forts were built to block foreign ships from sailing up the James and Elizabeth rivers, and when cannon were finally powerful enough forts were built at Cape Charles and Cape Henry to control passage into the Chesapeake Bay
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper
The Chesapeake Bay has been a highway, more than a barrier, since Native Americans paddled to the Eastern Shore in canoes. Europeans used sailing ships as the 18-wheel trucks of the colonial era, penetrating up rivers to the Fall Line throughout Tidewater. Both pirates and warships have followed the same routes.
The threat of attack via the bay shaped the location of colonial settlement, where military fortifications were constructed, even the location of modern industrial facilities such as the Radford Arsenal and the first industrial plant in Blacksburg - placed far inland in Montgomery County in World War II, to avoid threat from an enemy attack along the Atlantic Ocean coastline. During the American Revolution, the British sailed up the James River and seized American ships at Hog Island. Even in 2013, a contractor reported to the Pentagon that the two nuclear reactors at Surry were vulnerable to a terrorist attack from the sea.1
Throughout the colonial era, ships sailed from Caribbean islands or Europe to trade with Tidewater plantations. The bay provided equally good access for pirates and foreign navies to attack those plantations. The range of land-based cannon (shore batteries) was inadequate to block the entrance to the Elizabeth and James rivers until Fort Calhoun was constructed on the Rip Raps shoal between Hampton and Norfolk in the 1840-50's.
Even during the Civil War, when a domestic army with support from inland states invaded Virginia, the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the siege of Petersburg in 1864-65 relied upon water-based transport. Until the creation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM's) in the 1950's, the greatest foreign threat to Virginia was a military force arriving via the Chesapeake Bay.
Algonquian-speaking Native Americans had crossed the bay in boats long before Europeans arrived. Native American canoes were far less maneuverable than the European sailing ships, and moving a canoe by muscle power was more exhausting than using wind power, but Powhatan's subordinates crossed the bay to establish control over Eastern Shore tribes before English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607. If the Native Americans had documented their military history in writing, the annals of Powhatan might have included glorious stories of water-based maneuvering and amphibious attacks.
Powhatan's priests had warned him that a threat to his paramount chiefdom would come from the east, and he was aware of European ships occasionally sailing into the Chesapeake Bay. Powhatan had no military capacity to block the arrival of European ships, though warriors in canoes could threaten a small ship. When John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay in a shallop during 1608, he took defensive precautions whenever canoes paddled out from shore to initiate discussions/trade, and when he "incountred 7 or 8 Canowes full of Massawomeks."2
Powhatan had no technology capable of blocking the arrival of European ships. He lacked the capacity to sink ships of the invading Tassautessus (strangers), so he normally avoided a direct fight in open fields and relied instead on asymmetric warfare and diplomacy. His successors attempted to use surprise attacks to expel the invaders, but that technique failed in 1622 and 1644 to push the colonists out of Virginia. The invaders who arrived via the Chesapeake Bay in 1607 would occupy Virginia and displace Powhatan's people, while the waterway would remain as an avenue for attack by others who might displace the English.
England recognized that enemy fleets could project power across vast distances. It worried about invasion of the "home island" across the English Channel by the Spanish in 1588 (and by the Dutch in 1677, the French in 1779, and the Germans in 1941). The Atlantic Ocean was much wider than the English Channel, but the entire ocean was not a barrier to protect English communities growing in the New World after 1607.
The earliest English settlers to Virginia chose to sail past the excellent harbors on the Elizabeth River, following instructions of the London Company. The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery went upstream to Jamestown. That lengthened the supply line, but reduce the potential of a surprise attack by the Spanish, French, or Dutch. The colony at Jamestown was protected, but the more-valuable ships and cargoes at Hampton Roads were still exposed to fleets from other nations - or to individual ships that were authorized as privateers, or "went rogue" as pirates.
After all, if the English could sail from Europe to Virginia, so could the enemies of England or water-based thieves. Into the 1800's, a sail spotted in the Chesapeake Bay could mark the arrival of a commercial business opportunity - or a pirate masquerading as a merchant from England or the West Indies, coming to seize ships and even raid Virginia plantations along Tidewater shorelines.
