The Military in Virginia

In the past, every section of Virginia has been a battleground of some sort or another.

Native Americans did not live in peace and harmony; they competed for resources by fighting, at times. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, pre-colonial Virginians used stone and bone tools to construct wooden walls (palisades) around towns, to protect against attack.

The first English colonists at Jamestown followed the Native American example, and built a walled fort for protection at Jamestown Island. The Native Americans never captured that fort. However, the English colonists burned it once by accident and abandoned it briefly in 1610, when all the colonists headed home after the "Starving Time" winter.

Fear of European attack from the sea shaped the initial settlement of Virginia, pushing the colonists to pick an initial site up the James River and delaying development next to the excellent natural harbors in Hampton Roads. The Anglo-Powhatan wars affected the early settlements as well. Plans to make Henricus the new colonial capital, replacing Jamestown, were abandoned after the uprising led by Opechancanough in 1622.

During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, rebels led by Nathaniel Bacon burned the colonial capital at Jamestown. The colonial governor, William Berkeley, fled across the Chesapeake Bay to Northampton County. Bacon's followers chased after Berkeley in their own ships, but were caught by surprise.

Bacon's flotilla was captured while anchored in the Chesapeake Bay, west of Northampton County. Governor Berkeley may have gotten the leader of the rebel forces, William Carver, drunk during negotiations. The governor had Carver hanged and confiscated his estate, which is now the location of the City of Portsmouth in Hampton Roads.1

The fears of the London Company in 1606, when it prepared instructions for the first colony to sail upstream for protection against Spanish or other enemies, were valid. In 1667, Virginia was finally attacked by a European country.

Jamestown colonists built a fort in 1607 - but it accidentally burned on New Years Day, 1608
Jamestown colonists built a fort in 1607 - but it accidentally burned on New Years Day, 1608
Source: National Park Service

Dutch warships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay that year. It was seven years after the Navigation Acts excluded the Dutch from trading with English colonies, and three years after the English had seized New Amsterdam (renaming it New York).

The tobacco fleet in Virginia was supposed to be protected by an English frigate, the Elizabeth, but that ship was unseaworthy. The English were too poor, after a long civil war between royalists and Puritans followed by the plague and the Great Fire of London, to maintain their navy and provide adequate protection from enemy attacks in the colonies.

In 1667, five Dutch warships succeeded in burning the Elizabeth guardship. The Dutch then captured the fleet of merchant ships about to carry the Virginia tobacco crop to England. A single Dutch victory in Virginia, far away from the European theater, did not alter the course of the Anglo-Dutch war - but it affected the fortunes of some English merchants.

(In 1667, the Dutch were able to destroy the main British fleet in England, as it was anchored at the mouth of the Thames River. King Charles II had been unable to convince Prliament to raise taxes to finance naval operations on the water. The Dutch took advantage of the English conflicts over taxes and military expenses, and that event had far more significance than a raid in the Chesapeake Bay.)

In 1673, another fleet of Dutch warships had a similar success in Hampton Roads, outmaneuvering the two English warships stationed in the harbor. The wealth of the Virginia planters was transferred to the Dutch again, because the English military was unable to protect the colony of Virginia.2

Virginia tobacco had value because customers overseas would buy it - assuming English ships could successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean
Virginia tobacco had value because customers overseas would buy it - assuming English ships could successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean
Source: National Park Service, Jamestown, Virginia National Historic Site - The Townsite and Its Story

In 1814, near the end of the War of 1812, British warships sailed up the Potomac River to Alexandria. A fort on the Maryland shore (now called Fort Washington) was supposed to block any fleet, but the American commander quickly abandoned the fort without resisting.

