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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 17

The Halifax Citadel, 1825-60: A Narrative and Structural History

by John Joseph Greenough

... we have nothing on Citadel Hill but a heap of ruins


The hill is a drumlin — that is, a glacial rubbish heap. Contrary to popular belief, the one element absent in the composition of its summit is solid bedrock. It is an inconvenient place to build anything and, without the proprietary interest of the military, the early settlers of Halifax would probably have ignored it — indeed, they would most likely have put the town itself in a more convenient location. The army, however, was quite incapable of leaving the hill alone. One supposes that Cornwallis or his engineer, John Browse, took one look at the tree-covered hump dominating everything in sight and, ignorant of its true composition or even its exact shape, decided that it was the ideal site for a fort to protect the new town. It was a decision which would bedevil engineers for the next seventy-odd years.

As the land was cleared around the new town-site, the truth became apparent. From the harbour the hill was indeed imposing; from the landward side, it was less so. Viewed from the swamp behind it, it was only an egg-shaped hillock, rising 60 or 70 feet from the bottom of the swamp, with a crest just big enough for a small redoubt. Less than 700 yards away to the southwest was a second hill, more substantial but lower. From a military point of view, the second hill (Camp Hill) and the swamp (now the central common) proved to be more important than Citadel Hill's imposing view of the harbour, for their very existence severely limited any possible alterations to the chosen site. While the soil of the drumlin permitted it to be hacked down to a more convenient shape, this could only be done to a limited extent. Only massive cutting could alter the fundamental shape of the crest, which was inconveniently narrow for regular fortifications, and this was inadvisable; any great reduction in the overall height would make it impossible for the hill to dominate the swamp, let alone Camp Hill.

Colonel James Arnold, writing in 1824, summed up the frustrations and difficulties of military planning for the site.

[As a result] of the extreme narrowness of the ridge . . . but little more space can be obtained without losing the Command from which it now [?] derives its chief importance. A front of 400 feet on the North and South sides, is the full extent that I think can be procurred . . . and that it is much too short for any good flank defence from itself, but that of the redan system to which . . . in this instance, I see two objections; — first, that by extending as far as I could wish, the salient angles would be much too acute, — and, secondly, that sufficient space would not, by that plan, be afforded to the troop . . . .

On the East and West fronts, a side of 800 feet may be procurred, which, though short, is still sufficient to afford a very respectable front, with three, or perhaps, four guns in each flank. Indeed, considering the narrowness of the ridge, a longer front on those sides would not be convenient, for the present perpendiculars are only 1/12; and the space between the Curtains is little enough, whereas, if the fronts were much longer, either little or no flank defence could be obtained in that way, or the Curtains would actually meet . . .

I am aware that any work placed on it must be defective . . . . Every Officer who has been here seems almost to have given the case up, in despair.1

Between 1795 and 1824, three proposals were made to solve the difficulty. The central problem in each design was the fortification of the narrow northern and southern fronts and each attempt proposed a different solution. Elements of two of these schemes eventually found their way into the existing Citadel.

The first and most simple design was that of Captain James Straton, and it was the only one of the three actually to be built (the third citadel, 1795-96). Straton's design was a simple adaptation of the regular bastion system and consisted of four more or less regular bastions connected by curtains and enclosing a log and earth cavalier which served both as gun platform and barracks.2 This had the advantage of regular form and compactness, but was clearly inadequate on the northern and southern fronts. These fronts were so short (400 feet) that the regular bastion form, suitably reduced, looked ludicrous; the flanks and curtains were little more than vestigial. It was obvious that a more elaborate arrangement was necessary.

2 "Halifax from the Red Mill, Dartmouth," lithogragh by William Eager (ca. 1839). The height of the hill (No. 9) is slightly exaggerated in this view, but it does give a good idea of the imposing nature of the site as viewed from the harbour. Most of Halifax is shown as well as McNab Island (No. 1), Georges Island (No. 2) and the naval dockyard (at the extreme right of the picture). (Toronto Public Library.)

