Our History: Robert E. Lee probably tied to military fort history

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Since the founding of the Bayside Historical Society by my father, Joseph H. Brown, 39 years ago, he and I often discussed his belief that Robert E. Lee, who became the famous Confederate general, was linked to the early history of Fort Totten.

This possibility has always intrigued me. It is generally accepted that Lee was probably involved in the preliminary design and planning for the fort, which was known before 1898 as the Fort at Willets Point.

His long career path with Gen. Joseph Totten is convincing evidence of his long association with the defensive systems on our Eastern coast.

With the advent of steam propulsion for war vessels, the nature of our fortifications along the Eastern seaboard was being reconsidered. After the War of 1812, in the early 1820s, it was determined that a location then known as Willets Point and its companion point across the East River, then known as Throg’s Point (site of present-day Fort Schuyler), should be fortified to defend New York Harbor.

These locations were supposed to protect from any attack that might come from Long Island Sound and to deter the use of this avenue of approach to New York Harbor by enemy warships.

Agitation for a fort at this location had long been going on, and for many years rumors abounded. Finally the New York legislature gave its consent for the U.S. government to purchase land in Queens County directly opposite Throgs Neck and “concede jurisdiction over any land which might be purchased as a result of such consent.”

On May 16, 1857, a deed was signed between “George Irving of Little Neck and Robertine, his wife, and the United States of America for a consideration of the sum of $200,000 to convey all the farm on a tract of land, part of a neck of land, called Thornes or Willett Neck, situated, lying and being in the Town of Flushing, County of Queens.”

Bayside at that time was a village of Flushing. With this conveyance the government acquired the greater portion of Willets Point, where it built the fortifications complementing those at Throg’s Point across the river. Later purchases added to the land acquired.

The guiding force behind the Fort at Willets Point, as it was known for many years, was Totten, a military engineer who attended West Point in the early 1800s. As a young engineer, he assisted in the construction of Fort Clinton and Castle William in New York Harbor (1808-1812).

At the time of the War of 1812, he was chief engineer on the Niagara frontier and also served in this capacity at Lake Champlain in 1814. Between 1814 and 1831 he was responsible for planning improvements to the U.S. coastal defenses. In 1838 he was appointed colonel and made chief engineer of the Army.

It was Totten, as chief of Army engineers, who urged, “It is important to commence as soon as possible the work at Willets Point.” He called upon W.T. Trowbridge, then engineer agent in New York City, “to take general charge of this new work in addition to the labor now placed upon you.”

Trowbridge had a heavy schedule, which included similar duties with regard to Fort Schuyler, Fort William and Fort Columbia, Governor’s Island. Though the work to fortify Throg’s Point (Fort Schuyler) began in 1833, it took until July 1862 before Trowbridge could concentrate on Totten’s request.

Well in advance of the War of 1812, an era of defense-building known as the Second System was a historical landmark for the country and the Army; it was the first construction effort of any size to be planned and executed by engineers of American birth and training.

Unlike in the earlier systems, the men who were the engineers for these projects were regular officers of the Army, most fresh out of West Point, not contract engineers who were mainly French. Henry Dearborn, secretary of war, wrote that what had been established in 1802 was a way to “avoid the unpleasant necessity of employing foreign engineers.”

The Third System begun in 1817 was initiated under relatively tranquil times. It was created to achieve a permanent, genuine system of defenses under a longterm program of construction, which was to continue until the Civil War.

The Third System was frequently referred to by later engineers as the “Totten System.” The Third System Board initiated during President James Madison’s last term and further organized under President James Monroe’s administration was headed by Simon Bernard, a French military engineer who had served as a brigadier general under Napoleon Bonaparte and who had come with the recommendation of Lafayette to the United States.

The other members of the board were a naval officer and two engineers of the Army, among them Brevet Lt. Col. Joseph G. Totten who became, as we know, a world figure in the development of 19th-century seacoast fortifications. He was the only member on the first board to remain directly involved with the development of seacoast fortification for the remainder of his professional life.

It is interesting to look at the career paths of Totten and Lee. Both graduated from West Point as engineers, and their paths crossed often throughout the years. Totten held one of the longest terms as the chief engineer of the U.S. Army, from Dec. 7, 1838 to April 22, 1864, the date of his death. As a member of the first permanent board of engineers, he was to help lay down the lasting principles of coastal defense construction. His 25 years of service as chief engineer saw many changes.

During the Mexican War, Totten was an important member of Gen. Winfield Scott’s inner circle and was his chief engineering expert. It is interesting to note that Lee was also a reliable assistant to Scott at that same time, serving in the same inner circle of engineering advisors as his superior, Totten.

At Vera Cruz, Scott held a high opinion of Lee’s ability and included him in what was known as his “little cabinet,” consisting of the chief engineer, Totten, and a group with which he had daily contact.

Lee graduated second in his class from West Point in 1825, and in July 1829 he joined the Corps of Engineers. In the ensuing years, before he saw service in the Mexican War, he was the assistant engineer in the construction of Forts Monroe and Calhoun in Virginia (1829-1834).

From there he went on to Washington, D.C. as the assistant to the chief engineer, General Gratiot. Lee was shocked and dismayed in December 1838 to learn that Gratiot had been dismissed for refusing to account for certain public funds that he claimed were due him as commissions and allowances.

The case went to the president and Gratiot’s name was ordered dropped from the roster of the Army. Gratiot ended his days as a clerk in the general land office. Totten was named in Gratiot’s place as the Army’s chief engineer.

Lee continued to work on defense systems and, having been promoted to captain, he was put in charge of work at Fort Hamilton, New York in 1841, and he had responsibility for construction and repairs of the defenses at the Narrows and New York Harbor in the years 1841-1846.

During that time he also served as assistant to the chief engineer in 1844 and then as a member of the Engineers for Atlantic Coast Defenses from 1845-1848. Later (1849-1852) he was assigned to work on the defenses of Baltimore.

On Sept. 1, 1852, Lee became the ninth superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, a position he felt was not commensurate with his talents. His request to be assigned elsewhere was denied, and he went on to fill the post until he was again called to military duty.

As the Civil War approached, Lee was troubled by both his loyalty to the Union and to the state of Virginia, and when President Abraham Lincoln sent Francis Blair to ask him to assume command of the Union forces, he replied, “If the Union is dissolved and the government disrupted, I shall return to my native state and share the miseries of my people and, save in defense, will draw my sword on none.” He resigned his commission as colonel on April 20, 1861.

Having reviewed the history of the career connections of Totten and Lee, it seems most probable that there is evidence that Lee, in the early period of planning for the Fort at Willets Point working with two chief engineers of the Army for a number of years, did indeed play a part in the story of the landmarked fort we know today, which was named in honor of Totten in 1898.

*Chartered April 19, 1964.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.

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