Friday, January 14, 2005

Fort Jefferson: Official and unofficial history

Last night we had a candlelight tour of Fort Jefferson by a Park Service employee in Civil War uniform. He began with a demonstration of his British Enfield musket, a knockoff of the American musket that the Springfield, MA, armory could not produce fast enough. The British, like the Americans during the Napoleonic era, supplied both the North and South with about a half million muskets each. Our guide averaged 25 seconds between shots, which must have been excruciatingly slow to anyone on a Civil War battlefield. You have to stand to load these things.

Not surprisingly, our guide gave us the politically correct version of history, pointing out that this fort, and 50 others, was build to protect our homes and families from the British after they sacked and burned Washington, DC, during the War of 1812. He did not mention that American “war hawks” jump-started that war with the hope of annexing Canada, then British territory. But they started that war with insufficient public support and no well-financed plan, so we had insufficient forces to prevent the assault on Washington. But Fort McHenry withstood a subsequent British attack, fixing the utility of coastal forts in the American mind. No mention that perhaps a wiser foreign policy would have made at least some of those forts unnecessary.

Of course, we had reason to fear another war with Britain until we settled the Canadian border in 1848. This fort was begun two years earlier, on the eve of our war with Mexico—another aggressive use of military force to expand the borders of our nation. That was not mentioned; nor was the fact that the fort, which could easily be sailed around, was not militarily important during the American Civil War, even though by then its bring and cement walls were no match for the new rifled cannon. Indeed, the only real military use of the fort occurred during the War of 1898 – another unnecessary war. By then it was used as a coaling station for the steam-driven warships of our new White Fleet, which slaughtered the obsolete Spanish fleet at the battle of Havana Bay.

This fort, like so many other military construction projects over the years, was a giant cash cow for American businessmen. New England provided much of the brick, which turned out inferior to the climate, and the slate and granite, and the ships that brought it here. The engineers who designed the fort, which was to carry the huge guns of its day, gave it two foot deep footings in the sea saturated sands and, not surprisingly, the walls could not carry the load and cracked. This not only cut the fort’s firepower in half (or more), it broke many of the cisterns needed to collect rainwater and thereby supply expected fleets. But it made lots of money for the Halliburtons of its day.

The chief use of the fort was as a prison for Union deserters during the Civil War. Here the Park Service did a better job, calling it an American “Devil’s Island.” It was a place of squalor, where errant soldiers (and their jailors) went to die of yellow fever. Emphasis was placed on the rude accommodations, but with no comparison to the current accommodations not so far away at Guantanamo Bay. There was torture here, but more for sport than as part of a misguided effort to gather information, as at Gitmo. The sort of sport that goes on in may American prisons to this day and that humiliated Ashcroft’s detainees after 9/11.

The most notable prisoner here, as everyone knows, was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Boothe. Unmentioned, of course, was that the evidence against Dr. Mudd did not meet the "beyond any reasonable doubt" standard required by our Constitution, or that his constitutional rights were denied, both by trying him before a military tribunal, rather than a federal court, and by shipping him here, secretly, rather than upstate New York, where he could have challenged the legality of his conviction by the military in civilian court. Rather our guide simply ended his presentation with a rousing justification for this useless and expensive hall of injustice, with that mindless mantra: “freedom is not free.”
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posted by Chris