In 1881, in a political climate far different for the U.S. than the one today, a Scientific American article noted the “well known facts that, though our relations with the rest of the world are friendly, war is ever liable to arise, and a sudden war would find out coasts utterly defenseless and our navy inadequate for any service likely to be put upon it.” (December 24, 1881). Over the next three decades, land forts were built to guard harbors and coastlines from seaborne invaders.
Many of the guns employed in these forts were the same kind as shown in our photograph: the 12-inch Model 1895 coast-defense gun, usually mounted on a sophisticated disappearing carriage emplaced behind yards of solid concrete. The gun could pop up, fire a round over the parapet, than duck down for reloading behind the wall (as in our photo), safe from counter-fire. The most exposed part of the arrangement was the soldier in charge of aiming the gun, in this case the nonchalant fellow at the top of the platform on the left.
The article accompanying the photograph, though, is full of fear. It references a fictional account published in 1915 by naval expert (and Scientific American author) J. Bernard Walker: “America Fallen! The Sequel to the European War.” The fear was based on the fact that American guns and forts, designed in the 1890s, were no match for the “dreadnoughts” (large battleships) launched in 1915 and mounting 15-inch guns. Size isn’t just a matter of boasting: the larger guns fired a shell almost twice as heavy a much farther distance:
“In one chapter of that startling work, ‘America Fallen!’ the author describes the reduction of the Boston coast defenses by a fleet of German dreadnoughts, assisted by landing forces operating from the rear. The demolishing of the forts by bombardment from the sea was rendered an easy task for the Germans because of the fact that their heavy guns outranged those of the Boston forts by several thousand yards. The extreme range of the coast-defense guns being 13,000 yards, the German dreadnoughts (the American submarines having been sunk by a surprise attack in the gray dawn of the morning) deliberately anchored at a distance of 17,000 yards, and aided by the observation of their aeroplanes, proceeded to attack the forts with all the deliberation and absence of interference or distraction which characterizes the target practice of ordinary fleet maneuvers.”
The Scientific American article ends with a plea for updated carriage mounts that would enable the 12-inch guns to fire at a higher angle, enabling an increase in range. Obsolescence, though, can be hard to recognize. In this case, not only was the 12-inch gun range less than the 15-inch gun, but the open-topped defenses were of limited use: they were vulnerable to mortars, aerial bombs or even hand-thrown grenades from those unspecified “land forces operating from the rear” (the mind boggles: I doubt that Tufts University was secretly full of German spies).
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on the U.S. opinion of the war, coast artillery, and paranoid viewpoints. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/