For 350 years after Jamestown, American ships and cargoes transiting through the Chesapeake Bay have been a target for attack. In colonial times, the ships were far more valuable than the public buildings at the colonial capital. Today, though destruction of public buildings in Washington DC would have great symbolic importance (as demonstrated in the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks), the shipping is more valuable. The Atlantic Fleet based at Norfolk, armed with nuclear weapons, is the most valuable military asset to protect on the East Coast.
Observation posts located at Hampton and Cape Charles/Cape Henry have provided advance warning of ships entering the bay since 1609. Pirates or countries with a navy found the time required to cross the bay would provide the Virginians with time to assemble the militia.
The Jamestown settlers built Fort Algernourne in 1609, near the town of Kecoughtan on the end of the Peninsula where Fort Monroe is now located. The fort provided an early warning system of Spanish, Dutch, and pirate ships. (Perhaps more importantly, moving some starving settlers away from Jamestown in 1609 reduced the demand on the fort's food supplies, and may have reduced transmission of density-dependent disease.) The Algernourne Oak on the parade ground at Fort Monroe germinated around 1540, so that live oak tree would have provided shade for the colonists who built the first fort.3
In the first successful foreign attack on Virginia during the Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, Dutch warships captured and destroyed the ineffective Elizabeth guardship, and the fort at Point Comfort was useless in protecting the tobacco fleet from capture. In theory, the English ships could have sailed near the fort and received protection from the fort's guns. However, the guns at the fort were not powerful enough to hit enemy ships sailing in the channel. Providing effective cannon, and maintaining the fort's walls, had been considered as too expensive. The fort ended up being nothing but a drain on the valuable resources of the Virginia colonists.
Despite the failure in 1667, and a repeat when the Dutch arrived again in 1673, Fort George was built on the tip of the Peninsula in 1727. Brick walls were built 16' apart and connected by brick crosswalls, and apparently the cells were then filled with sand to create sturdy fortifications.
Fort George lasted a little over 20 years, before it was destroyed by the 1749 hurricane that created Willoughby Spit. Hampton Roads offers several sheltered locations for a harbor, but a storm surge of 10-15 feet can rearrange channels/spits as well as sink ships and destroy buildings. The flaw in the design of Fort George was in its weak foundation:4
Old Point Comfort, at tip of the Peninsula, has been fortified since 1609... with a few gaps
Source: US Geological Survey, Hampton 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)
Willoughby Spit, formed in part by the 1749 hurricane
Source: US Geological Survey, Norfolk North 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2011)
Fort George was not rebuilt after the hurricane. After the 1748 Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle ended the War of Austrian Succession (also known as King George's War) between France and England, tensions had eased in Europe. Even during the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War), Virginia did not rebuild a maginally-useful fort at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Instead, the colony focused on defending its western borders against French invasion and Native American raids.
In the Revolutionary War, when the American rebels had no warships in the Bay, the British were able to raid up the Elizabeth, Nansemond, Appomattox, James, and Potomac rivers with ease.
In May, 1779, Sir George Collier led 28 ships with 1,800 men under General Edward Mathew and surprised the Virginians in Hampton Roads. Fort Nelson, guarding the Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth, was quickly captured because only 100 men were stationed there. The fort was very well constructed, and with the British attacking by land there was no problem with the range of the Virginia weapons. However, the British forces outnumbered the Virginians 20-1, and the Virginia commander wisely retreated.
The Collier-Mathew raid made Virginia's legislators realize that the Revolutionary War would be fought in their state, as well as in the north between Philadelphia and Boston. The raid destroyed extensive supplies in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Suffolk, as well as warships under construction, Merchant ships loaded with tobacco for France ended up as prize ships, and the profits went to British officers rather than helping the American side. Including the ships seized in the upper Chesapeake Bay, 137 vessels were captured by the British at the cost of just two men being wounded. By the time the Virginia militia had been assembled, the British had returned to their ships. Various British warships continued to patrol the Chesapeake Bay in 1779, with no resistance by the Americans.5
Another British invasion in 1780 showed Virginia was better prepared to defend itself. General Alexander Leslie brought only a half-dozen or so ships. but 2,200 men. He landed at Portsmouth on October 21 and Newport News/Hampton on October 23, 1780. The intent was to intercept Virginia supplies and divert American troops away from the British campaign under Lord Cornwallis, as they marched north from recently-captured Charleston, SC.
