Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/December 1906/Waterway Defenses of the Atlantic Coast

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WATERWAY DEFENSES OF THE ATLANTIC COAST

By WILLIAM J. ROE

NEWBURGH, N. Y.

IT will be remembered what a spasm of apprehension seized the country when the prospect of war with Spain became imminent. Not only did these fears affect seriously the dwellers in sea-coast cities, but they were shared in to such an extent by those who had been accustomed to plan their summer outings at the sea-shore as to send a very large proportion to the mountains instead. In fact so great was the unreasoning and unreasonable terror that the season of 1898 was quite unremunerative to innkeepers at summer resorts along the coast.

If such was the effect of a declaration of war with Spain, whose sea-power was so notoriously weak, what would it be likely to be in the face of hostilities threatened with a foreign country amply prepared for offensive naval movements? Though the prospect of war with a capable maritime power be ever so remote; though the fashion of modern civilization seems to have been set for arbitration, and congresses of peace have been established with at least the promise of permanency; and though we appear to have entered upon a period of good-will and cordial relations with the most ponderous of nations, still the construction of battle-ships and armored cruisers goes on in every shipyard of every government of the world with increased rather than abated zeal. However much the American public may desire peace, and however determined to exhaust the arts of diplomacy to preserve it, so long as human nature retains any of the virus of the serpent, or the fangs of the wolf, so long will war remain the final appeal of human interest, even though shorn of some of its ferocity as the first resort of inhuman passion. It is, and will continue doubtless for many decades, with nations as with the individual man; that one is always best assured of peace that is best prepared to resist insolence and retaliate forcibly, quickly and effectively upon any form of aggression.

After a long period of lethargy following the civil war the nation has become wisely awakened to the necessity of providing means of defense more in accord with our recent position as a 'world-power.' So have we constructed and are constructing powerful earth-works, replacing the obsolete defenses of stone forts, mounting behind them our guns; so that we planned mines for our harbors, and gathered destructive and far-flying torpedo missiles; and, more important yet, are building day by day huge monsters of the deep, each succeeding one an improvement in strength and fury upon its predecessor, and all vastly the superiors of those famous ships—the Iowa, the Oregon, the Brooklyn and the rest, that so quickly sent the steel-clad hulls of Spain upon the shoals of the Caribbean Sea.

In the state of high efficiency of modern ordnance, while floating guns are able to throw enormously destructive projectiles to such great distances, it is not beyond the range of reason to declare positively that not a single city upon the Atlantic coast is entirely safe from bombardment by a foreign fleet. The extraordinary contingencies of the Spanish war will not, it may be believed, ever return. The next time (which, with our expanding relations, more and more world-wide continually, may come at any moment) that we are called upon to match strengths with an enemy, we may be quite sure it will be with a foe of different caliber than poor, enervated Spain. Her valor, her deep sense of honor, her devotion, fanatical as that of any follower of Mahomet, all were vain and valueless because of—in one phrase—lack of adequate preparation. The next time the American people are called upon to face an enemy upon the high seas, it will not be, we may be sure, to find his nominal fighting power or the speed of his war ships diminished by so large a percentage; nor, to be frank, that our own ordnance, horse-power of engines, general efficiency, shall again surprise ourselves with performances so much better than was expected or claimed.

Do not let us delude ourselves with the undue confidence that all has been done, or is in process of being done, in the way of adequate preparation. For many years to come, though we construct men-ofwar in increasing numbers and with increased power, it will still remain that other nations are also increasing their armaments. That 'next time' it may not be one nation, but a coalition of nations. Besides, in these days of swift changes and sudden inventions, the best efforts of designers of floating fortresses may become obsolete almost overnight.

There are some things, however, that by their very nature can not become obsolete; a single nation may for a time, by reason of greater energy, wealth or genius, so dominate in the game of warfare as to checkmate adversaries right and left. America, with her Ericsson and the Monitor, was for a few years as a queen among pawns. But we could not rely, as no nation can rely, upon such marvels. Little more than forty years have passed and the accepted type of battle-ship is the same all over the world; that has replaced the Miantonoma, as that replaced the Monitor, as that displaced the Congress and the Powhatan. Between the banks of oars of the Carthagenian triremes and the sails of Philip II. and Effingham; between the Seventy-four of 1812 and the 'cheese-box on a raft,' great gulfs of mechanical in genuity are fixed. Yet all the while, under all customs of conflict, all political administrations, in every age, certain changeless principles underlie and determine changing methods of action. These things can never become obsolete; the ingenuity by which Rome taught herself to emulate and at last excel in the first Punic war, and that victory comes not so much by the possession of big forces as by having Drakes and Frobishers pitted against a Medina Sidonia.

