Fort Preble was a military outpost that was constructed in South Portland, Maine. It was built in 1808 and gradually expanded until 1906. From the War of 1812 to World War II, the fort remained operational. In 1950, the fort was made inactive. It is currently located on the Southern Maine Community College campus.
Establishing Fort Preble
Henry Dearborn, the secretary of war, gave the go-ahead for Fort Preble’s construction in 1808, and his son, Massachusetts Militia commander and future general Henry A. S. Dearborn, oversaw the project. Commodore Edward Preble, who commanded a squadron of American warships during the Barbary Wars, is remembered by the fort’s name. Preble passed away and was buried in Portland in 1807. The First System of US defenses included the initial work at Fort Preble. It had 14 powerful guns and was built like a star out of stone, brick, and sod.
Fort Preble was constructed to stave off an attack by a foreign force in the event that the United States was regarded as a belligerent in the ongoing battle between Great Britain and Napoleonic France. The fort would work to secure the coast along with Fort Scammell on adjacent House Island. In order to enforce the Embargo Act against embargo-breaking ships, Dearborn directed a company of the Regiment of Light Artillery under Captain Joseph Chandler to occupy the fort in October 1808. By forbidding exports to Britain and France, the embargo sought to penalize them for their activities against US vessels. This law was quite unpopular and cut off a significant portion of New England’s income. When President James Madison assumed office in March 1809, the embargo was finally abolished; nonetheless, the situation ultimately resulted in the War of 1812.
Fort Preble During The War of 1812
Throughout the War of 1812, a number of units guarded Fort Preble. These included soldiers from the 21st, 33rd, and 34th Infantry Regiments, as well as US Volunteers and, in times of emergency, local militia. Winfield Scott and other American soldiers were landed at Fort Preble upon their return from British captivity in Quebec. A lot of them were malnourished and sick, and several of them passed away at the Fort’s hospital.
Fort Preble served as both the 17th US Infantry Regiment’s headquarters and recruiting center during the American Civil War. It also served as the mobilization hub for volunteer units assembled in Maine.
On June 26, 1863, Confederate Army raiders sailed into Portland Harbor aboard the captured ship Archer, and soldiers from the fort saw action. The following day, during the Battle of Portland Harbor, the Confederates seized the American revenue cutter Caleb Cushing and made an escape attempt. Two steamers carrying soldiers and guns from Fort Preble, along with roughly 100 voluntary civilians, chased them. Confederates abandoned the Caleb Cushing in boats after setting the ship on fire since there was no way to escape due to the weak wind. The Cushing was destroyed by the explosion that occurred when the ship’s magazines exploded due to the fire. Fort Preble received 23 Confederate captives after their capture.
Billy Laird, a private in the 17th Maine Regiment, was put to death by firing squad at Fort Preble on July 15, 1863, after being accused of deserting. The telegraph wires in New York City that carried the news from Washington, D.C. to Maine were cut during the draft riots in July 1863, therefore the message that President Abraham Lincoln had pardoned Laird never reached Maine. Laird was the sole Maine soldier who attempted to flee during the Civil War and was put to death.
During the Civil War, work on a sizable enlargement of Fort Preble was begun. The original star fort was left standing to protect the land approach, and on the fort’s three water sides, new granite casemates typical of the Third System were to be constructed. The projection showed a single layer of weapons. Several of the casemates from this unfinished project are still there today.
Post Civil War
Army engineer Thomas Lincoln Casey, who is best known for managing the erection of the Washington Monument, oversaw the modernization of Fort Preble in the 1870s. These enhancements included the addition of heavy caliber gun emplacements behind earthen parapets, mainly 8-inch converted rifles. It was discovered that masonry walls were useless against rifled artillery projectiles. This is why earthen parapets were used at Fort Preble.
The Coast Defenses of Portland, which also included Fort Williams, Fort McKinley, and Fort Levett, were constructed at the fort between 1896 and 1906 and contained numerous contemporary Endicott era coast defense batteries. To make place for these batteries, the star fort was destroyed. The sixteen 12-inch mortars (305 mm) that made up Batteries Kearny and Chase were finished in 1901. Battery Rivardi, which had two disappearing 6-inch guns, and Battery Mason, which had a single 3-inch gun, followed them in 1906.
Despite being largely disarmed as part of a plan to deliver heavy artillery and railway guns to the Western Front, the fort remained operational throughout World War I. In 1917, the two 6-inch guns from Battery Rivardi were sent to France to be used as field weapons; they were never brought back to the fort.  For service as railway mortars, six mortars from Batteries Kearny and Chase were withdrawn in 1918–19.
The 8th Coast Artillery Regiment of the Regular Army was established at Fort Preble in 1924 after the Coast Artillery adopted a regimental organizational structure. The Maine National Guard’s 240th Coast Artillery was created as a reserve regiment to aid the regular army during a war. During the early stages of World War Two, both of these regiments were stationed at Fort Preble, which served as both a naval net storage for ships that laid nets and a command post for the Casco Bay degaussing range. In 1942, all remaining mortars were destroyed; instead of Fort Preble, new defenses at Battery Steele on Peaks Island across the bay took their place.
Fort Preble Today
Fort Preble and other coast defense forts were deemed outdated following World War Two. Like the majority of forts of its ilk, it was decommissioned in 1950. The land around the fort was sold to the State of Maine in 1952. It eventually was developed to become the campus of the Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute which was renamed later to Southern Maine Community College.
A small public park was established at Fort Preble which allows visitors to enjoy all the old structures still standing. Oftentimes, the doors are open to the coastal gun batteries and it can be fun to peek inside. All the guns have been removed, of course. It is awesome to stand on the grounds of the old fort and imagine how many men and women were stationed there over the years.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse can be found across a breakwater which stretches out from the fort. It makes this a must-explore location considering the two sites are so close!
- Year Built: 1808 (continually added to until 1906)
- Years Active: The fort was active during all major wars from the War of 1812 through World War II
- Year Abandoned: 1950
- Original Function: War of 1812 Fort