Fort Wool

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Fort Wool
FtWool.JPG
Fort Wool Island from the Miss Hampton boat cruise
Fort Wool is located in Virginia
Fort Wool
Location Island between Willoughby Spit and Old Point Comfort, Hampton, Virginia
Coordinates 36°59′12″N 76°18′04″W / 36.98667°N 76.30111°W / 36.98667; -76.30111Coordinates: 36°59′12″N 76°18′04″W / 36.98667°N 76.30111°W / 36.98667; -76.30111
Area 15 acres (6.1 ha)
Built 1819 (1819)
Governing body State
NRHP Reference # 69000339[1]
VLR # 114-0041
Significant dates
Added to NRHP November 25, 1969
Designated VLR November 5, 1968[2]

Fort Wool was a seacoast fortification located in the mouth of Hampton Roads approximately one mile south of Fort Monroe. The island fortress was designed by Brigadier General of engineers Simon Bernard, an expatriated Frenchman who had served under Napoleon as his chief engineer, was one of more than forty forts started after the War of 1812 when the British boldly sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to burn the Capital.[3] Started upon a shoal of ballast stones that were dumped as sailing ships entered Hampton's harbor called Rip Raps, the fort was to have three tiers of casemates and a parapet mounting a total of 232 muzzle-loading cannons, although it never reached this size. Originally named Castle Calhoun for the Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun, Fort Wool was built to maintain a crossfire with Fort Monroe, located directly across the channel, thereby protecting the entrance to the harbor.[4]

In 1902, as a result of the Endicott Board's findings,[5] all of the original fort, except 8 casemates, was demolished and new fortifications were constructed. The new armament mounted on five batteries of two to four guns remained in place for decades, although modifications were made from time to time.[6] Only six of the original three-inch guns remained in 1942, when two were sent to Fisherman Island (Virginia). A modern battery of two new long-range six-inch guns was constructed on top of one of the old Endicott period batteries during World War II. The outmoded fort was finally abandoned by the military in 1953.[7]

History[edit]

Brigadier-general of engineers Simon Bernard was tasked by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to create or improve fortifications for the protection of vital U.S. ports.[8] Bernard's plan was to build more than forty new forts, including Fort Wool, which he had named Fort Calhoun.[9] The fort was to have three tiers of casemates and a parapet with a total of 232 muzzle-loading cannons mounted, and was to be manned by a garrison of 1,000 soldiers. It was to built on a 15 acre (61,000 m²) artificial island southeast of Old Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia. Construction got underway in 1819 when crews started dumping granite boulders into the water. It took four years to bring the rock pile up to the a 6-foot tall island called for in the plans.[10]

A controversy soon arose over the stones purchased for the island.[11] A nineteen page report sent May 7, 1822 to the House of Representatives from the Military Affairs committee included depositions from individuals alleging that the contract to deliver 150,000 perches of stone at $3.00 per perch awarded to Elijah Mix on July 25, 1818 was fraudulent. Before awarding the contract, inquiries had been made at several quarries, and it was no secret that the government needed lots of stone for the project. The allegation was that the contract was awarded to Mix by General Joseph Swift of the War Department without advertising for bids. While other contracts had been awarded without advertising for bids as was standard procedure before April 1818, in April 1818 the newly reorganized United States Army Corps of Engineers required public notice be given for every contract after that date.[12]

Two proposals were received before the contract was awarded to Mix, and two more afterwards. All four of these proposals came in with higher bids than the one Mix offered. Many knowledgeable men agreed that the government had made a good deal, and the contractor had made a bad one for himself.[11]