The Common Council of Alexandria surrendered in 1814 without resistance, after the British fleet lined up on the Potomac River and demonstrated its capacity to bombard the town. In that era, the British officers were able to benefit personally from capture of commercial vessels ("prizes") from the enemy. As the merchant ships and warehouses of Alexandria were looted, the wealth of Virginians was transferred to British officers because the national government was unable to protect the city.3

in 1814 the leaders of Alexandria promised to deliver merchandize to the officers in charge of British ships, and the officers agreed they would not destroy the city
in 1814 the leaders of Alexandria promised to deliver merchandize to the officers in charge of British ships, and the officers agreed they would not destroy the city
Source: The London Gazette, (October 17, 1814)

Alexandria surrendered to the British fleet without resistance after Fort Washington was abandoned, 1814
Alexandria surrendered to the British fleet without resistance after Fort Washington was abandoned, 1814
Source: Library of Congress, Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians

A century later in the Revolutionary War, the Chesapeake Bay was an avenue of attack again. Fearing a British invasion, the revolutionary government in Virginia moved the capital inland from Williamsburg to Richmond in 1780. However, in 1781 the British easily sailed up the James River and destroyed the public buildings in the new capital. While most marching and fighting occurred east of the Fall Line, the British cavalry chased the General Assembly all the way to Charlottesville, forcing legislators to flee across the Blue Ridge to reassemble in Staunton.

The critical battle in 1781 that determined the fate of the United States as an independent nation occured in the waters off Virginia, rather than on land. The French fleet defeated the British fleet in the "Battle of the Capes" on September 5, 1781. That blocked reinforcement or rescue of Lord Cornwallis' army bottled up at Yorktown. The British ended most military operations after Cornwallis' surrender, and ultimately signed a peace treaty in 1783.

a 1781 naval battle in which no Virginians were involved may have been the most significant military encounter affecting the fate of Virginia
a 1781 naval battle in which no Virginians were involved may have been the most significant military encounter affecting the fate of Virginia
Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Battle of the Virginia Capes

During the Civil War, all of Virginia was threatened at one time or another. The Union quickly established control over Alexandria, invading Virginia on May 24, 1861 - immediately after voters ratified the ordinance of secession. Northern Virginia (NOVA) is a distinctly different region from the Rest of Virginia (ROVA) today, in part because of the Federal occupation throughout the Civil War.

Why seize Alexandria first?

Occupation reduced the potential for Confederate artillery bombardment of the White House and the Capitol from Arlington Heights near Reagan National airport, which could have killed President Lincoln and Congressional leaders. Seizure of Northern Virginia, from Chain Bridge to Hunting Creek, also protected the Union military forces that assembled in the District of Columbia before they were deployed to fight on the front lines.

Occupation also blocked the potential of a Confederate raid on the capital of the national (Union) government. After the Union completed a ring of forts around the District of Columbia (including today's Fort Ward, now a historical park in Alexandria), the occupied territory served as a supply depot.

Alexandria also provided potential for cavalry raids and large offensive operations. It served as the jumping-off point for the first attempt to capture the Confederate capital 100 miles south in Richmond. General McDowell led 35,000 troops from bases in Northern Virginia to Manassas in July, 1861. Troops that took three days to march slowly west to Bull Run managed to return in less than one day, returning swiftly after the Union defeat.

Further south at the tip of the Peninsula, Union forces retained control of Fort Wool and Fort Monroe after Virginia seceded. Fort Monroe became key to the Union's second "On to Richmond" attempt, the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. In that campaign, the Union army was supplied through boats rather than through railroads. The Union Navy controlled the Potomac River and Hampton Roads, plus the downstream segments of the York and James rivers. Naval control ensured safe delivery of supplies to the Union Army on the Peninsula, even after General McClellan shifted his base of operations to the James River.

In Virginia's northwestern counties, Union forces seized control of the the B&O railroad corridor and guarded it throughout the war - with some notable exceptions, when Confederate raids captured trains and destroyed bridges and tracks. Union control of the northwest enabled the creation of the new state of West Virginia.

The northern part of the Shenandoah Valley was constantly crossed by armies and cavalry of both sides, and control of Winchester shifted often throughout the war. In 1862 Stonewall Jackson defeated two separate Union armies that had reached the southern tip of Massanutten Mountain, in a campaign still studied today for his creative use of fast-marching infantry as "foot cavalry." Two years later, the Union sought to eliminate the Shenandoah Valley as a "breadbasket of the Confederacy" providing food to General Lee's army trapped in Petersburg, by burning farms and destroying livestock in the 1864 Burning Raid.

