Hampton Roads And Fortress Monroe
( Originally Published 1900 )
The constantly broadening estuary of the James assumes almost the proportions of an inland sea, and in the bays encircled by the low shores are planted the seed oysters, which are gathered by fleets of small vessels for transplanting into salt-water beds. In front, near the mouth of the river, is thrust out the long point of Newport News, with its grain elevators and shipyards, dry-docks and iron-works, the great port of the James River, which is the busy terminal of railways coming from the West. Here is a town of thirty thousand people. It was almost opposite, that in the spring of 1862 the Confederate ram "Merrimac" (then called the " Virginia"), armored with railroad rails, came suddenly out from Norfolk, and sank or disabled the American wooden naval vessels in Hampton Roads ; the next day, however, being unexpectedly encountered by the novel little turret iron-clad "Monitor," which had most opportunely arrived from the upper Hudson River, where Ericsson had built her. The " Merrimac" was herself soon disabled and compelled to retire. This timely and dramatic appearance of "the little Yankee cheese-box on a raft" made a sudden and unforeseen revolution in all the naval methods and architecture of the world. Around the point of Newport News the James River debouches into one of the finest harbors of the Atlantic Coast, Hampton Roads, named from the town of Hampton on the northern shore. This is the location of a Veteran Soldiers' Home, with two thousand inmates, an extensive Soldiers' Cemetery, and of the spacious buildings of the Normal and Agricultural Institute for Negroes and Indians, where there are eight to nine hundred scholars, this being a foundation originally established by the Freedmen's Bureau, the chief object being the training of teachers for colored and Indian schools.
The little peninsula of Old Point Comfort, which makes the northern side of the mouth of the James and juts out into Chesapeake Bay, has upon it the largest and most elaborate fortification in the United States-Fortress Monroe. It is related that when Newport and Smith first entered the bay in 1607, and were desirous of ascending, the James, they coasted along the southern shore and found only shallow water. Starting out in a boat to hunt for a channel up which their ships could pass, they rowed over to the northern shore and discovered deeper water entering the James, close to this little peninsula, there being twelve fathoms depth,which so encouraged Smith that it confirmed him in naming the place Point Comfort. This channel, close inshore, could be readily defended, as it was the only passage for vessels of any draft, and consequently when the colony got established at Jamestown they built Fort Algernon at Point Comfort to protect the entrance to the James. In 1611 this fort was described as consisting of stockades and posts, without stone or brick, and containing seven small iron guns, with a garrison of forty men.
After the British invasion of Chesapeake Bay, in 1814, when they burnt the Capitol and White House at Washington, it was quickly decided that no foreign foe should be again permitted to do such a thing, and that an elaborate work should be built to defend the entrance to the bay. General Simon Bernard, one of Napoleon's noted engineers, offered his services to the United States after the downfall of the Emperor, and he was placed in charge, with the duty of constructing, at the mouth of James River, a fortification which would command the channel into that river and to the Norfolk Navy Yard, and at the same time be a base of operations against any fleet attempting to enter the bay and menace the roadstead. Bernard built in 1819, and several following years, an elaborate fortress, with a broad moat and outlying water-battery, enclosing eighty acres, the ramparts being over two miles in circumference. It was called Fortress Monroe, after the then President James Monroe, of Virginia. Out upon an artificial island, known as the Rip-raps, built upon a shoal some two miles off-shore, and in the harbor entrance, the smaller works of Fort Wool were subsequently constructed, and the two make a complete defense for the Chesapeake Bay entrance. During all the years this fortress has existed it has never had occasion to fire a gun at an enemy, but its location and strength were invaluable to the North, who held it during the Civil War. It is the seat of the Artillery School of the army. To the southward, at the waterside, are the hotels of Old Point Comfort, which is one of the favorite seaside watering-places of the South. In front is the great Hampton roadstead, usually containing fleets of wind- bound vessels and some men-of-war.