In 1819, the controversy increased when Mix assigned half his contract to Major Christopher Van Deventer, who was chief clerk in the War Department.[11] Major Van Deventer and Mix were married to the daughters of Major Samuel Cooper, a noted Revolutionary War officer. Van Deventer later sold half of his interest to his father-in-law, Major Cooper. Secretary of War Calhoun had advised him that while what was done was not illegal, it “might expose Van Deventer to improper insinuations.” Major Van Deventer deposed that he had no interest in the contract when it was first negotiated nor did he have any influence when the contract was awarded.[11] General Swift deposed that he felt Major Van Deventer had no interest in the contract when it was originally negotiated.[11] Major Cooper and Major Van Deventer sold their shares to Howes Goldsborough & Co. on July 1, 1820.[11][13]

Construction of the fort began in 1826, and after considerable delays caused by subsidence of the island, the first level of casemates was finally completed in 1830. Only ten guns were mounted. Construction continued through 1834, and only half of the second tier was completed. It was then found that Fort Calhoun's foundations had continued settling. A young second lieutenant and engineer in the U.S. Army, Robert E. Lee was transferred there to assist Captain Andrew Talcott, the U.S. Army engineer in charge of the construction Fort Wool and its larger companion Fort Monroe, across the channel on the mainland. Lee was given the task of stabilizing the island as his first independent command. He found that the island wouldn't hold the weight of the two tiers of casemates and brought more stone in to stabilize it, but the fort never reached its intended size. Lee found the stone foundation under the fort was the problem, and that it would never support the weight of three tiers and parapet of the completed fort.[14]

Fort Wool also has a little-known association with presidents. President Andrew Jackson, broken hearted after the death of his wife and in frail health, came to Fort Wool in the late 1820s and the 1830s. Jackson made the fort his "White House." Jackson built a hut and would watch ships from on the island. He even made key policy decisions from the fort with cabinet advisers. Ironically President Jackson's Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had become the president's arch rival by this stage, by threatening to pull South Carolina out of the union. Later President John Tyler took sanctuary on the island after the death of his wife. Abraham Lincoln also visited the fort.[15]

Fort Wool even has an association with the actor Sir Alec Guinness, who was grounded in a minefield off the fort in World War II. The comedian Red Skelton also showed up at Fort Wool during the war to entertain troops.[15]

Civil War[edit]

The battle of the ironclads

In 1862, with the Civil War underway, a name change was in order for Fort Calhoun. The fort was first named after John C. Calhoun, President Monroe's Secretary of War who was a Southern politician of secessionist tendencies, it was decided that it would be named after Maj. Gen. John Ellis Wool, a Mexican War hero and commander at Fort Monroe.[10]

A very powerful experimental cannon, the Sawyer Gun,[16] was installed at Fort Wool during the Civil War. The range of this weapon extended all the way to Sewell's Point, more than three miles away (where the Norfolk Naval Base is now located), the site of a Confederate earthen fort with bastions and a redan and three artillery batteries totaling of 45 guns. The Battle of Hampton Roads took place off Sewells Point on March 8–9, 1862. USS Monitor of the Union Navy faced CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy during the Battle of the Ironclads in 1862. The Sawyer Gun also fired at the CSS Virginia, although it did no damage to the ironclad's armor.[17]

Endicott batteries[edit]

Fort Wool.

Five gun batteries were constructed after 1902, when funding became available to implement the recommendations of the Endicott board.[18]

  • Battery Ferdinand Claiborne: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1918)
  • Battery Alexander Dyer: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1917)
  • Battery Horatio Gates: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1917)
  • Battery Henry Lee (Battery 13): four 3-inch rapid-fire guns (1905-1946).
  • Battery Jacob Hindman (Battery 14): two 3-inch rapid-fire guns (1905-1946)

World War I[edit]

Typical disappearing gun carriage ca 1895

In 1917 and 1918, all of the six-inch guns and disappearing carriages were removed.[18]

  • Battery Ferdinand Claiborne: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1918)
  • Battery Alexander Dyer: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1917)
  • Battery Horatio Gates: two shielded six-inch guns on disappearing carriages (1908-1917)
  • Battery Henry Lee (Battery 13): four 3-inch rapid-fire guns (1905-1946).
  • Battery Jacob Hindman (Battery 14): two 3-inch rapid-fire guns (1905-1946)
  • Submarine nets were stretched across the harbor from this point.[19]
  • Submarine mines (called "torpedoes" at the time) stored here. The mines were controlled from Fort Monroe.