However, the Virginians mobilized while minimizing the impact on their support for the Southern armies. Most of the Virginia Line had been captured in the disastrous defeat at Charleston, but the rebellious Americans were still resisting Conwallis' northern advance. Virginia continued to send reinforcements and supplies south, rather than to George Washington's army keeping the British trapped in New York City.
The British forces captured the battlefield at Camden, Kings Mountain, Cowpens, and Guilford Courthouse, but those Pyrrhic skirmishes cost the British irreplaceable soldiers. To maintain the army fighting in North America, the British had to hire Hessian soldiers from Germany as mercenaries. Recruiting and shipping replacement troops across the Atlantic was as challenging as getting American soldiers to Vietnam 35 years ago.
General Leslie was deterred from sailing up the James by reports of large groups of Virginia militia and strong fortifications on the riverbanks. The Virginians freed up the guards responsible for 2,800 British prisoners in Charlottesville, by shipping the prisoners further inland to Maryland. The Barracks Road Shopping Center just north of the University of Virginia basketball stadium was named after the quarters built by those prisoners, who had been captured at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and marched to Virginia for safekeeping.6
However, the arrival of General Benedict Arnold with nearly 1,500 troops and over 20 ships on December 30 showed Virginia's military defenses were inadequate. Arnold reached Jamestown before Thomas Jefferson called out the militia.
The British marched quickly from William Byrd's plantation wharf at Westover to Richmond, where they destroyed the Westham foundry that produced cannon for the Americans. The Virginians did manage to move most supplies to the south side of the James River, and the militia blocked the British from capturing Petersburg.
Arnold retreated to Portsmouth, after his Richmond raid. After being reinforced with 2,000 more troops in March, the British (now under General William Phillips) could move throughout Tidewater with impunity. On one raid, they sailed past Mount Vernon before seizing merchant ships and tobacco from Alexandria. The caretaker (Lund Washington, cousin of George Washington) provided them supplies in exchange for protecting the mansion - to George Washington's great embarrassment.
Chesapeake Bay on New Year’s Eve, 2003
Source: NASA Earth Observatory
General Phillips did capture Petersburg in April, 1781. Colonial Heights gets its name from the artillery fired from that location by General Lafayette. Lafayette could harass the British from a distance, but the Continental Army was far north (keeping the British trapped in New York City) and could not spare enough troops to interfere with Arnold's plans.
The Americans had raced ahead of Cornwallis from the defeat at Charleston until he reached the south bank near South Boston. They moved all the boats to the north bank to block him from crossing, and in some cases the Americans were just barely across the Dan River when the British scouts first arrived on the other shore.
While British forces ranged throughout Tidewater, from Alexandria to Petersburg, General Cornwallis marched north from Charleston to the Dan River at the Virginia-North Carolina border. In 1781, Virginia was clearly unable to protect itself; it needed assistance from the other colonies. To encourage the other states in the Continental Congress to contribute more troops to protect Virginia, the state's political leadership decided to compromise.
Virginia ceded its claims to western lands north of the Ohio, granting what became the "Northwest Territory" to the national government. Virginia also resolved an old boundary dispute with Pennsylvania. The General Assembly abandoned Virginia's claims to the Forks of the Ohio (Pittsburg) area, which had triggered George Washington's 1753 trip and ultimately the French and Indian War.
In April, 1781, the British general chose to abandon the pursuit of the American forces and march to the sea, leaving Piedmont Virginia largely unscathed by the Revolutionary War. He moved first to Wilmington, NC, and then marched overland to Petersburg in May, 1781. Cornwallis crossed the James River to the wharf at Westover, then marched north to Hanover Court House and up to the Rapidan River. (Lafayette fled to the north bank, crossing at Ely's Ford.) There were no military resources or tobacco worth capturing or destroying at Fredericksburg, so that town was spared a visit by the British.