In every condition of battle, and especially having reference to our own defense on the Atlantic coast from a powerful adversary on the sea, two great principles assert themselves as essential; first is the establishment of defensive relations, by both fortifications and squadrons, and second, the ability to concentrate swiftly and effectively at any threatened point the full measure of naval effectiveness at our command.

A hostile fleet coming upon our coast for purposes of offense would have the advantage of being able to concentrate at any desired point, to select the city that it sought to doom to destruction or spoliation. The timid citizens of New York, who a few years ago had their fears so excited, may take contort in knowing that of all our great sea-board cities, theirs is probably in least danger of bombardment. Gruesome tales were told of the ease with which foreign war ships could float broadside off Coney Island, to send round shot and shell into Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Calm your fears or assuage them; no doubt a hostile fleet can select and concentrate; but of all exposed points it is least likely to choose New York. The reason for this comparative immunity lies in the fact that the Hudson River empties into the ocean at the apex of a reentrant sea-angle, the base of which is found on a line drawn from the end of Long Island at the east to either the Capes of the Delaware or those of the Chesapeake at the south. At Philadelphia and in Hampton Roads are naval stations, and also at Newport and New London. It is reasonable to assume that at all these would be war vessels, which concentrating would be likely to furnish a force to assail an enemy upon the sea in the rear located off Sandy Hook. Formidable or fortunate would an attacking force be to avoid or avert some form of disaster, if not complete destruction. In war, as in the lightning stroke, energy is apt to take the line of least resistance, and it may, I think, be quite confidently asserted that some other city, not possessed of this advantage, would be the one most exposed to attack; Boston and Portland in the north, and on the south Charleston or Savannah.

We shall not enter into any details concerning movements of land forces, nor do more than call attention to the strength of our present sea-coast batteries. I would not lull you to a too great confidence that that strength is sufficient, nor that even torpedoes, fixed or floating, are certainly effective; nor is it necessary to excite further alarm by suggesting enormous expense involved in the construction of armored forts; these all are foreign to the purpose of this paper, which is simply to point out how easily, and—considering the objects to be achieved—how cheaply, those two principles of defence—mutual defensive relations and concentration of floating forces—can be achieved.

With the map before you note the condition of existing waterways along our seaboard. From the eastern end of Long Island a series of continuous inland waterways begins that, with here and there an interruption, does not end till the coast of Florida is reached. Long Island Sound is now or soon will be amply defended from the sea. The East River, New York Bay, the Kill-von-Kull, the Delaware and Raritan Canal, the Delaware River, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, the Chesapeake Bay, the Dismal Swamp Canal, Albermarle Sound, Pamlico Sound and beyond, almost continuous lagoons behind the Sea-Islands of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, complete a chain of channels and artificial canals, awaiting only enlargement, and in some cases adequate or extra fortification to render the entire sea-coast—if not impregnable, at least defensible to an extent to which military men have long been alive; but to which the casual citizens (as well as their representatives in congress assembled) have been not only slumbering, but even in wakeful moments deaf, dumb and blind.

We may go even a little farther in the way of defensive suggestion, by including not only the Atlantic sea front, but also the gulf coast. A canal, surveyed and reported upon long ago by the United States Corps of Engineers, could be constructed at a trivial cost from Jacksonville to and down the Suwanee River. That such a canal has not already been constructed is owing to the fact that in a commercial sense it would not pay. Beyond Fisher's Island at the eastern extremity of Long Island Sound, for purposes of ample inland communication, a ship canal would need to be 'built' from near Watch-Hill to some point on Narragansett Bay, and another from near Fall River to New Bedford. Already a canal (designed for small coasting craft) has been projected and some work done, connecting Buzzard's and Cape Cod Bays. The fact stares us in the face, that with a series of channels requiring only construction or enlargement, connecting navigable and defensible inland bodies of water along the coast, nothing—or comparatively nothing—has been done to effect so great a war benefit. Of course this apathy has been due solely to that narrow commercial instinct—the so-called 'timidity of capital'—which has persisted in refusing even to traffic, to say nothing of national defense, the manifest gain that would come from judicious expenditure. Capital will not (as I have heard it expressed) 'sink money in a ditch.'

