Bastille Day is the common name given in English-speaking countries to the national day of France. In our small town of Hull, we celebrate Bastille Day at Fort Revere. I believe the historic landmark is worthy of also being acknowledged for its rich American heritage. Recognizing that history is not an exact science; historians sometimes have their biases and agendas.
Fort Revere sits atop the highest point in Hull and the South Shore and is located at what is commonly referred to as the key to Boston Harbor. The location had significant military value, mostly during the Revolutionary Period. Its early history dates back to the 1675-1676 King Philips War when Hull residents built simple fortifications to protect themselves. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Telegraph Hill had already been heavily fortified. There was no militia in Hull at that time, and the Hingham Militia manned the fort from 1776 through 1778, a time when the population of Hull was evacuated. When Hull’s population returned and the battles, for the most part, moved more southerly, the Hingham Militia moved on.
The richest history focuses on the arrival of the French Army. In 1778, a portion of the French Fleet had been engaged in battle with the British in Newport Bay when a hurricane crippled the fleet, forcing it to retreat northward to Boston Harbor. The French settled at Fort Revere on Aug. 28. Three days after the French arrival, the British brought their fleet to Boston Harbor but did not attempt to enter because of unfavorable weather conditions and were not sighted again until the French were preparing for their departure.
While they were in Hull, a smallpox epidemic broke out among the French sailors, 200 of whom died from the plague. It is believed that, although the Americans were accepting of the expertise the French military offered, it was not a relationship of trust. Just as the French were preparing to leave Fort Revere in mid-November 1778, the British made an attempt to attack, but a storm came up and forced their ships off course and they were not prepared for battle. The French took this opportunity to escape and avoid confrontation and slipped out of Fort Revere and headed south for the West Indies, never to return.
What seems to get lost in the history of Fort Revere is the manning of this strategically defensive fort by the Americans over time – in the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. During World War I, the Army was located within the fort, as was the National Guard. The final years of the war found three companies residing at Fort Revere as part of the larger Boston Harbor defense, which included manning a total of six islands. For years the military utilized the fort, not only as a lookout post but also as a post office, a telegraph station, a railway station, and a quartermaster steamer from Boston. As in World War I, in World War II the fort, although not the site of military conflicts, was used in great part to protect tremendous wartime shipbuilding operations in Hingham and Quincy. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fort was a training ground for anticipated overseas combat. During the U.S. involvement in the war, there were about 500 men, including medical personnel and officers, as part of the entire Boston Harbor defense system. The fort was also an important training site for many soldiers preparing and passing through for further overseas wartime combat duty. Most of those who served at Fort Revere at that time in fact went on to fight overseas.
The fort also has quite a bit of non-military history attached to it. During the late 1800s, Hull became an affluent resort area for summer enthusiasts, and the Hull Golf Club was built on Telegraph Hill and Battery Heights. In its day it was considered one of the most picturesque golf courses in the country.
Again, not to detract from the French history, but there is a lot of great American history and pride originating at Fort Revere that seems to me to get lost in the historic accounts and celebrations by our small town. It is true that 200 French soldiers gave their lives at the hands of a plague, but it is also true that many American soldiers gave their lives during combat service that originated in training at Fort Revere and continued in overseas combat that we tend to not acknowledge. I do say “Vive la France!” and thank the French for their contributions. But, at the same time, I want to say “God Bless America,” acknowledge all our contributions originating out of this great landmark of a fort, and thank those Americans who served and sacrificed so that we could live as we do today.
Kenneth L. Kaplan is a Hull resident.