Charlottesville was not so lucky. The General Assembly had abandoned Richmond and fled inland, and the British considered the rebel leaders to be an attractive target. Col. Banastre Tarleton (the villain in the movie The Patriot) led a fast raid to Charlottesville.
However, while Tarleton's Legion stopped briefly at a tavern in Louisa County, Jack Jouett started a dramatic nightime ride to warn the General Assembly. He had to avoid the main roads where the British were arresting everyone. Reportedly, Jouett's face was scarred for life from the branches that he hit in the dark, on the way to Charlottesville. He got there just in time. Governor Thomas Jefferson, at the end of his term in that office, fled across Carter's Mountain as the British reached Monticello. The General Assembly fled across the Blue Ridge to Staunton.
Colonel John Simcoe led a simultaneous British raid on the north bank of the James River to Point of Fork, at the mouth of the Rivanna River. There he captured a large number of Virginia supplies. General Baron von Steuben managed to escape with most of the Continental Army supplies to the south bank of the river, but the Virginia state officials were less sucessful. Steuben described his maneuvers as succcessful, since he had fulfilled his mission - but that obviously ignored the overall impact of the military losses due to the American inability to defend any fixed location against the British forces in 1781.
By 1781, six years after open warfare started at Lexington and Concord, the British forces had captured all of the large American cities, marched through the various state capitals with ease, and were now disrupting the ability of the Americans to maintain an army in the field by destroying the supply bases throughout Virginia. Eighty years later, Union generals would do the same to the Confederates... and in the 1860's, France would not come to the rescue, as it did in 1781.
Chesapeake Bay - British attack routes in 1780-81
The amazing defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown can be explained best by the unwillingness of the British commanders to work as members of a team. The British army depended upon re-supply from the sea, but the navy did not synchronize its operations to support Cornwallis's army. In contrast, the French and the Americans coordinated their operations, to maximize their opportunities.
The French were partners, not subordinates who took orders from George Washington. The French rejected George Washington's proposals to attack on New York, because the British fleet and soldiers on the ground were too powerful. The Americans had minimal naval assets, and the British had defeated the French several times in previous naval engagements.
The French were not reluctant to fight, just careful to pick a fight they could win. They moved their fleet from the West Indies and created an extraordinarily large fleet, for a brief moment, to fight the British off the coast of Virginia.
The American and French troops stationed outside of New York marched south to the head of the Chesapeake Bay. French ships then provided transportation to move the troops by water to the Peninsula, while the artillery moved by land to Cornwallis's encampment at Yorktown. By consolidating their forces in Virginia rather that at New York, the French and Americans briefly outnumbered the British in troops and artillery.
That advantage would disappear if the British fleet brought reinforcements from New York to strengthen Cornwallis. However, on September 5, 1781, the French warships fought the British in the "Battle of the Capes" and blocked resupply.
The French fleet sailed out of Chesapeake Bay, surprising the British with the number of "ships of the line" they had assembled. The Battle of the Capes was a draw, basically, with each navy punishing the other but not gaining domination over the other. The key to the eventual victory at Yorktown was that the French retained control of the Chesapeake Bay, and the British fleet returned to New York for repairs. Cornwalis was trapped and unable to get new supplies or troops.
Cornwallis had played it safe and waited for help from his navy, while Washington and the French allies gambled and won at Yorktown. Had Cornwallis showed more energy, he could have broken through the French or American lines before they established siege trenches and trapped him in Yorktown. In particular, he could have crossed the York River and marched north past Gloucester as the Americans/French were marching south from New York. However, he waited too long, assuming his commander in New York would deliver on his promises and prevent the British Army from being trapped. When Cornwallis finally tried a breakout, a storm prevented the British ships from evacuating Yorktown and on October 19, 1781, he surrendered.
(A year later, in the Battle of the Saintes, the French fleet was destroyed by the English.)
The decision not to rebuild Fort George set a precedent. It took almost 90 years after Fort George was destroyed in a hurricane before Fort Monroe was completed in 1834. It operated at the tip of the Peninsula until 2011, when Fort Monroes was finally decommissioned after the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. (The end of the Cold War in the 1990's led to the closure of modern Fort Monroe at the tip of the Peninsula, but that was not the first time Virginia faced demobilization of military bases after international tensions were relaxed...)