Southwestern Virginia, all the way to Cumberland Gap, was also threatened multiple times during the four years of the Civil War. The Union army targeted the saltworks at Saltville, since the salt was essential for curing beef and providing food to Confederate forces. The Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, which carried supplies from the region to Lynchburg, was attacked several times. In May 1864, after the Confederates failed to stop a Union invasion at the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain in Pulaski County, the railroad bridge at Radford (called Central Depot at the time) was torched.

Seizure of territory did not ensure long-term occupation. Troops moved by railroad quickly from one place to another, starting with the transport of a Confederate army from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas in July 1861. Troops and artillery moved across the state by rail, constantly. For example, the Long Tom cannon captured by Confederates at Manassas was used later at Richmond.4

Most historic and most modern military bases in the state are located along the Fall Line (including the Pentagon) or in Tidewater. That enables supply by ship, and the ability to send forces overseas by ship. However, as the Jamestown colonists knew well, the Atlantic Ocean is a two-way street and facilities located on shipping channels can be threatened by foreign forces.

In 1780, the rebellious colonists had moved the state capital inland from Williamsburg to Richmond, to reduce the risk of seizure by the British. (It was not a successful strategy. Benedict Arnold captured Richmond in 1781, but mostly stole tobacco. There were almost no public facilities in Richmond for the British to destroy...)

Confederate Soldier in the Civil War
Confederate soldier
Source: Library of Congress, Unidentified soldier in Confederate uniform with kepi

About 150 years later at the start of World War Two, the same thinking caused the Federal government to place the Radford Army Ammunition Plant far inland on the New River. That location was considered to be safe from any attack by enemy ships that might cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The Radford Arsenal still produces propellants and 100% of the TNT used by the military. The facility is the largest emitter of nitrogen in the state, but the excessive nitrogen in the Arsenal's wastewater does not drain into the eutrophic Chesapeake Bay because of the decision to locate it so far inland. Instead, the excess nitrogen flows towards the Gulf of Mexico, with its own "dead zone" at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Radford Arsenal is not required to modify its pollution discharge in order to protect the Chesapeake Bay, but the facility may be required to reduce emissions by a future Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Gulf of Mexico.

like Jamestown in 1607, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant (Radford Arsenal) was located in 1941 far away from the Atlantic coast in order to minimize the threat from any European attacker
like Jamestown in 1607, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant ("Radford Arsenal") was located in 1941 far away from the Atlantic coast in order to minimize the threat from any European attacker
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Virginia's location near the national capital resulted in the Pentagon being constructed in the state. The need for contractors to support the indformation technology used by military offices in Northern Virginia transformed the economy of the region. Had the Pentagon been located in Maryland, the contractors would have located their offices on the other side of the Potomac River and Tysons might have evolved into a bedroom suburb instead of an edge city.

The state's Chesapeake Bay access spurred creation of multiple military bases in Tidewater. The primary naval base on the East Coast is located on the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. Further west on the James River is the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, the only place in the Western Hemisphere where aircraft carriers are constructed.

in 1907, the US Navy displayed its power at Hampton Roads during the celebration of the 300th anniversary of English settlement at Jamestown
in 1907, the US Navy displayed its power at Hampton Roads during the celebration of the 300th anniversary of English settlement at Jamestown
Source: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Jamestown Exposition Naval Review, June 1907 (Photo #NH 105806)

While it is not literally true that one more military base in the Norfolk area might cause Virginia to tilt up on its side and sink into the Atlantic Ocean, Hampton Roads is running out of space for military facilities.

Oceana Naval Air Station was established in Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) in 1940, when the area surrounding it was farmland. During the Base Realignment and Closure process of the 1990's, Oceana Naval Air Station was recommended for closure because suburban development (encroachment) had increased the potential for a disastrous accident dramatically, and regularly triggered noise complaints from the neighbors. Constant low-altitude flights and practice carrier landings may generate the "sound of freedom," but the noise can also make it stressful to live nearby.

The Navy has defined Air Installations Compatible Use Zones (AICUZ) around the jet fighter base, but the city has control over zoning and building permits. The City of Virginia Beach authorized intense development for housing and commercial uses near the military base, enabling landowners to sell at a higher price and facilitating growth. Military objections to incompatible uses on the edge of the base were muted and the city rarely acted on concerns about encroachment, until the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process forced a close look at the long-term plans for maintaining military facilities.

