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Holding The Beach: East Enders Muster First Line Of Defense

Originally Posted: July 02, 2009

Aaron Boyd
Colin M. Graham

Towards the end of the Revolutionary War, a 74-gun British frigate named the HMS Culloden, which was en route to intercept French ships that were running the British blockade on the harbor in Newport, got caught in a winter squall and ended up firmly aground in the waters roughly of what is now known as Culloden Point in Montauk. Photo by Christine Bellini

Montauk - It is often said by way of remembrance that the freedom and liberty we so readily enjoy in this country was anything but free: it was hardwon through the blood, sweat and sacrifice of common men and women tasked to do uncommon things. Much to the surprise of many, for 233 years, spanning from the War of Independence all the way up to the Cold War, the shores of Eastern Long Island wave seen their fair share of duty in protecting America's national interests.

Meigs and his men laid siege to the fort, now the site of the Old Burial Grounds along Madison and Union Street in Sag Harbor. Photo by Aaron Boyd

The American War Of Independence
As the American Revolution began, Colonel David Mulford of East Hampton pulled together men-at-arms from throughout the Hamptons and assumed command of the Eastern Regiment. Mulford's forces clashed with the British in one of the first major conflicts of the war, the ill-fated Battle of Long Island, which was a disastrous loss for the new-formed united states. The British held Long Island throughout the war, though stories of bravery and patriotism can be found in the deeds of valiant revolutionaries on the East End.

One such campaign took place in the early morning of May 23, 1777, when, in retaliation for raids along the Connecticut shoreline launched by New York Colonial Governor General William Tryon, Lt. Col. Return Jonathan Meigs led a force of 170 men in whalers across Long Island Sound from Guilford, Connecticut.

The force landed on Hashamomuck Beach in Southold, where they carried their vessels over the narrow strip dividing the Sound from Shelter Island Bay, slipping unnoticed into Sag Harbor around 2 a.m. The small regiment of Americans moved stealthily through the village to the house of Silas Edwards on Brick Kiln Road, which was being used as a British troop hospital. There they captured two guards who led them to the commanding officer's quarters, whereupon he was arrested at bayonet point. Meigs and his men laid siege to the fort (now the site of the Old Burial Grounds), killing six British soldiers and capturing 53, before setting fire to 12 British ships and taking 90 sailors prisoner.

The successful Meigs' Raid became known as a textbook example of American guerrilla tactics during the Revolution.Though most of Meigs' militia was made up of soldiers from Connecticut and other parts of New England, Captain Christian Vail of Sag Harbor and Captain David Hand of Southampton, who is said to have escaped from British captivity five times over the course of the war, were also involved in the raid.

While most of the events of the Revolutionary War that occurred on East End shores only exist today in history annals and as commemorative stone markers, Culloden Point in Montauk still bears traces of a significant turning point in the military campaign. Towards the end of the Revolutionary War in 1781, a 74-gun British frigate named the HMS Culloden, which was en route to intercept French ships that were running the British blockade on the harbor in Newport, Rhode Island, got caught in a winter squall on January 23 and ended up firmly aground in the waters roughly 150 feet off what is now known as Culloden Point. Unable to refloat the ship once the seas had calmed and unwilling to leave such a choice prize ripe for the taking by the American Revolutionaries, the British began salvage operations on the vessel lasting through March of that year, removing the masts, 28 eighteen-pounder cannons and 18 nine-pounder cannons before pushing everything else into the sea and burning the ship to the waterline.

When the wreck was rediscovered in 1971, several items, including a formidable looking cannon, were brought to the surface and placed in the Marine Museum in East Hampton, leaving the keel, large wooden beams, several cannons and various other artifacts on the sandy bottom in 20 feet of water. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the wreck is open to scuba divers but is protected against further salvage and has the distinction of being the only underwater State Park in New York.

War of 1812
When British forces next returned to American shores in the War of 1812, a British fleet moored in Gardiners Bay launched an attack on the village, however they were repelled by the local militia under General Abraham Rose. While the British were unable to take Sag Harbor itself due to staunch resistance by its inhabitants, they would try to claim its soul. An invading navy under the command of Commodore Thomas Hardy destroyed Sag Harbor's fleet entirely in 1813, crippling the whaling industry for two years after the war.

One of the 16-inch guns at Camp Hero during World War II. These guns were capable of delivering shells weighing over 2,000 pounds on targets up to 20 miles away. Photo courtesy of Montauk Library.


Fort Tyler And The Spanish American War
What is today a well-known fishing spot off Gardiners Island known as "The Ruins" was once a gun battery built in 1898 during the Spanish American War to protect Gardiners Bay. Dubbed the Fort Tyler Battery after President John Tyler whose wife, Julia Gardiner Tyler was born on the island, the structure remained in use until it was abandoned in 1920 due to erosion. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the tiny island a National Bird Refuge and transferred the battery over to the Agriculture Department, which presumably lasted until World War II when the Navy, having a sizable presence in Montauk at the time, began using the concrete structure for target practice, reducing the historic battery to its current "ruined" condition.

Radio tower at Camp Hero. Photo by Colin Graham

Camp Hero In World War II
Montauk was considered a vital strategic interest as a possible point of invasion (a fear that was ultimately justified with the landing of Nazi saboteurs in Amagansett on June 13, 1942). As the first line of defense protecting New York Harbor and major shipping lanes from marauding U-boats both the Army and the Navy acquired land in the area, with the Army occupying Camp Hero and the Navy setting up a base on Fort Pond Bay that included a torpedo testing facility. Spurred by the sinking of the Tanker Norness by a German Submarine on January 12, 1942 only 60 miles off Montauk, the Army incorporated Camp Hero into their coastal defense network code named "Eastern Shield," building three coastal artillery batteries housing four casemated 16-inch guns, each capable of delivering shells weighing over 2,000 pounds to targets 20 miles away, two surface mounted 6-inch guns, an array of quadruple 50-caliber machine guns and artillery for low- to medium-altitude air defense. All of the bunkers, buildings and casemates were either buried or camouflaged to look like houses in a typical New England fishing village. While the armaments were stripped from the base in 1947, the concrete bunkers still remain as does the tall white fire control tower standing next to the Lighthouse, where spotters could radio target coordinates back to the gun crews.

Frontline Of Defense During The Cold War
For the same reasons that it was of strategic importance during World War II, Camp Hero again was called into duty on Nov. 27, 1950, this time under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force and the 773rd Aircraft Control
and Warning Squadron amidst growing fears of an aerial attack by the Soviet Union. In 1958, after closing the Army portion of the base as ground-based artillery was no longer effective against bombers flying at higher altitudes, the Air Force installed a massive SAGE (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) RADAR unit, which weighed in at 40 tons, topped with a dish measuring 126 feet long and 38 feet high. It was so powerful that when it was first turned on, it disrupted local radio and television broadcast signals. The radar system was designed to act as the first line of defense in detecting any Soviet bombers that might be making a move on the East Coast from over 200 miles away, giving the Air Force enough time to contact the BOMARC Missile Base in Westhampton to intercept the bombers. With the advent of satellite technology in the late 70s, the massive installation became obsolete and was decommissioned on July 1, 1981 but left standing because its size made it prohibitive to dismantle.




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