and superintended the construction of the forts for the New England harbors: Portland, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Marblehead, Salem, Boston, Newport, and New London. Rochefontaine (1755-1814) had served five years in the Continental Army, attaining the rank of Brevet Major before his return to France. Fleeing to the United States in 1793 after the overthrow of the King, he offered his services to Washington. 

Without exception, his forts were constructed on the sites of Revolutionary War fortifications, some requiring less modification than others. In addition to receiving specific instructions from the Secretary of War, these engineers also had to secure the approval of appropriate state governors before a fort could be built. After receiving the approval of Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams and the Portland selectmen, Rochefontaine and local contractors began construction of a new fort on the highest point of Munjoy Hill in late July 1794, the site of the Revolutionary War Great Fort on the Hill.

This new fort, when completed late in the year, consisted of two parts. The main fort on the hill, unnamed until 1799, was an earthen redoubt, approximately one hundred feet square, surrounded by a deep, wide ditch. Entrance to the fort was over a drawbridge. The outside face of the earthen walls, about fifteen feet high, was supported by stone boulders. The walls were surmounted by projecting sharpened stakes and wooden palisades. The artillery of the fort consisted of four 6 and 12 pounders (cannons). The principal building was a brick blockhouse, designed as a barracks for fifty men, and to be a citadel for last-ditch defense, covering a bomb-proof powder magazine below. This somewhat small blockhouse was more than 26 feet square at its base, with walls about 15 feet high. This one and a half story building was capped by a four-sided pitched roof, topped at its pinnacle by a sentry box reached by stairs from the first floor interior. The thick brick walls contained rifle ports.

In addition to this foftification, a battery was constructed nearer the harbor (Adams Street by Eastern Cemetery). This self-sufficient battery consisted of an earthen emplacement containing a brick gun house, to defend with musketry the cannon mounted in the battery, and a powder magazine. The armament of the battery consisted of ten 32, 18, and 12 pounders, substantially more than the fort on the top of the hill. Between the fort and the battery, a covered way was constructed to provide protection for traveling between the positions. The covered way was not actually covered, but simply a ditch deep enough to walk through while being pro-tected from crossfire. The fort also included a reverbatory furnace for heating cannon balls.

This fortification was simple in design, little more than reconstruction of a previously fortified site, showing no new advances in military construction. Its simplicity, poor location, and earthen walls, coupled with peaceful times, contributed to a short life span, but the fortification was the height of military science, within the context of available appropriations, in 1794. 

The normal garrison of the fort and the battery was set at one officer, three NCOs and nineteen enlisted men, members of the U.S. Army Corps of Artillerists and Engineers. Of course, war time conditions would drastically increase the garrison. Rochefontaine felt that the fort could contain 500 men in time of war. However, monotonous peacetime duty was to be the fare.

On 1 July 1799, after the death of Governor Increase Sumner, the unnamed fort in Portland was formally christened as Fort Sumner by a salute of fifteen 24 pounders. The fort's commander, Captain Amos Stoddard, delivered an appropriate oration.


Fireguards & The Second System Of Fortifications 1801-1812: In February 1801, the town of Portland reached an agreement with the commander of the garrison that the sentinels on guard duty would act as a fire watch for the town spread out on the peninsula below.

By 1803, only thirteen of the original thirty projected forts in twenty harbors were still garrisoned along the Atlantic coast. Fort Sumner, with a garrison of two NCOs and nine enlisted men, continued as the northernmost U.S. Army installation in the country.

By 1807, war with England loomed on the horizon. Congress appropriated money to design and construct a new Second System of fortifications to protect important coastal harbors. Thirty-four harbors, some with more than one fort, received new fortifications. As in the First System construction in 1794, the Second System forts, in most cases, were built atop the previous emplacements. Fort Sumner was the exception. Its location on Munjoy Hill offered a great position for a last-stand defense, but offered no protection for the harbor, although the detached battery near the Eastern Cemetery did provide some protection for the waterfront.

In June 1808, the Army advertised in the local newspaper to exchange the land and buildings of Fort Sumner and the battery for more suitable land in private hands in order to built a new fort. Receiving no appropriate offers, the Army then announced in late July that the fort was to be sold at auction. Apparently, the auction never came to fruition, since the fort remained in Army hands. But the Army built two modem earthen, masonry and brick forts as the first line of defense for Portland Harbor. Fort Scammell on House Island was a semi-circular earth and masonry work mounting fifteen cannon, covered by a wooden blockhouse with six more cannon, while Fort Preble on Spring Point (site of the Revolutionary War Fort Hancock) was an enclosed star fort of earth and masonry, mounting fourteen cannon, with brick barracks.


