U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis realized how important Ship Island could be to the defense of New Orleans, and that is why today there is a Fort Massachusetts. The fort's construction began on the barrier island in the Mississippi Sound in 1859, after some political pull from the secretary of war.|
The Civil War came shortly thereafter, and Davis left Washington to lead the Confederacy.
In an interesting twist of history, the brick-and-granite fort is named after the USS Massachusetts, a Union boat that fought with Confederate soldiers who'd stationed themselves there after war broke out and demanded that the U.S. engineers constructing the fort leave.
New Orleans fell the Union not long after the South relinquished control of Ship Island.
A century later, Fort Massachusetts was in danger of falling into the sea from island erosion, and a valiant campaign by locals and Mississippi's congressional leaders led to its inclusion in Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971.
By that point, Hurricane Camille had whacked the fort, but it was fixable. Over the years, the National Park Service upgraded the fort's access to the public.
Katrina took away a lot of those upgrades.
"For the fort, Katrina was worse than Camille," said Faye Walmsley, Mississippi district interpreter for Gulf Islands. "In Camille, the water did not overwash the fort like it did this time.
"But the fort is structurally sound, testament to the people who built it. Brick and arches are the strongest way to build things. That and granite, a tough stone."
Katrina filled the parade ground with debris, but the surrounding arched, brick casements held.
Bricks are missing around some rifle slips. Dirt mounds that protected cannoneers on top of the fort on the south side are missing.
If all goes as expected, the Ship Island Excursions boat that has carried visitors to the fort and the island for decades will resume daily trips on April 14.
- KAT BERGERON