The iconic Halifax Citadel is the jewel in the crown of the Halifax defence complex. The Victorian-era fort stands on a glacial drumlin above the city’s downtown and commands the eastern part of the peninsula and central harbour. The site was the first to be fortified in 1749, the year Governor Cornwallis founded Halifax as a British settlement. The current Citadel is the fourth fortification to have stood on the hill – it evolved over a century from a simple wooden structure to the massive stone fort that we see today.
The first Citadel was completed in September 1749, just three months after the arrival of the British settlers under Governor Edward Cornwallis. It was the first of a ring of five stockaded forts connected by wooden palisade walls that was built to protect the new settlement of Halifax from attack by Indigenous forces (see also the HMHPS site “Early Town Defences” and the HMHPS pamphlet “The Early Fortifications of Halifax.”).
Standing roughly 200 feet square (60 metres), with musketry loopholes and barracks within for about 100 men, the fort was designed by Cornwallis’ principal engineer John Brewse. Rather than being on the 257-foot summit of the hill, this first fort was located just east of where the southern ravelin of the current Citadel stands today, at an elevation of 225 feet.
The second Citadel was begun in 1761 by Major-General John Henry Bastide, the British Chief Engineer in North America, however work was suspended in July 1762 with the winding down of the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). It was designed as a series of elongated, irregular, polygonal fieldworks of earth and sod, revetted with timber or fascines, that sprawled across the top of the hill and draped down the glacis. Incomplete and ignored for the next 14 years, work resumed on the fortification in 1776 with the onset of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83).
The completed fort featured overlapping earthen redans based on Bastide’s original 1761 plan, with a large octagonal central blockhouse accommodating 100 men, two gunpowder magazines and three provisions stores. It mounted a total of 75 cannons and 25 mortars of various sizes, and was intended to deter a landward attack on the Naval Yard that had been established in Halifax in 1758/59 to support Britain’s Royal Navy. This second fort on Citadel Hill was allowed to fall to ruin over the decade after the end of the American Revolution.
The French Revolutionary War (1792-1802) heralded a new conflict between Britain and France, and led to the creation of the third Citadel in Halifax. Work started in 1795 on a simpler, improved fortification, with plans drawn up by Captain James Straton, Commanding Royal Engineer Halifax under the direction of HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the commander of British forces in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and later commander of forces in British North America. Labour was provided by local militia and additionally by Maroons who had been transported from Jamaica to Nova Scotia in July of 1796; one bastion was named the “Maroon Bastion” – later demolished to construct the fourth Citadel. (see also “Maroon Legacy” under Related Info). Completed in 1798, Prince Edward named the fortification “Fort George” in honour of his father, King George III.
Construction of the third Citadel involved lowering the height of the summit of the hill by 15 feet, to 242½ feet, to provide a larger level footprint. The compact, symmetrical design would resemble more closely that of the later, final version, consisting of an elongated earthwork on the top of the hill running northwest/ southeast; 725 feet long on its east face, 700 feet on its west face, and 332 feet on the north and south sides. It had four bastions, one at each corner. A wide, 10-foot-deep dry ditch surrounded the walls, with a palisade wall running along the bottom of the ditch and fraises projecting horizontally from the top of the escarp. Inside, the large 200 by 40-foot Cavalier Barracks stood in the centre of the fort; built of heavy timber, it accommodated 650 men and mounted the fort’s principal battery of twenty 24-pounder smooth-bore cannons on the roof. An additional twenty 12-pounders and five 10-inch and 13-inch mortars were mounted elsewhere throughout the fort. A magazine was located in each of the two western bastions – the southern one to contain 1,200 barrels of gunpowder and the northern one for three months’ provisions.
At the beginning of the War of 1812 an additional stone, bomb-proof magazine for 1,344 barrels of powder was built at the south end of the Cavalier Barracks, with the barracks being demolished the following year, having fallen into disrepair. The remainder of the fort was neglected after 1815 and was in a derelict state by 1825.
