French and Indian War: Building Fort Necessity in 28mm

Twenty-three years ago I found myself interning for a summer in southwestern Pennsylvania. While researching and writing National Register of Historic Places historic district nominations for three towns along Route 40 (The National Road) I found myself driving past Fort Necessity National Battlefield countless times. I wound up visiting and revisiting the site numerous times that summer, and I was fortunate to return to the site a couple summers ago (photo from that visit above).

Fort Necessity holds a particular place in my heart as a site marking a military loss and a long-misinterpreted oddball fortification. This is American history at its small and messy best. And so, with a big current interest in modeling and wargaming the French and Indian War at the 28mm scale, I needed to build Fort Necessity.

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Mid-20th-century archeology formed the basis for my fort

In building my fort in 28mm, I relied heavily on the historic and archeological work from J.C. Harrington’s New Light On Washington’s Fort Necessity. The report is available for free and makes for some fairly detailed reading on the campaign leading up to the construction of the stockade and battle. The Battle of Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754 is notable for being a foundational experience for a young George Washington commanding British Colonial forces. The defense in an open field was accomplished with a simple “Fort of Necessity” of split upright logs and a small central storage building. The battle was overly one-sided with the French Canadians and their Indian allies dealing a loss to Washington. The hastily-built stockade, having served its one-time purpose, was burned to the ground at a later date.

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Scale drawing of the fort as based on archeology of the 1950s

From there, the site passed through a number of unremarkable ownerships over the centuries until the National Park Service took over the site in 1933. First-hand accounts and contemporaneous documentation of the battle site and fort is minimal. The NPS recreated a fort in a vaguely diamond-shape, erroneously interpreting the remains of earthen ramparts as firing steps inside the stockade. Subsequent investigations of the site in the late 1950s revealed a round shape for the stockade, and the NPS built a new version of the fort in the 1970s. Visitors to the site today see the fort in a much closer approximation to what the original must have been like some 260 years ago.

Timbers were split lengthwise with the flat side pointed outward. This is thought to have been done largely as a time saver as only half the number of trees had to be felled when building the fort. Live musket tests at the site in the video above demonstrate how little protection the logs would have provided with hundreds of French and Indians firing from the surrounding woods. Standing in the stockade under fire would have been a mix of smoke, splinters and metal ripping through the air.

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Scaled drawings for the fort construction

I used the scale drawings from the report to create a scaled building plan. With the fort estimated at 53′ in diameter, I converted the size to about 12″ in diameter for the model. Going on my own visits to the site, I estimated the palisade height at about 7 1/2′ which I scaled to about 1 1/2″ for the cut timbers. Finally, the small storage house at the center of the fort of about 14′ square in real life was scaled to a 3″ square model size.

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Twigs being cut and split into scale timbers

With all this research and inspiration in my head, I spent a sunny afternoon collecting fallen twigs in a nearby park. I cut selected twigs into 1 1/2″ pieces and split them lengthwise with a sharp knife. Once cut and split, one end of each was clipped to a point using small hobby cutters.

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The stockade goes up six inches at a time

The base of the fort consisted of a rigid plastic circle I found discarded on the street. Using a pencil, I traced the outline of a 12″ circle toward the outer edge of the base. Working about six inches at a time, I applied a heavy bead of construction adhesive along the line and stuck my cut timbers side by side in the glue.

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Superglue adds strength to the wall

Although the adhesive eventually dries very hard, it does cure a bit slowly. This allowed me to wiggle and straighten the wall pieces as I went along. When a section began to firm up, I spread a small amount of superglue between each timber. Once dry, the whole wall was nice and rigid. I continued this process around the whole fort, leaving a 1 1/2″ gap for the door with a solid round timber on each side.

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Woodworker’s putty forms the ground around the stockade

As sections of the wall were completed, I filled in the ground. I used woodworkers putty to slope up gently to the wall on either side and cover the bead of adhesive holding the wall in place. I made sure to maintain an irregular texture with the putty to add some realism to the ground surrounding the fort.

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The full fort built and ready for some ground cover

When dry, I covered the ground in a thick layer of brown paint and ground cover. I left the gate area muddy, dry-brushing some lighter browns over the dark basecoat. With everything dry, I soaked the whole fort in some heavy coats of sprayed matte finish.

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The door comes together using more split timbers

For the stockade door, I split small timbers into boards flat on both sides. Cross pieces on the back held the boards together, and a final bead of superglue between each board firmed the door up. To make the door functional, I cut two small pieces of leathery cloth into thin hinges and glued them to the door and a round post to one side.

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Logs are glued up on the cardboard base

For the small interior storage building, I began with thin cardboard cut to 3″ on a side and tapering from 1 1/2″ at the front to 1″ at the back. A small door opening 1″ across was cut at the front.

