Old World Design
Enters a New World
The Martello fort design dates back to 1565 and the Genoese defense system on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. They built a series of 80 coastal watchtowers (called Martellos) in order to protect the island against foreign invasion. So effective was the design, that a number of other European countries, including France and Britain, adopted the model and replicated it along their own coastlines.
The Martello Design
In 1793, the revolutionary government of France, who held the island of Corsica, declared war on Great Britain. In order to gain control of Corsica, the British waged an amphibious assault to remove the French from the island. Since they controlled the Martello towers on the island, the French had the defensive advantage, and despite a barrage of British naval fire, the French initially maintained their position. The British managed to launch further attacks on the island and eventually claimed victory over the French. Realizing the strategic benefits of the fort’s design, the British began to build similar strongholds near their own coastline. It is believed that the name ‘Martello’ (‘hammer’ in Italian) is derived from the British mispronunciation of the location of one of the Corsican towers at Mortella Point.
Between the years 1804 and 1815, the British erected 194 Martello forts throughout its empire. After 1815, they ended construction of these fortifications as the threat of a French invasion ceased. Only the United States and Canada continued to build Martellos. Six towers were constructed in the U.S. from 1820 to 1873 while five were built in Canada.
Gibraltar of America
When John Simonton purchased the island of Key West in 1822, many people believed that Key West would be the “Gibraltar of America”, protecting America’s shipping lanes and coasts from foreign danger because of its strategic location. Its close proximity to trade routes connecting major ports in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America made Key West an ideal destination for business entrepreneurs and the U.S. military. Understanding the need to protect the nation’s financial and military investments, the U.S. government commissioned the construction of a series of fortifications in Key West in 1845, built to guard the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.
The first of these fortifications was Fort Zachary Taylor, whose construction took 21 years as hurricanes and racially motivated labor tensions between hired slaves and imported workers from the North stalled progress. During the Civil War, the Union used Fort Zachary Taylor as a stronghold for the blockade of Confederate supply lines. To protect Fort Zachary Taylor from ground assaults, construction began on two Martello forts in 1862.