The next engineer to tackle the problem was Colonel William Fenwick who, in 1800, submitted a design for a permanent work to replace Straton's.3 Fenwick attempted to take advantage of the most obvious feature of the site, its smallness. He retained Straton's trace more or less intact, but relegated it to second place as a sort of outwork to his grand central keep, which occupied most of the crest of the hill. The keep consisted of two large stone towers connected by a masonry cavalier, the whole being more than 400 feet long and a minimum of 50 feet wide. The towers were to be placed at the northern and southern ends, and were to be surrounded at the base by a series of masonry caponiers which were intended to make the towers self-defensible. What Fenwick had in fact designed was a sort of gigantic Martello tower. (The first three of Halifax's five towers had been designed by Straton between 1796 and 1798.) The scheme was relatively simple, if expensive; because the towers avoided the whole problem of the short fronts, it was another 25 years before the military finally abandoned Fenwick's idea.

In 1824, Colonel Arnold became the third engineer to attempt a solution. He paid lip service to the virtues of Fenwick's towers (largely, one suspects, because General Gother Mann, the Inspector General of Fortifications, liked them), but decided that something more elaborate was essential to protect the short fronts. He proposed that the works be extended on these fronts, and that the extra space be used to provide adequate flank protection. He also was the first engineer to provide for casemates under the ramparts.4 Arnold's was the most elaborate of the three schemes, and the only one which provided for permanent construction of the whole work in masonry. It also presented an elaborate compromise between Straton's regular system and Fenwick's keep. In spirit, if not in form, Arnold's plan was the closest of the three proposals to Colonel Nicolls's design for the present work, a design which was made less than a year later.


Arnold's predecessors had been bedevilled by other problems than the shape of the hill. What drove most of them to distraction was not so much the site itself as the ruins of several generations of improvised fortification which occupied it. These were the results of hasty building in emergencies followed by years of neglect, largely resulting from the long-standing disinclination of the British government to spend money on colonial fortifications. The ruins were enough to irritate any self-respecting engineer.

The early citadels were poor things at best.5 The first, a simple log fort designed solely to keep out Indians, had lasted less than a decade. The second was an octagonal blockhouse surrounded by field fortifications which wound over the crest and down the slopes in all directions, and had an equally brief and undistinguished career — although the blockhouse was obviously one of the ancestors of Fenwick's elaborate keep. Even Straton's third citadel, an enormous improvement on its predecessors, suffered from the same impermanence. Like them it was constructed of sods and logs; like them, it began to fall down almost as soon as it was built. Like them also, it had been allowed to go to ruin until a military crisis — the outbreak of the War of 1812 — prompted yet another round of emergency repairs. The walls were re-sodded, the logs replaced and a new magazine was built. The magazine was the first major innovation on the site; it was built of masonry and, not surprisingly, outlasted the works surrounding it. By 1820 it was the second most visible landmark in the city and a rather embarrassing monument to the virtues of permanent construction.

Sir James Carmichael Smyth, one of the men responsible for the present citadel, put the argument for permanent construction succinctly. He wrote in 1827,

[Recently] I had an opportunity of seeing for the first time a report upon the province of Nova Scotia drawn up . . . in the year 1783 by the late General Morse . . . . It is curious, but it is melancholy with a view to the public purse and the public service to observe that with the exception of those changes which time and an increase of population have brought about, our late reports and memoirs [the Smyth report] as far as regards Nova Scotia, are in a great measure but an echo of General Morse's . . . . He [observes] . . . that more has been expended than would have been required to build a respectable Fortress and which in page 66 he strongly recommends should be constructed on Citadel Hill . . . . If in the year 1783, the General's observations were just and his statement with respect to the unprofitable expenditure of the public money upon temporary measures was correct, how much more would his remarks apply in the present day when so much additional money has been spent and we have nothing on Citadel Hill but a heap of ruins.6

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