Some day, perhaps not in the far future, some of these frugal multimillionaires, may find occasion to abruptly change their minds. It is 'on the cards' though they be not yet dealt, not even shuffled. It is not necessary to say that no reference is made especially to Great Britain in quoting a famous phrase: that some day the 'thunders of English cannon may be heard in—St. Angelo?' No, in Boston. When the

PSM V69 D538 Capes of delaware and chesapeake.png

splendid Fine Arts building and the Public Library become targets for long range projectiles, and the new 'Old South Church' and Trinity and all the magnificent residences of the 'Back Bay' are crumbling under the 'fire-ball of death' surely they will be sorry that an expenditure was not demanded, less, far less than the tribute that might be demanded, to save their city from destruction.

Perhaps even before the twentieth century is well out of its youth a hundred millions may not suffice as ransom. That sum, probably much less, spent properly now or within the next five years would go far indeed towards saving their terrors and their pockets.

All this that has been related in perhaps tedious detail has long been under consideration by our department of war. Time and again has laid before the president, the senate and house of representatives the data collected by the engineer corps with painstaking fidelity looking to an end so beneficial. The congress has been asked, urged, implored, in at least one instance where the expenditure required was trifling compared with the defensive result, to construct a deep waterway. Bills, from time to time, have been introduced—five or six in the last fifty years—but nothing has come of any of them of a practical character.

A slight study of the accompanying map showing a portion of our Atlantic seaboard will demonstrate, better perhaps than much argument, the necessity and, inferentially, the effectiveness, of a proposed series of deep water canals, parallel to the coast and connecting one after the other the landlocked and fort-defended rivers, bays and estuaries. From the extreme eastern terminus of the system at Cape Cod Bay, the first of these suggested artificial channels is that which would have its southern end in Buzzard's Bay. Next comes (all being denoted by thick black lines) a similar water communication between New Bedford and Fall River. Still another is proposed between Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound near Stonington. After this, towards the southeast there is already natural deep-water communication, through the East River and New York harbor. It requires only the widening and deepening of the 'Delaware and Baritan' canal to open a well-defended inland waterway to the Delaware River.

Perhaps at the time we have instanced—not as an alarmist, but as a mere guide-post to possibilities of the future—when a foreign fleet appeared threatening Boston, in New Bedford harbor were a few ironclads. For them to hasten to the threatened point that little strip of sand cut through by a thirty-foot canal would mean perhaps salvation. But with the others cut, how quickly could our fleets gather; one from Newport, another from New London, reinforced—as they speedily would be—by all the naval strength gathered at the New York Navy Yard and at League Island on the Delaware.

But an even more potential presentation of the advantage of a ship-canal of sufficient depth to enable a war ship to pass through it is found in the projected cutting through of the narrow neck that separates the waters of the Delaware from those of the Chesapeake Bay. The suggested waterways between Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay, and between Fall River and New Bedford have not even yet been so much as thought of; the Cape Cod cutting, though for over two centuries planned for, and even partially worked, has been regarded solely in the light of a commercial venture. Of all these proposed canals but one has received attention from the United States. This one is the cutting of the divide between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River. In 1894 a commission, authorized by congress and appointed by the president, examined numerous routes already surveyed across the Maryland-Delaware peninsula, with the result that they recommended the route known as the 'Back Creek' or 'Elk River' route, the most northerly of all. Much interest had been taken in a projected canal in Baltimore; but it was wholly in the light of a commercial benefit. The advantage of the route selected—though manifest from a military standpoint—was not perceptible to the practical minds of the traders of the thrifty city. The commission had been required to select that one of six or eight routes (the most southerly being that known as the 'Choptank') which should be most advantageous in ways of commerce as well as those of war.

