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Case 6: Choosing a Site

The choice of a site for a fortification was influenced by both strategic and tactical considerations.  In 18th-century America the strategic concerns were often related to vital transportation routes—primarily lakes and rivers.  Portages between water systems were particularly vulnerable as were the rudimentary roads cut by military forces at inland locations.  The strategic site for a fortification was the responsibility of a senior military commander, who best knew how fortified bases would support the operations of his command.

Once a decision had been made regarding the need for a fortification, it was the duty of an engineer to determine the type of construction that would best achieve the goals of the commander and best oppose the threat likely to be directed against it.  The senior engineer would also make decisions, or at least recommendations, for a location that would be tactically sound and advantageous to defense.

In both situations an engineer or another officer with cartographic skills was likely to prepare a map showing the location to be defended or the topography that influenced the placement and design of the fort.

“Sketch of the Country Round Tyconderoga.” Gray wash and pen and ink, [1758].  Germain Papers. Map Division, Small Maps 1758.

In 1756 the French selected a place known as Carillon to construct a fort to block British incursions into Canada from the Hudson River by way of Lake George and Lake Champlain.  The fort, better known today as Ticonderoga, occupied an elevated point overlooking the spot where the outlet of Lake George joined the narrow southern end of Lake Champlain.

[Hudson’s River from Stony Point to Fort Montgomery].  Watercolor, pen and ink, [177-]. Henry Clinton Papers, no. 166. Map Division, Small Clinton Maps 166.

During the American War for Independence the British were prevented from ascending the Hudson by American forts that dominated two great bends in the river.  The first of these, pictured on this map, is between Stony Point and Anthony’s Nose. A series of forts covered this stretch of river.

Although the British captured Fort Montgomery and adjacent Fort Clinton (labeled here as “Battery”) in 1777, they did not have the manpower to prevent the Americans from keeping control of the river by fortifying the second bend farther upriver at West Point.

William Eyre (d. 1764), “Sketch of Fort Edward, Novr. 30th, 1756.” Pen and ink. Germain Papers. Map Division, Small Maps 1756.

Fort Edward guarded the head of navigation of the Hudson River and the beginning of the portage road to Lake George and Fort William Henry.  Captain Eyre, a British engineer, added a notation to his map at lower right stating that he had placed the fort at least six hundred yards from any higher ground to prevent it being commanded by enemy artillery.

Bernard Ratzer, “Plan of the Post at the West end of Oneida Lake.”  Watercolor, pen and ink, [1760]. Map Division, M-1134. Small Maps 1760.

Although little more than a fieldwork enclosing a few storehouses, Fort Brewerton covered the outlet of Oneida Lake as it flowed toward Lake Ontario.  It was one of a string of small posts built in 1759 during the French and Indian War to protect British military river traffic between Albany and Oswego.