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The log walls are completed

The building’s walls were made inside and out with logs glued over one another. I cut alternating lengths to provide joint overlaps at the corners to approximate actual speculated construction of the period.

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The roof is laid out and completed

For the removable roof, another piece of cardboard cut about 3 1/2″ square was laid on top. Beams were laid out and then the roof was covered with roughly cut thin pieces of leather to represent skins used to cover the roof. Finally, a few random poles were glued on top to hold everything in place.

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Colonel George Washington inspects the completed Fort Necessity

With the build completed over just a couple days, I had a fairly good model of Fort Necessity built at a 28mm tabletop wargaming scale. My plan is to use the new model in a recreation of the battle at the upcoming Fire In The East NJ Con this coming June. I’ll have another post on the scenario as I playtest it in the coming month.

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New York Harbor Defense History and Civil War Weekend at Governors Island

CastlewilliamsgiShuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day on the New York City subway system, it’s sometimes easy to forget I live and work in area surrounded by coasts. This past weekend I hopped a free mid-morning ferry from Brooklyn to Governors Island National Monument for some immersion in NYC’s coastal defense history and annual Civil War Weekend sponsored by the National Park Service.

New York Harbor Defense History

From the beginning of European settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan by the Dutch in the early 1600s, the importance of New York Harbor as a gateway to a system of  trade and military defense was clear. The Dutch colony’s main defense at Fort Amsterdam eventually ceded to the British who maintained fortifications on the spot until after the American Revolution. In the post-Revolution centuries, the defense of New York Harbor remained a focus of the US military against foreign and domestic would-be aggressors.

Governorsislandplan1908 US Army Corps of Engineers map of Governors Island with Fort Jay (center) and Castle Williams (left)

Governors Island offers a good historic overview of the development of New York’s coastal defense works from the 18th through 19th centuries. Fort Jay dates from the late 18th-century when American colonists and British troops exchanged control of the island with various earlier wood and earth forts. The existing facility is a classic European-style star fort with masonry and earthen walls is typical of the design built all over the world from the 15th through 19th centuries. Entering through elaborate gates, a visitor walks into a peacefully idyllic central courtyard surrounded by Greek Revival colonnaded buildings with welcoming porches. Several cast iron Civil War era 10 and 15 inch Rodman cannons survive on the fort’s walls, pointing toward the harbor.

IMG_4073Guns overlook New York Harbor from Fort Jay

The later Castle Williams was built between 1807 and 1811 as a fortification just ahead of the War of 1812. The state-of-the art, circular casemate sandstone pile was designed by Col. Jonathan Williams, at the time the chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first fort designed by an American engineer, Castle Williams presents three tiers of gun ports from which a nearly 360-degree field of defensive fire across the harbor.

IMG_4074The imposing walls of Castle Williams

Together with Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Wood (today the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island), Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan and Fort Gibson at today’s Ellis Island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams served as part of the interlacing network of forts protecting New York Harbor through the 19th-century. Both Fort Jay and Castle Williams would go on to other roles as the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, a US Army prison in the middle of the 20th-century and the site of a large US Coast Guard base until closing in 1996. Gone is the military use of Governors Island today, but the spaces still serve the public as place to walk amid important and usually unseen history of New York.

Civil War Weekend

Each August the National Park Service presents the only Civil War encampment of reenactors in New York City. With about a dozen tents in a small camp and more than twenty staff and volunteer reenanctors, the weekend’s events gives New Yorkers an up-close glimpse of a solder’s life during the Civil War.

IMG_4068Reenactors encamped at Governors Island

IMG_4076A Civil War era soldier’s equipment sits at the ready in camp

IMG_4072A reenactor discusses a Civil War soldier’s life with visitors to Governors Island

IMG_4075An officer reenactor speaks with with visitors to Governors Island

Aside from an opportunity to speak with reenactors and view some typical soldier’s equipment and life in camp, demonstrations of canon firing, drilling and infantry weapons are presented. For the less militarily-minded, period music was also offered in the comfort of shaded grass and rocking chairs inside the walls of Fort Jay.

IMG_4069Officer inspection of the troops at Governors Island

IMG_4070Canon firing demonstration during Civil war Weekend at Governors Island

IMG_4071Civil War era cannon shot, canister and ordinance loads

Although the use of Governors Island has primarily been military for several centuries, visiting the island today serves up multiple experiences. While the historic forts and sites under the governance of the National Park Service occupy approximately 22 acres to the north, the remaining 150 acres is now overseen by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust has worked to create an oasis of recreational areas for picnicking, play, bike riding, strolling and relaxing among historic buildings, allays of trees, wide grassy lawns, outdoor sculpture and newly designed landscapes. Whether you are a visitor looking for a step back into American history or just unwind from the city’s usual hustle, Governors Island can give a whole new perspective on New York at the center of the harbor and world.