Baltimore's shippers, willing enough to admit the theoretical benefits of the route selected from a military standpoint, declared with one voice that it possessed none whatever of a commercial character. It would be as well, they said, if not better, to continue to come and go by the old route down the Chesapeake to the capes of Virginia. There was not enough public spirit in congress to incite to action from any purely military considerations; the incentive of private commercial interest being lacking, the project dropped like lead. Ten years passed, and then, at the first session of the fifty-eighth congress a bill was introduced in the house of representatives, and another (at the second session) in the senate, both having for object the purchase by the United States of the 'chartered rights' of the 'Chesapeake and Delaware Canal,' located on the line of the so-called 'Back-Creek,' and the construction of a free ship-canal thereon. Both of these bills failed to get past the committees to which they were referred. Again in 1905 a joint resolution (introduced by Mr. Mudd of Maryland) was referred to the committee on railways and canals. It appeared that this measure was likely to meet the same fate as its predecessors; but interest in the project was aroused in the committee, and intelligent scrutiny; the resolution was modified to the extent that all the so-called 'southern routes' (manifestly of no utility in a military sense) were eliminated, and consideration confined to the two most northerly routes—the 'Back Creek' and the Sassafras. In this shape the joint resolution passed both houses; it was approved by the president, and a commission was appointed to decide which of the two routes was the better, in view of 'probable cost and commercial advantages and military and naval uses of each,' with a view to constructing by the United States of a 'free and open waterway.'

For the first time in the history of these endeavors the question had become a practical one—as to which of two routes was the superior for both commerce and war.

The second of the two maps shows at a glance the situation of the two routes, especially the manifest advantage of the Sassafras, chiefly on account of the greatly decreased distance from the* wharves of Baltimore to a point at sea off the capes of the Delaware.

But it is not with the commercial relations of any route that our

PSM V69 D541 Proposed canal between the delaware and chesapeake.png

interest lies; but rather that by the construction of a ship-canal by one or the other, one link will be securely forged in that chain of waterways by which so much is to be gained in ways of defense of our Atlantic seaboard. Perhaps these defensive advantages could not be better set forth than by quoting in full the 'expert' opinion of General William P. Craighill former chief of engineers, U. S. A.

Notes upon the Military Considerations concerning a Proposed Ship-Canal from the Delaware to the Chesapeake.

It will be doubted by no one that a deep-water communication between the two bays would be of vast importance in the contingency of war with a maritime nation. Such a connection would provide a means of concentrating the floating defenses of the two bays, and besides this would render more secure the communication between the naval stations of Philadelphia and Norfolk and Washington. Vessels defending a port have two offices to perform, the one being to assist in the direct defense, or to prevent capture or occupation by a hostile force, the other being the prevention or breaking up of blockades. Without a canal a blockade at the Capes of the Delaware would close the port of Philadelphia, or blockade at the Capes of Virginia would close the outward commerce of Baltimore and other ports of the Chesapeake. With the canal built where communication would be secure, neither the ports of Philadelphia nor of Baltimore could be closed unless an effectual blockade were established both at the Delaware and at the Virginia Capes. The disadvantage to the attacking party is obvious, while the defending vessels could concentrate at either outlet, and breaking the blockade at one point would open both ports and render the blockade useless at the other outlet.

When the question of defense is considered in the choice of a route, the elements are rapidity and security of communication. . . . For the purposes of concentration for the defense of the two bays, the Sassafras is superior in regard to rapidity. In this respect there is little or no difference between the Sassafras and the Back Creek.

For security of communication the Sassafras is superior (to the so-called 'lower routes'), as the entire route from Baltimore to Philadelphia can be protected by shore defenses, and the defense can be made or assisted at any point by gun vessels whose light draught would permit them to keep out of water in which they could be rammed by the sea-going warships. The Back-Creek route in this respect is precisely the same as the Sassafras.

The commission, of which General Felix Agnus, of Baltimore, is chairman, has given to the matter of a choice between the two routes all the time and attention that its importance deserves. Public meetings were held during the month of September, in Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia, and great interest manifested, not only on the part of representatives of trade organizations, but by members of congress from the states most directly concerned. This interest was, of course, chiefly commercial, and a keen rivalry was developed between the cities of the Delaware and those of the Chesapeake Bay, the former favoring the line of the present canal, while the Sassafras was advocated by those who foresaw the great benefits that must come to Baltimore from the adoption of this route.

The rivalry, keen as it has been, between the opposed interests of the 'Back-Creek' and the Sassafras routes, has been in all respects honest and good natured; neither side to the controversy having manifested any spirit of jealousy or unwillingness to yield to the findings of the commission.

What that finding may be it is yet too early for conjecture; but in either event, acquiescence will not be withheld, nor all the influences of a united public sentiment, given not 'grudgingly, nor of necessity,' but with generous and cordial assent as to an honest judgment for the public welfare and the nation's good.