In 1794 Congress authorized President George Washington to build a series of fortifications along the "Maritime Frontier" to protect 19 American harbors. Fort Norfolk, originally built of earthen walls with wooden and some brick supports, is the last remaining of those 18th century defenses.
After the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in June 1807, Fort Norfolk was upgraded in anticipation of a British attack. The brick and masonry walls and buildings completed about 1810 remain at the fort. During the War of 1812, the fort was one of the key defenses to Norfolk's inner harbor and was home to the frigate Constellation. A British attack was repulsed at the nearby Battle of Craney Island.
After the war, Fort Norfolk's strategic value was eclipsed with the construction of Fortress Monroe, and the fort fell into disuse. In 1848, a squatter named Lemuel Fentriss was found living in the officers quarters. Fentriss billed the War department $1,500 for taking care of the government's works, signing with a shaky "X." It is not known if he was ever paid.
The Navy took over the fort in September 1849, establishing a mid-19th century equivalent of today's naval weapons stations. Two barracks were modified and several structures built. The included a massive 55x136-foot powder magazine with walls more than four feet thick, which still stands in the fort today.
Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, and rebels seized Fort Norfolk with its powder, shells, and ordnance supplies. Cannon again were mounted, and the fort served as a fiver battery defending the chief naval station of the Confederacy. The fort's magazine supplied the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) for its historic battle with the USS Monitor. The Confederates evacuated Norfolk on May 10, 1862, and the Union Army occupied the fort and used it as a prison for several years.
Fort Norfolk was eventually returned to the Navy, and it became a "much needed" ordnance depot in 1875. Around the turn of the century, the fort was used for storage. It was occupied by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1923, and the Corps of Engineers occupies the reservation to this day.
Fort Norfolk remains as a priceless historical treasure, still fitting this description written by a historian a generation ago:
"One may travel many a long and weary mile for many a long and weary day, yet find no place more beautiful than Fort Norfolk. Though well within the city's boundaries thousands pass but few enter. Once crowded, busy and essential to our protection, the glory of the fort was long departed, but the beauty and peace remain."
Much more information on the fort and the men who served there can be found at HistoricForrest.com.
Location: 810 Front Street, Norfolk, VA 23510
Fort Norfolk is open Monday-Friday from 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM for self-guided tours around the outside of the buildings within the fort. Free parking is available behind the guard house at the entrance. As it is located on government property, you must show a picture ID to the gate guard at the entrance building.
The Norfolk Historical Society conducts guided tours of the fort on Sundays from 12:00 - 4:00 PM from June 19, 2017 to the last Sunday in September. The fort is also open during other weekends for special events.
Admission to the fort is free.
For more information, visit Fort Norfolk's page at HistoricForrest.com
Or the Army Corp of Engineers official website.