British authorities in 1825 determined that a strong, modern, permanent fortification was needed to defend the city and naval yard from an overland attack from the west. Therefore, Colonel Gustavus Nicolls, the Commanding Royal Engineer Halifax drew up plans for the fourth citadel, and construction began in 1828. The work would continue for three decades, until it was finally completed in 1856. For this effort, the top of the hill was further levelled to a height of 225 feet to provide a larger base on which to build, permitting a new fortification measuring 1,113 feet (340 metres) by 654 feet (200 metres). The excavated material was used to create the glacis or slope which surrounds the fortification. Granite and ironstone for the construction were quarried from Purcell’s Cove (see separate HMHPS site “Purcell’s Cove Quarries”). The stone work was done by the Royal Sappers and Miners, and buildings within by contracted civilian labour. Nicolls’ original design offered four demi-bastions connected by curtain walls, with four ravelins (one on each face) oriented in the same fashion as the previous Citadel. He reworked the plan in 1831, replacing the ravelin on the eastern side (facing the harbour) with a casemated redan that featured a gate and a drawbridge at its southern end, as can be seen today.
The original plan included two casemated cavaliers inside the fort, to serve as accommodations and gun platforms. Only one was built however, the four-story Cavalier Building that dominates the interior of the fort. Completed in 1831, it stands nearly 34 feet high and measures 205 feet by 50 feet, of ironstone masonry on its western side and with a colonnaded verandah on its eastern side. It accommodated 322 men and mounted seven 24-pounder smooth-bore cannons on traversing platforms on its roof. By 1843 a cookhouse and cells were added to either end. About 78 casemates in total were built into the ramparts for accommodations, storerooms and guardrooms, including about 20 defensive casemates or gun rooms positioned to enfilade the ditches and across the faces of the ravelins with cannon and musket fire. The outer wall of the dry ditch too contains musketry galleries for the fort’s defenders to fire at any of the enemy who made it into the ditch.
The earlier, 1812 magazine was replaced by two 68 x 41-foot, bomb-proof granite magazines in about 1835, one each in the Northwest and Southwest demi-bastions; these held 3,920 barrels of gunpowder. Water was supplied by three large rain water tanks built beneath the parade square in 1849/50, along with a 160-foot deep well in No. 18 casemate in the North wall and a second in the Guard Room at the gate.
The Citadel’s armament in 1855 consisted of five 8-inch guns, 45 x 32-pounders, 20 x 24-pounders and a 12-pounder signal gun – in all 71 guns. It could accommodate two field officers, 16 officers, 8 sergeants, and 756 NCOs and privates. The overall cost is estimated to have been £233,000 GBP, of which £209,000 GBP was spent in Halifax, providing a significant boost to the local economy.
The completion of the fourth Citadel in 1856 coincided with the development of long-range, rifled ordnance, which led to the Citadel becoming largely obsolete by about 1870. Although a number of these new game-changing artillery pieces were mounted in the Citadel (and can be seen there today), the focus of defending Halifax shifted to newer fortifications positioned further to seaward such as Cambridge Battery and Fort Ogilvie at Point Pleasant, Ives Point Battery on McNab’s Island, and York Redoubt. Towards the end of the 19th century a large brick barracks was added on the Citadel parade ground just south of the Cavalier Building. Capable of accommodating over 100 men, it stood 3½ stories tall with a pediment; it was demolished sometime between 1952 and 1959.
In 1906 Britain handed over control of Halifax’s defences, including the Citadel to the Canadian Government. The Citadel served as army barracks during the First and Second World Wars, as well as a detention camp during the First World War (with German prisoners interned in the Cavalier Building), and as the headquarters for Halifax’s anti-aircraft defences during the Second World War. It is today operated by Parks Canada, having been designated a National Historic Site in 1935. The 22.6-hectare (55-acre) site includes the Garrison/ Town Clock located on its Northeast glacis (see also the HMHPS site page “Garrison/ Town Clock”). The Citadel was restored to its mid-Victorian state by Parks Canada during the 1990s and is now the most popular tourist attraction in Halifax.
Today the Halifax Citadel Society (HCS) supports programming at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site (NHS) of Canada. Established on July 10, 1993, it is a non-profit, charitable organization which works in partnership with Parks Canada. The Society oversees period re-enactment at the site by the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot and the 3rd Brigade, Royal Artillery, offering tours and demonstrations of 19th century garrison activities including the daily firing of the noon gun. It additionally operates a School of Piping and Drumming, hires out solo pipers and groups of musicians for events, and sponsors a number of modern competitive pipe bands. The Army Museum Halifax Citadel is located in the Cavalier Building, and has been operating since 1953.