The War of 1812: The battery of Fort Sumner retained its armament and semi-usefulness but the fort proper on Munjoy Hill lost all importance. However, the War of 1812 provided a resurgence for Fort Sumner. The Munjoy Hill fort served as a recruiting rendezvous in 1812, the quarters of a Farmington volunteer militia company in 1813 and, by the summer of 1813, men of the 34th U.S. Infantry Regiment were stationed at the fort until the end of the war.

Alarmed by the activities of the British during the latter part of the war, the state of Massachusetts constructed three additional earthen-walled forts on the Portland peninsula to garrison state militia, supplementing the three federal forts. Fort Burrows at Jordan Point (Fore Street) was dedicated in November 1813, while Fort Allen on the brow of Munjoy Hill and Fort Lawrence at Fish Point (the northern tip of the peninsula) were dedicated in October 1814. These other three Munjoy Hill forts were named for contemporary naval heroes.

During the course of the war, the harbor of Portland saw no military action, although a state of readiness was maintained. A dramatic sea-fight between the HMS Boxer and the USS Enterprise was fought off Monhegan Island on 5 September 1813, with the victorious Americans and the defeated British limping back to Portland, where the two slain ship captains were buried in Eastern Cemetery.

During operations from July to September 1814, the British invaded as far south as Thomaston, before returning to their base at Castine, causing the Massachusetts militia to be called out in full force, especially to protect Portland. The peace treaty was signed in December 1814, but word was not received from Europe until the following February. The British evacuated Castine and left Maine in late April 1815. 

1795 Map of Portland (portion). Legend reads: A to B — Fort with Block House. Covered way from Fort to Battery. Battery of 12 Guns. (Click to enlarge.)


Area Forts Become Obsolete: Between October 1815 and June 1817 Fort Sumner was dismantled as a military installation, with brick and stone being salvaged for use in the two newer federal forts, Preble and Scammell. These two forts continued as U.S Army garrisons until they met the same fate as Fort Sumner. By the late 1850s, these two Second System forts had given way to the planning of the massive granite forts of the Third System that still remain on the sites, accompanied by the construction of Fort Gorges on Hog Island Ledge.

Meanwhile, in 1827, John Neal had set up one of the first gymnasiums in New England on the grounds of the former Fort Sumner, but only the earthworks remained. As settlement on Munjoy Hill increased, all vestiges of the earthworks of Fort Sumner also disappeared. Shailer School was built in the late 1870s on the northern corner of the fort site.

Although Fort Sumner has disappeared, and all plans of the First System forts were destroyed in the War Department fire in 1800 (except for local copies of Rochefontaine's three Essex County, Massachusetts forts), portions of two First System forts physically survive, out of thirty projected or constructed works. Several of the forts had never gone much beyond the planning stage, while many had succumbed to demolition to make way for later fortifications. The two forts that survive partially intact were both designed and built by Rochefontaine, and their specifications and cost were the only two identical to Fort Sumner. The stone blockhouse of Fort Trumbull in New London, Connecticut survives on a Navy Research Center, while the earth-works and covered way of Fort Griswold are preserved in a state park across the river at Groton, Connecticut. By visiting these two surviving forts, one can visualize the layout of Fort Sumner. 


Sumner Had Had Notable Commanders: Although Fort Sumner was simple in design, never tested in battle, and had a short life span, it and its Revolutionary War predescessor had several notable commanders. Commander of the local milita when the Great Fort on the Hill was started in late 1775, James Sullivan later wrote the first history of Maine in 1795, and died in office while Governor of Massachusetts. He was succeeded as commander of local defenses by General Joseph Frye who would subsequently become the only resident of Maine to be commissioned a general officer in the Continental Army. Frye was succeeded in February 1776 by his second-in-command, Major Daniel Ilsley, who eventually served one term as a congressman from Maine. Incidentally, llsley's military orderly book of 1776-77 is in the possession of the Maine Historical Society. After a succession of commanders with the reduction of manpower in the late 1770s, General Peleg Wadsworth made Falmouth his headquarters for a short time in 1780. He later was elected to seven terms as a congressman from Maine. The designer of the 1794 fort, Stephen Rochefontaine, was commissioned the following year as Lieutenant Colonel and Commandant of the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers, headquartered at West Point, New York. And, finally, Captain Amos Stoddard, a former Hallowell lawyer, commanded the U.S. Army detachment at Fort Sumner in 1799-1800. He subsequently served in the West, and received the transfer of Upper Louisiana from France after the Louisiana Purchase. He served as civil and military commandant of Upper Louisiana for a few months thereafter.

We should remember that the northernmost fort in the first group of fortifications authorized by the U.S. Government was built here on Munjoy Hill 188 years ago, on the site of an earlier Revolutionary War fort. At the least, an appropriate and informative-sign should mark the site.