Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2468
FORT INDEPENDENCE

by John H. Lienhard

Today, a cask of Amontillado in Boston Harbor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When Edgar Allen Poe was eighteen he managed to run up a gambling debt, drop out of college, and see the love of his life marry another man. It was not a good year. In 1827, Poe took refuge from himself by joining the US Army under another name, Edgar A. Perry.

Poe was sent to Ft. Independence on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. He served two years and rose to the rank of an artillery sergeant major. He wrote The Cask of Amontillado twenty years later, and some people claim that the idea came from a Castle Island incident. Soldiers had taken revenge on a comrade who'd killed their friend in a sword duel on Christmas Day, 1817. They'd got the fellow drunk, chained him to a wall, and bricked him in.

Literary scholars write of other inspirations for Poe's grim story, but the seed could well have been sown right there. The fort certainly has its ghosts. It might be the oldest fortification in the United States. Guns and earthworks were first set there in 1643, shortly after Pilgrims landed in nearby Plymouth.

The fort was rebuilt many times after that. Poe's fort was the seventh one on that spot. It'd been a safe haven for British loyalists during the American Revolution. Then it was used to keep the Brits out of Boston during the War of 1812.

Construction of the eighth and last fort was begun five years after Poe left. And its home, Castle Island, is now an island in name only. It's been connected by landfill, and the landfill holds a loading dock for containers. A scant 4000 feet away from the fort is Logan Airport's nearest runway.

Fort Independence

bastion The present fort is a superb example of defensive fortifications as they'd evolved during the century before the Civil War. It's a perfect pentagon, lying low against the horizon. That way it offers a minimal profile to enemy naval guns. Now it's unmanned and silent. The bastions on each of its five points make it look like a large snowflake on the winter landscape.

This last Fort Independence would be the last gasp of the medieval castle. Coastal forts were about to be made hopelessly obsolete. The long-range rifled naval guns that appeared in the Civil War would be more effective against forts than against other ships, easily reducing them to rubble. That's how Union forces destroyed Fort Sumter in 1863 when they tried to retake it with their new guns.

Fort WarrenA seven mile ferry ride out into Boston Harbor takes us to Fort Warren, built the same time as the last Fort Independence -- twice the size, but otherwise very similar. And its only military service was as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Poe was still firing smoothbore guns as he thought his Gothic thoughts in his Gothic fort. "For the love of God, Montresor," the victim cries. "For the love of God, indeed," says Montresor sliding the last brick in place. Now the fort itself is only a skeleton chained to its island in a world that's moved on to other things.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For more on these ideas, see the Wikipedia articles on Edgar A. Poe and on Castle Island. See also the Fort Independence and Fort Warren tour pages and Episode 870 on fortifications.

Photos above by J. Lienhard. Aerial map image below courtesy of Google Earth.

Click here for the full text of Poe's short story, The Cask of Amontillado.
Castle Island and surroundings


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.