Fort Norfolk
Norfolk, Virginia, USA

Constructed: 1794-1810
Used by: USA, CSA
Conflicts in which it participated:
War of 1812, US Civil War

In 1775 Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore (1730-1809), was ejected from the colonial capital at Williamsburg by those pesky patriots. Norfolk, a city that had been loyalist stronghold due to its prosperous   association   with the British
Empire for many years, seemed like a reasonable place from which Dunmore could rally support for the British Crown.

Once Dunmore got to Norfolk, however, he found himself no more popular than he had been in Williamsburg. Upon being flicked out of Norfolk, Dunmore rounded up a minifleet of three British ships and, on New Year's Day 1776, proceeded to warm the hearts of those he wished to win over by...bombarding Norfolk for over eight hours! The city predictably caught fire, and eventually about two-thirds of Norfolk was reduced to ashes. Dunmore returned to Britain, where he continued to be paid as the Royal Governor of Virginia until 1783, when the motherland finally recognized American independence.

There had in fact been two fortifications present to protect Norfolk at the time of Dunmore's violent naval insanity, on either side of The Narrows, where the Elizabeth River fans out to form Norfolk's inner harbor: Fort Norfolk, initially a rather pointless earthwork, and the equally flaccid Fort Nelson. Neither of these "fortifications" turned out to be of much use to Norfolk's defenders, either when Dunmore did his Dunmore thing or when a large Royal fleet under Sir George Collier (1738-1795) landed at Hampton Roads in May of 1779, disgorged 2,000 British troops and spent the next couple of weeks breaking things and killing people. In both cases, the garrisons of the lightly-manned Forts Norfolk and Nelson just kind of watched.

US President numero uno George Washington (1732-1799) wanted no more of this nonsense to take place, so in 1794 he sailed around the Norfolk and Hampton Roads area of Virginia, pointing at cool places for forts. Apparently someone with him wrote these places down, because nineteen forts and batteries were built to defend this vital harbor area over the next 20 years, at the locations he designated.

On May 21, 1795, the land on which the Revolutionary War-era earthwork had been built was purchased from Edward and Sarah Poole for £200, and work was begun on what would become the mighty 30-gun colossus of Fort Norfolk.

Fort Norfolk's appearance when it was at its highest state of readiness. Note the attractive ravelin, which has since been plowed under for parking space purposes. Thanks to for the image!
The winds of war ruffled the stars 'n' stripes again in 1807, when the HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Norfolk, looking for British deserters. This navally obnoxious behavior was nothing new for the Royal Navy, but that this event occurred so close to one of the young United States' principal naval bases made it particularly infuriating. Construction of Fort Norfolk was stepped up, and a heavy chain was stretched across the river to Fort Nelson to prevent the Royal Navy from getting into Norfolk's inner harbor.

War began on June 1, 1812, but Great Britain stayed away from Norfolk until February of 1813.   Flying ahead of an
enormous British fleet commanded by Sir George Cockburn (1772-1853) was the frigate USS Constellation. In its haste to reach the protection of Fort Norfolk's guns, the Constellation missed the channel and ran aground, but hundreds of Norfolk residents leapt to the rescue, lightening the ship (presumably by stealing everything that wasn't nailed down) until it floated; The ship was not captured by the British. Nor was Norfolk, but what Cockburn's fleet did manage to do was sail unhindered through the rest of the Chesapeake Bay, eventually attacking (and being repelled by) Fort McHenry in Baltimore and burning Washington DC to the ground.

One of the War of 1812 (1812-1814)'s immediate results was the construction of Fort Monroe in the 1820's: This huge fort and its longer-reaching weaponry (along with that of Fort Wool) protected the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in a much more comprehensive manner than Fort Norfolk ever could, and Fort Norfolk was degarrisoned. Ungarrisoned? The guys at Fort Norfolk left.

The fort sat in a kind of unofficial Caretaker Status until 1849. Usually an unoccupied American fort would have a single Ordnance Sergeant assigned to stay and look after things, but this was apparently not the case with Fort Norfolk. When the US Navy appeared at the fort in 1849 to make use of it as a storage and supply depot, they found that a hermit by the name of Lemuel Fentress had been living, alone, in the Officers' Quarters for the past decade.
After so long in residence, Fentress felt a perfectly natural sense of ownership of the fort. When he was told that, yes, he really did have to leave, Fentress demanded payment of $1500 for "taking care of the government's works," signing the bill with an X. No record remains as to whether Lemuel was paid or just shot, which would have been a great deal more cost-effective.

Interestingly, a play was recently written in which Edgar Allen Poe, on his way to his final "Public Lecture" in Norfolk just a few months before his death in Baltimore, somehow finds himself at the dilapidated Fort Norfolk in the company of Lemuel Fentress. The two seem to hit it off, each being somewhat damaged. This play, The Raven and Gull, is available in book form from High Bridge Publications.

To the left we see a slightly terrifying doll of Lemuel Fentress that was commissioned by one of the Norfolk Historical Society's boardmembers.
Virginia seceded from the United States on April 17, 1861. Federal troops left Virginia (except for Forts Monroe and Wool, as well as the area immediately around Washington DC), and Virginia militia took up residence at Fort Norfolk.

On March 8 1862, the CSS Virginia, the Confederacy's marauding ironclad warship, laid waste to the wooden Union ships blockading Hampton Roads. Well, it certainly tried to lay waste, and it did manage to destroy two offending vessels, the USS Congress and USS Cumberland.

The following day, the USS Monitor had arrived to   defend   the   Federal

Fort Norfolk is definitely a small starfort, but also a painstakingly freshly-painted one!
fleet, and the two ironclads fought their epoch-ending duel for three inconclusive hours. At some point during these two days (likely on the evening of the 8th), the Virginia was resupplied by the Confederate garrison at Fort Norfolk, which must have had an excellent view of the proceedings.

In May of 1862, Confederate troops fled the city of Norfolk, and the US Army moved back into Fort Norfolk on May 10th, without a shot being fired. The fort was used as a hospital and prison for about a year, whereupon it was returned to the control of the US Navy.
Today, Fort Norfolk's commanding view of the area is somewhat compromised by two enormous buildings: The Harbor's Edge Retirement Community hulks immediately to the fort's east, while the US Army Corps of Engineers' Norfolk District building restricts the field of fire to the south.
In 1923 the US Army Corps of Engineers was granted posession of Fort Norfolk, which it used to support its never-ending quest to rid all of the US' navigable waterways of evil, capitalism-threatening sediment.

Today, Fort Norfolk is jointly owned by the Corps of Engineers and the Norfolk Historical Society, an organization that will not return my emails. The fort is open to the public, but access to the keen buildings within the fort is limited to those who can get in contact with the Historical Society to arrange a tour.

Which I unfortunately did not have the wit to do when I visited the fort in March of 2013. I did however take a great many pictures of this teeny but very clean fortlet: Perhaps you might be pursuaded to visit Fort Norfolk in the Starforts I've Visited section? You'll be glad you did. Or, maybe you won't.