Fort Norfolk was one the original coastal fortifications Congress approved funding for and President George Washington signed into existence, and the only one still around. In 1794 Washington signed the bill Congress had passed for the construction of 19 coastal fortifications to protect the fledgling nation. Like most fortifications of the time it was small and made mostly of trenches and earthwork mounds to protect the troops and guns. Personnel duties during its early years consisted of stopping and checking ships heading into port, for contraband and, more importantly, yellow fever. By 1802, the fort had been abandoned and stripped of anything useful, but tensions with Great Britain would see its rebirth.
By 1810, tensions with Great Britain had reached the point where the United States government decided to reinvest in coastal defense. This next round of construction would see masonry defenses as well as officer and enlisted quarters built on the fort. Although it did not play a very active role during the War of 1812, Fort Norfolk’s presence protected the area by discouraging British ships from trying to penetrate further up the Elizabeth River. With the completion of Fort Monroe in the 1830s, and the protection it rendered at the entrance to Hampton Roads, Fort Norfolk would once again be seen as unneeded. This time it would be the Navy that saved it.
The rapidly degrading condition of Gosport Navy Yard (later named Norfolk Naval Shipyard) would prove to be Fort Norfolk’s salvation. The Navy got control of Fort Norfolk in 1849 as an annex to Gosport Navy Yard. By 1852, Gosport was in bad shape from neglect, and it was too small for the expanded fleet. More importantly, its magazine was too close to where the fleet anchored. To solve this latter problem, by 1854, the Navy built a powder magazine at Fort Norfolk and converted some of the existing buildings to produce munitions. Although the fort would continue as an ordnance depot until the 1880s, its biggest contribution may have happened during the Civil War.
The Confederacy took control of Gosport Navy Yard in 1862, and Fort Norfolk may have been the biggest beneficiary. Union troops had tried to destroy as much of the yard as it could, particularly the equipment and naval stores, but a lot was left behind. Many of the guns at Gosport were moved by the Confederacy to other points across the south, including neighboring Fort Norfolk. Fort Norfolk played a key role in the ironclad battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack). The fort operated as a supply point for the Confederate ironclad, and supplied troops from the state militia unit, which had been manning the fort, to supplement Virginia’s crew and man her guns. After Union troops took control of Norfolk, the Army used the fort as a prison for the remainder of the war. After the Civil War, Fort Norfolk transferred back to the Navy until the 1920s, when the Army Corps of Engineers took control. From the 1880s until its transfer to the Corps, the fort served little purpose for the Navy.
Fort Norfolk now stands on the grounds of the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Headquarters. The Corps of Engineers used the fort’s buildings until the current headquarters building was completed in 1983. Over the last several years, restoration work has been done to preserve the buildings and grounds, and now much of it is preserved to its nineteenth century condition. Now officially on the National Register of Historic Places, the grounds and building exteriors of Fort Norfolk are open to the public. For access, the general public needs to first check in at the front gate to the Corps headquarters. The Norfolk Historical Society conducts guided tours during the summer every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. For more information about visiting the fort, go to the Historical Society’s website.
Fort Norfolk was around long before it became a naval ordnance depot. It’s still here, long after the depot closed, and efforts continue to keep it around for decades into the future.
Story by Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator Jerome Kirkland