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Fort Wayne Detroit’s Star Fort

Arial View of Modern Day Fort Wayne (from

“This fort, when in good repair and well mounted, could be held by one thousand good and true men against ten times the number of like material.”[1]. Found south of the Ambassador Bridge lies Detroit’s Historic Fort Wayne. This five-point star fort was constructed after the War of 1812 to defend against any further British aggression that may have come from Canada. This fort was part of a crucial defense network that was meant to provide strong resistance against British invasion at the time.

Early Beginnings

Fort Wayne was named after General Anthony Wayne, whose victory over the British at Fallen Timbers allowed the United States to capture the Northwest Territories [4]. The fort was the third fort built in the Detroit area. The first fort built was Fort Pontchartran built by the French in 1701, and the second being Fort Lernoult built by the British in 1760. Following the turnover of Detroit from Great Britain to America, Fort Lernoult was renamed Fort Shelby, which was then replaced by Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne was the first American built fort in the Detroit area. The fort was set to be built at the point in the Detroit River closest to Canada in 1841, and have the most up to date cannons at the time. Before cannons were fitted to the fort however, successful peace talks with Great Britain resulted in the cancellation of arming the fort. Following this the fort was recommissioned to be an infantry garrison for Michigan, but it wasn’t until the civil war, that troops were stationed here.

Design of the Fort Wayne

Fort Wayne was designed as a five-point star fort, or bastion fort,  at the start of its construction in 1841. This design, plus a lack of an opening in the rear, allowed the fort to provide a strong point of resistance against any attacking force that would threaten it, no matter the direction from which it came from. The star shape of the fort was due to a combination of two parts, the main part, which the walls of were the first four points of the star, and a secondary part that rested on the east side of the fort, that formed the fifth point. Inside the walls of main part of the fort laid the barracks, and main magazine. The magazine was designed with walls made of stone seven feet thick, thus offering protection from possible projectile attack from various cannon at the time. The barracks were made of stone and Iron, and were designed to house two thousand soldiers [1]. Along each wall of the fort was a raised earth mound wall with a flattened area or, banquette, on the interior side of the mound. This was called a parapet, which provided cover to troops on the inside of the wall from enemy fire from the outside of the wall. This type of design was crucial to the forts defenses, as it allowed the garrisoning troops to fire from relative safety from direct enemy fire, while atop the banquette.

The secondary part of the bastion lies outside the walls of the main part, and forms the fifth point of the star. This fifth point while not walled of, provided a sort of curtain of resistance to enemy advances coming from the river . To explain, this part of the fort is a raised point of stone wall and dirt, and when looked at from the river would look like a curtained point. At the rear of this curtain point was a furnace, “which was perhaps intended for the firing of hot shot” [1]. Hot shot was the act of super heating the cannon ball before being placed in the cannon, and then fired at enemy wooden ships. This furnace was placed in a very good position for this manner, as the cannons at the top of the fifth point could be easily fed cannon balls from it. The furnace was not however, very well secured and could easily be taken out by enemy fire [1].

At the top of each point of the fort, and outer curtain, are a series of cannon platforms. These platforms were comprised of a stone slab with an iron pivot in the center of them which the cannon would then rest on. When mounted, a semi-circular iron rail located around the pivot, would allow the cannon to be rotated when needed. This layout allowed the cannons to be pivoted more readily, which would allow the gun to cover more of a field of fire more rapidly. There were two main entrances, also known as sally-ports, to the fort, one on the north side and one on the south side. Each entrance gate was composed of thick, heavy wooden doors which could be locked on the inside should an attack be imminent. The angled sides on of each point in the fort wall which would face an oncoming enemy, are called salients. Inside each of the salients are a series of cannon positions with the same pivot-rail platform as those found on top of the fort walls. These salient positions would’ve been able to provide flanking fire on assailants trying to breach the sally-ports during an attack [1].

Though this bastion was prepared to be armed, and could have provided a strong point in a defensive network if Canada or Britain were to attack, politics saw to peaceful resolution, and thus deemed arming the fort as an obsolete idea. Though even without being armed, the fort still served as a good area to have troops muster and train to be able to go to war. Thus, this fort served a primarily supporting role during its time under the ownership of the United States government. Starting in 1860’s, the first building outside of the star fort were constructed. To the southwest of the bastion, the buildings were a line of duplexes that would serve as the forts first officer’s row.

Though these building were to be replaced, roughly starting twenty years later in 1879 and the 1880’s, by the current officers row buildings, they set the line for which the new officer’s row would follow [8, p. 7]. The quick tear down of the first officer row quarters could be influenced by a report on barracks and hospitals written on December 5, 1870 by the War department of the Surgeon General’s Office. In this report, the surgeon general states: “The house for the commanding officer is unexceptionable in its most minute details, while the remainder of the officers’ quarters are miserably constructed, badly arranged and unsuitable, owing a variety of defects.” [2, p. 115]. It was also during the 1880’s that the first brick building built at the Fort Wayne site was constructed. It was this building, the 1889 guard house that introduced the red brick that would become ubiquitous at Fort Wayne [8, p. 7]. In 1938, on top of other building built, the non-commissioned officers (NCO) row of duplexes was built almost directly across from the already existing officer’s row.


