Gulf Islands National Seashore (Mississippi) | FORT MASSACHUSETTS

Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Fort Massachusetts is located on the western end of Ship Island at Gulf Island National Seashore in Mississippi. It is open from mid-March through the end of October and closed for the winter. You are welcome to explore the fort on your own or join a Ranger-guided tour, if one is held. Tours are given on select days of the week shortly after each ferry arrives, so if you want to attend, head to the fort as soon as you get to the island. For a current schedule, see the National Park Service’s Calendar web page for the park.

Ranger leads at tour of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Ranger leads at tour of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

If you end up touring the fort on your own, be sure to pick up a brochure with a self-guided walking tour route that directs you to points of interest. There are also a few information panels located at various places.

Brochure rack located just inside Fort Massachusetts

Brochure rack located just inside Fort Massachusetts

Construction on Fort Massachusetts began in 1859 as part of the United States’ effort to strengthen coastal defenses as a result of how easily the British were able to blockade and even invade American cities during the War of 1812. This not only included successfully burning Washington, D.C., to the ground, but the British actually used Ship Island as their base for an attack on New Orleans. This age of fort construction was termed the “Third System,” and from 1816 though 1867, forty-two forts were built. Many of the forts that are still standing today are part of the National Park system.

Fort Massachusetts was built towards the tail end of the Third System era and was, in fact, the last fort to begin construction on the Gulf Coast. At the start of the Civil War it was taken over by Confederate forces. With only eight feet of wall having been completed, the soldiers fortified the island with sandbags and timbers. They successfully fended off a Union naval attack by the USS Massachusetts in July 1861, then abandoned the island in September.

Union troops took over the vacated island and began construction again, completing the fortification by 1866. However, the armaments were never fully installed. In 1873 a few Rodman cannons were added to counter a Spanish threat, but for the most part, attempts to complete the fort ceased simply because it had become obsolete. Fort Massachusetts, like all forts of its time, was a masonry fort built of stone, or in this case, brick. Brick had no problem stopping a typical cannonball, for these didn’t travel with much velocity, nor were they very accurate, so the chance of blasting a hole in the fort wall by hitting the same spot over and over again was slim. However, rifled artillery shells were developed during the Civil War. Instead of round balls, rifled shells looked like large bullets and spun like a football when fired. This allowed them to travel faster and with more accuracy, and they could blast through a masonry wall in no time. Case in point: Fort Pulaski.

Like the Titanic would be deemed “unsinkable,” Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia, was supposedly impenetrable. And just as it was ironic that the Titanic would sink on its first voyage, so was it that the Union Army was able to blast a hole through the fort’s wall in five hours using the new rifled artillery shells. But this was not just any hole. Engineers who built the forts during the time of peace all ended up on opposites sides in the Civil War, which meant that no matter what fort you occupied, your enemy probably had an engineer who knew its weaknesses.

The Union knew where to blow a hole so that when subsequent artillery shells entered that hole, they would bounce across the parade ground towards the gunpowder magazine on the opposite side. The commander of Fort Pulaski, Charles H. Olmstead, realized that the entire fort could blow up at any minute and he quickly surrendered. Thus, within this five hours all coastal forts effectively became obsolete. As a result, after the Civil War, continued construction on forts that had not yet been completed, like Fort Massachusetts, was ceased.

For those touring Fort Massachusetts on their own, enter through what is termed the sally port. There was to be a moat and drawbridge, but these were never constructed. Once inside, if you have been to other forts, like Fort Pickens at the Florida unit of Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, you will immediately understand just how small Fort Massachusetts is.

Sally port of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Sally port of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Flanking the entrance are guard rooms and powder magazines. Straight across and running left to right are 21 arched entranceways that lead to casemates: fortified rooms that hold cannon. Though empty today, some would have held guns back when the fort was operational. Remember, Fort Massachusetts was never fully armed, so many of the casemates would have been empty even back then.

Casemates at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Casemates at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Inside the casemates of Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Inside the casemates of Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Artillery were fired through an embrasure, which could be closed for protection while reloading

Artillery were fired through an embrasure, which could be closed for protection while reloading

There are a few exhibits inside one of the casemates. These include artillery equipment and a half dozen information panels. It takes about 10 minutes to read the text.

Exhibits inside a casemate of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

Exhibits inside a casemate of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

The west end of Ship Island faces one of the only deep water channels in the Mississippi Sound (between Ship Island and Cat Island). Back when the fort was built, the west end of the island was just 500 feet away. Due to the shifting sands common on sand-built barrier islands, the west end is now over a mile away. The guns of Fort Massachusetts would have been facing this channel, for any attack by large warships would have come from this direction.

If you look to the left once you enter the fort, you will see what is known as a hot shot furnace. Cannon balls were placed inside and heated so that when shot towards wooden ships, they might cause a fire. Shot furnaces were standard equipment in all forts of the time. Steel ships and rifled artillery rounds would make them obsolete in the years following the Civil War.

Hot shot furnace at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

Hot shot furnace at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

To get to the top level of the fort, look for the round stair tower. The top level was also fitted with artillery, and here you will find the remains of many gun mounts along with one 15″ Rodman gun and its original carriage. Notice that this carriage is set on an iron track that allowed it to turn 360°. Compare this to the majority of the other tracks that only allowed a swivel of 180°

15" Rodman gun is original to Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

15″ Rodman gun is original to Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Rodman gun at Fort Massachusetts aims towards the channel between Ship and Cat islands

Rodman gun at Fort Massachusetts aims towards the channel between Ship and Cat islands

Gun mounts on the top level of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

Gun mounts on the top level of Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

The Rodman gun is the only artillery piece left at Fort Massachusetts. When it was decommissioned, contractors were hired to remove the old artillery pieces, which were then sold for scrap. The Rodman guns were just too heavy to move, and for whatever reason, the contractor left one in place. Others were blown up first so that the smaller pieces could be carted away. On display is a piece from a 100-pounder Parrott gun that was blown up and left behind, as well as a pile of rubble from a Rodman gun. This is the only such display that I have seen, and I have seen a lot of forts. (Note: Pounder refers to the weight of the cannonball that could be shot from a cannon.)

Piece of a 100-pounder Parrott gun left behind at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

Piece of a 100-pounder Parrott gun left behind at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island

Rubble from a Rodman gun left behind at Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Rubble from a Rodman gun left behind at Fort Massachusetts, Gulf Islands National Seashore

Pieces of a Rodman gun that were left behind at Fort Massachusetts

Pieces of a Rodman gun that were left behind at Fort Massachusetts

From the top level of the fort you can get a good look down onto the parade grounds. Unfortunately, you can’t get much of a view of the island unless you break some rules. For extra protection, an earthen embankment was added to the perimeter of the upper level and when standing at the gun mounts you cannot see over the embankment unless you climb up on it, which is against the rules.

View of Fort Massachusetts' interior from the upper level of the fort

View of Fort Massachusetts’ interior from the upper level of the fort

Fort Massachusetts is one of the smaller forts from the Third System era. Even the staunchest of military history buffs won’t spend much more than an hour exploring, and a half hour will suffice for most people. If you came over on the ferry, be sure you brought you swim suit because you still have another three hours to spend on the Ship Island.

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Last updated on April 29, 2022
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