Fort Monroe was declared a National Monument in 2012, reflecting its significance as the site where slaves first were declared to be contraband and retained, a key step in the process towards ultimate emancipation. In addition, after the Civil War Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe.
Until World War II, forts at Hampton Roads were unable to block enemy ships from sailing into the Chesapeake Bay or up the James River because cannon were not powerful enough to hit a ship from in the channel. In Hampton Roads, an enemy ship could sail next to the southern shoreline of the James River, out of range from the artillery on the Peninsula. The colonial gunpowder lacked the "oomph" to push cannonballs across the river, so enemy ships could navigate upstream while out of range of forts on either shoreline. Even if the gunpowder had been more powerful, the iron used for cannon barrels could not have contained and channeled stronger explosions.
The solution was to manufacture a new island in the middle of Hampton Roads. Starting in 1819, the Americans sought to fortify the natural reef called Rip-Raps shoal about halfway between Hampton and Norfolk. Mounds of granite from quarries near Baltimore were piled onto the Rip-Raps, but the heavy stones sank into the soft sediments.
Rip-Raps got its name from the rippling of the water, as the Chesapeake Bay encountered a shallow shoal off the Peninsula. After seven years of reinforcing the shoal with heavy stone, the army began construction of Fort Calhoun on the new man-made island. Robert E. Lee's first assignment after graduating from West Point in 1829 was to serve as an engineer on that project.
The island kept sinking, and the project continued for 30 more years after Lee moved on. If you're cynical about government waste, the conversion of the Rip-Raps into a military fort will reinforce your opinion.
Fort Calhoun was not finished when Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, but it and Fort Monroe were too strong to be captured by the Confederates. The Confederates burned Hampton in 1861 to provide a clear field of fire against the Yankee-controlled fort - but naturally they blamed the destruction on the Union side.
Fort Calhoun was renamed Fort Wool in 1862, shifting the honor from a South Carolinian who advocated secession to the Union General, John Wool, who finally captured Norfolk on May 9, 1862. Three months after the Monitor and the Virginia had dueled to a draw on March 9, Union general George McClellan used Fort Monroe as his staging base to support his army on the Peninsula and finally marched to Williamsburg - but General McClellan ignored the threat of the Confederates in Norfolk, across the James River.
Abraham Lincoln is given credit by some for directing the Union Army and Navy to cooperate and join forces to eliminate the Confederates from the south bank of the James. In 1862, Yankee cannon at Fort Wool had sufficient range to reach the Confederate fortifications across Hampton Roads at Sewell's Point (now the location of the Norfolk Naval Base, home bases of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers). The Union Navy ferried 6,000 troops to Ocean View east of Willoughby Spit, Norfolk surrendered quickly, and the Confederates burned the Virginia because the James River upstream of Newport News was too shallow for the ship weighted down with iron.
By capturing Portsmouth and Norfolk, the Yankees forced the Confederates to abandon their last efforts to use the Virginia to control the sea lanes at Hampton Roads. However, the Confederates fortified Drewry's Bluff upstream, and blocked the Union navy from sailing up the James River and supporting the army during the Seven Days battle, when Richmond was at great risk of being captured.
Virginia has always needed some sort of a navy to defend itself from sea-borne attack. Weapons capable of actually blocking entrance into the Chesapeake Bay were not available until World War II. Ships were needed to engage other ships on the water - and the failure to have a defensive naval force until the Spanish-American War left Virginia open to invasion more than once.
Virginia and the United States declined to invest in building and maintaining a standing navy to guard the bay for the first 300 years of European settlement. In the colonial era and during the Confederacy, Virginia assembled the best sailing fleet it could on short notice only after a threat was clearly recognized - and always too late to provide much protection. Just as Powhatan was unable to block the English from sailing up the James River in 1607, the Virginians were unable to block the British in early 1781 or the Yankees in 1862.
(During World War II, German U-boats were able to penetrate into the main British naval base at Scapa Flow and sink a battleship, but the US Fleet was never attacked at Norfolk. Between 1942-45, German U-boats stayed in the Atlantic Ocean, sinking tankers and other ships within sight of Virginia Beach.)