Supporting Roles in American Military History

At the outbreak of the civil war, Michigan’s governor Austin Blair was quick to side with the Union, and the raising of Michigan volunteer regiments began. It was general A. S. Williams that was in charge of training these regiments. In June of 1961 Williams had set up headquarters in Detroit, and set up his “Camp of Instruction” at Fort Wayne [6, p. 2]. With Fort Wayne as a mustering point, and training ground, Michigan regiments marched off to fight the south. On top of training volunteer regiments of infantry, Fort Wayne also served to train artillery troops during the civil war as well.

After the Civil war period Fort Wayne went back to its infantry garrison status and continued through World War One. During World War One Fort Wayne once again served as an infantry mustering point. Following the World War One, it was in the next world war were Fort Wayne provided perhaps its most pivotal role in its history. This role was serving as a key part in Detroit’s “Arsenal of Democracy” [4].

The Arsenal of Democracy was the mass amounts of military vehicles and supplies manufactured in Detroit’s factories during World War Two. In December of 1940, Fort Wayne was designated as a motor supply depot under the jurisdiction of the Quartermasters Corps [8, p. 59]. It was at this time that the culmination of over two thousand civilian and military workers processed and shipped the military vehicles and supplies made in Detroit’s factories, from Fort Wayne’s ordinance depot to overseas. This was an integral role in the forts history, as it was a key piece in the American logistical effort during the war. Much of Fort Wayne’s open grounds at the time were filled with trucks and other military vehicles. the building that were needed to fulfill the duties that were required by Fort Wayne at this time were built as mostly temporary structures with much of them being torn down soon after wars end. It was also during this time, which Fort Wayne served as a place to house prisoners of war from Italy who were capture in North African campaign. It was after the war though where the demilitarization of the fort began.

From Bastion to Museum 

It was roughly four years after the end of World War Two that the first ownership transfer of part of Fort Wayne took place between the federal government, and the local government of the city of Detroit. In 1949, the first bill was brought up to convey the Fort Wayne military Reservation, the building and other improvements thereto, from the United States to the city of Detroit [3, p. 998]. This bill however had a few stipulations, one being that if the city of Detroit did not use the fort for public purposes, Fort Wayne would then be turned over to the United Sates, and the second being that if the united states ever declared a state of war and deemed the Fort Wayne useful, Detroit was to turn the property back over to the united states. This was important because the federal government was still considering the use of a fort built in the 1840’s, as a possible military base if need be. This bill came about under the federal Historic Surplus Property Program.

Although the transfer of owner ship began in 1949, Fort Wayne still served a variety of function throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s. At this time all but the eastern corner of the fort grounds, which belonged to the army core of engineers, belonged to the city of Detroit. During both Vietnam and the Korean War, Fort Wayne would function as a military induction center as well as a military police post. After the Korean War in 1957, the Cold War anti-aircraft guns stationed at the fort were replaced with Nike-Ajax missiles. The missiles were then upgraded again in 1959 to Nike-Hercules variants [8, p. 60]. These upgrades aided in the strengthening of the air defense network situated throughout the Detroit area to protect the city in the event of aerial attack.

A final transfer in 1876, lead to the city of Detroit owning all fort grounds, with the exception of the present day Army Core of Engineers facility which is still under federal control [8, p. 60]. This final conveyance lead to the present day Fort Wayne Museum that can now be visited by the public. In the years to follow the Fort has seen many changes since the city of Detroit conveyance. The Detroit historical society have partially finished their plans to open up the grounds, removing the largest of the World War Two ware houses and opening up the fairground along the Detroit river. Perhaps one of the major milestones in Fort Wayne’s Museum history is the opening of Americas first Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum on fort grounds. “The National Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum shows exhibits and historic artifacts that solute the bravery of the first African American U.S. Army Aviators of World War two” [4]. To this day, the site of Fort Wayne is operated by the Recreational department of Detroit, with volunteer help from the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, All Nations Veterans Council, and Friends of Fort Wayne.




Primary Sources 

[1] Fitzgibbon, Thos. C. “Railway Jottings.” The Grand Haven News, 4 Sept. 1861.

[2] War Department, Surgeon General’s Office. A Report of Barracks and Hospitals with Descriptions of Military posts. Government Printing Office, 1870, pp. 115-226.

[3] House of Representatives on Armed Services, Subcommittee No. 11, legal . No. 74. Washington D.C., War Department, 1947, pp. 997-99.

Secondary Sources

[4] Conway, James (2015). Detroit’s American Star Fort with a Mission.

[5] Blackburn, George M. (1967).  “A Michigan Regiment in the Palmetto State,” The South Carolina Historical Magazine. Vol 68, No.3: 154-164

[6] Chamley, Jeffrey G. (1986). “Michigan’s General A.S. Williams and Civil War Historians: A Century of Neglect,” Michigan Historical Review. Vol. 12, No.3: 1-28

[7] Zadorozny, Chris (2012). “Detroit: A City on the Rise-Fort Wayne, The Michigan Journal

[8] National Parks Service . National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. Fort Wayne ed., United States Department of Interior, 2017, pp. 6-61.