World War II[edit]

Additional armament and other changes were made after 1942:[18]

  • Two Searchlight Towers replaced two 1921 wooden towers in 1930.
  • Battery 229 (Battery 12) with two 6-inch shielded guns (1944) was constructed on the ruins of Battery Horatio Gates. The work was completed, and the shielded carriages were installed, however, the gun tubes were not mounted.
  • 50 caliber and 37mm Anti-Aircraft Machine Guns.
  • A modern Fire Control Tower replaced the original 1921 wooden tower.
  • SCR 296 radar set and Tower for its antenna.
  • A.A. Searchlight Tower.
  • Submarine mines stored here. The mines were controlled from Fort Monroe.

Decommissioned[edit]

The outmoded fort was finally abandoned by the military in 1953.[7] After decommissioning, it was given to the Commonwealth of Virginia. In the 1950s, the southern man-made island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel was constructed next to Fort Wool, and used as the southernmost anchor for the tunnels. A small earthen causeway connected the man-made island with that of Fort Wool. The bridge-tunnel opened to traffic in 1957. In 1967 and again in 1970, the City of Hampton developed it into a park. The Fort Wool passenger ferry, Miss Hampton II, allows tourists boarding in Hampton to visit the island during most of the year, but it can also be briefly glimpsed by passengers in westbound vehicles prior to entering the southern end of the tunnel portion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, which carries Interstate 64 across the mouth of the harbor.[19]

The island, now called Rip Raps, continues to settle in modern times, and occasionally the casemates of the original fortress are put off-limits for safety reasons. It remains a major draw for tourists, who usually include it in a visit to Fort Monroe. During the summer months, it is served by various harbor tour boats.[19]

Notes[edit]

  • On 28 April 2007, a garrison flag was raised over Fort Wool for the first time. This took place during a parade of tall ships sailing past the fort, part of the 400th anniversary celebrations of the settlement of Jamestown.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  3. ^ "Simon Bernard and America's Coastal Forts". National Park Service. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Permanent Fortifications and Sea-Coast Defenses April 23, 1862. pp 330-345 37th Congress, 2nd Session Report No. 86. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  5. ^ "Endicott board's report". Coast Defense Study Group (CDSG). Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  6. ^ "Fort Wool Armament". p 212; CDSG. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "Fort Wool National Register Nomination". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 28 July 2011. 
  8. ^ See "Harbor Defenses of the United States of America" CDSG website.
  9. ^ See "Third System Forts 1820-1867" CDSG website.
  10. ^ a b "The Chesapeake Bay: Avenue for Attack". George Mason University. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f "American State Papers Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, from the first session of the sixteenth to the second session of the eighteenth congress, inclusive: Part V Military Affairs, Volume II p 431-524". United States Government Printing Office. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  12. ^ "Christopher Van Deventer Papers, 1799-1925". Retrieved 20 December 201.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  13. ^ "New York Bar, p 24". Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  14. ^ Freeman 1997, Chapter 7.
  15. ^ a b "Civil War anniversary stirs interest in Fort Wool". Daily Press, Hampton Roads, VA. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  16. ^ "Frank Leslie Famous Leaders and Battle Scenes of the Civil War". USF Clip Art Gallery web site. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  17. ^ "CSS Virginia (1862-1862), ex-USS Merrimack". U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  18. ^ a b c "Armament list". CDSG. Retrieved 20 December 2012.  p 212
  19. ^ a b c "Fort Wool Holds Spot In U.S. History". Daily Press Hampton Roads, VA. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 

Bibliography[edit]