Fort Massachusetts was built to defend the Gulf Coast during the the 1850s and served as a Union base for much of the Civil War, even though the fort was still incomplete. Construction continued during the war and was completed in 1866. Since that time, the chief danger at the fort has been decay and weather. Hurricane Camille (1969) and Katrina (2005) washed over and through the fort but failed to significantly undermine the structure.
Backstory and Context
Following the War of 1812, the War Department studied and planned the construction of masonry fortifications for coastal defense. Because of Ship Island's natural deep-water harbor and its location near important ports, this small island was viewed as an important strategic location. The small and remote island also posed logistical problems which delayed construction until the mid-1850s. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, the walls of the fort stood only 6 to 8 feet above the level of the sand.
SHortly after Mississippi seceded from the Union in January, 1861, Mississippi militiamen took possession of the island and the unfinished fort. The militia soon abandoned the island, however, given the difficulty and expense of provisioning a garrison on the small island. Confederate troops returned in June and mounted several cannons on the island. On July 9, the small Confederate battery engaged the USS Massachusetts, but the brief exchange of cannon fire resulted in few injuries or damage to the ship. This 20-minute exchange would be the only military engagement in which Ship Island or the fort would be directly involved. It also led to the island's nickname as "Fort Massachusetts."
The Confederate battery again abandoned the island in mid-September. The Union occupied the island and used it as a staging area for the campaign against New Orleans in the spring of 1862. During the campaign, as many as 18,000 U.S. troops were stationed on the island. Through the remainder of the war Union ships stopped at the island for repairs and to pick up supplies. The 1st Louisiana Native Guard, one of the first black regiments in the United States Army, were recruited in Louisiana and stationed there for almost three years. The island's harsh environment took its toll on many of the men. More than 230 Union soldiers eventually died and were buried on Ship Island during the Civil War. The remains of many of the casualties were later reburied at Chalmette National Cemetery, near New Orleans.
The Corps of Engineers finished the fort shortly after the war. The fort was a lonely outpost, manned by a an ordnance-sergeant until 1903. After 1903, the lighthouse keeper was responsible for maintaining the fort in a state of readiness should it ever be needed for coastal defense.