The state and Federal government are now funding the city's purchase of property and easements, and the city is rejecting proposals for increasing density near the base. Restricting future development is expected to buffer the edge of the Oceana Naval Air Station, reducing the risk of death/damage from the inevitable plane crashes and perpetuating the role of the US Navy as the most important employer in Hampton Roads.

While Oceana Naval Air Station is in Virginia Beach, the noise issues extend across the region. To reduce practice landing and thus reduce complaints, the Navy sought to establish a training airstrip (Outlying Landing Field or OLF) in a less-populated area, and looked for a practice site as far west as Emporia on I-95. Neighbors in all the proposed locations in Virginia and North Carolina raised objections, until ultimately the Outlying Landing Field was placed at Wallops Island.5

Virginia Beach is now limiting development in the Oceana Air Installations Compatible Use Zones (AICUZ), to keep the US Navy from closing the base and transferring jobs to an area with fewer land use/noise conflicts
Virginia Beach is now limiting development in the Oceana Air Installations Compatible Use Zones (AICUZ), to keep the US Navy from closing the base and transferring jobs to an area with fewer land use/noise conflicts
Source: Oceana Land Use Conformity Program (YesOceana.com), Navy Restrictive Easement Map

The military bases in Hampton Roads are major parts of the local economy. Every proposal to relocate one of the aircraft carriers based at Norfolk to Florida or San Diego was fought strenuously by Virginia's elected Representatives and Senators in Congress, whatever their political party.

Even after the military drawdown during the 1990's at the end of the Cold War, the 2000 census counted 91,615 uniformed military personnel in Hampton Roads. Newspapers reported that military personnel were concentrated in San Diego, Washington DC, Seattle, and Honolulu, but Hampton Roads was the military capital of Virginia and6

"more military men and women live in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area than anywhere else in the country... The vast majority of those military men and women are in the Navy -- roughly 80 percent -- and the vast majority live in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, in nearly equal portions.

The regional profile in 2011 noted the outsized influence of the military in the demographics of Hampton Roads:7

Six percent of adults 25-64 are in the Armed Forces, a much higher proportion than statewide (2%) and nationwide (less than 1%).

USS Eisenhower arrives at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth for maintenance and upgrades (2008)
USS Eisenhower arrives at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth for maintenance and upgrades (2008)
Source: Department of Defense, Pulling Into Norfolk

So How Do We Describe Military Conflicts Without Igniting Passions Again?

The Anglo-Powhatan Wars

Why Did the English Build Forts in Virginia?

The Chesapeake Bay: Avenue for Attack

Pirates in Virginia

Bacon's Rebellion

The Military in Colonial Virginia - an International Frontier

The French and Indian War

The Revolutionary War

The Civil War

U-Boats and WWII

Prisoner of War Camps in Virginia

Military Bases in Virginia

Military Employment in Virginia

propaganda map illustrating the Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott, to isolate the Confederacy by blocking shipping to Caribbean/European ports rather than invading with a land army, ended up a key part of Union strategy in the Civil War
the Anaconda Plan of General Winfield Scott, to isolate the Confederacy by blocking shipping to Caribbean/European ports rather than invading with a land army, ended up a key part of Union strategy in the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress

Links

iron plates manufactured at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond were used to convert the USS Merrimac into the CSS Virginia
iron plates manufactured at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond were used to convert the USS Merrimac into the CSS Virginia
Source: US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, CSS Virginia (1862-1862) (Photo#: NH 58712)Sneden

Union forts near Alexandria, built to protect Washington DC during the Civil War
Union forts near Alexandria, built to protect Washington DC during the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Alexandria, Virginia by Robert Knox Sneden

References

1. "William Carver (d. 1676)," Encyclopedia Virginia, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Carver_William_d_1676 (last checked October 12, 2012)
2. Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Virginia under the Stuarts, 1607-1688, pp.127-130, http://books.google.com/books?id=ZT8UAAAAYAAJ (last checked October 12, 2012)
3. "Council saved city through 1814 surrender," City of Alexandria, July 3, 1996, http://alexandriava.gov/historic/info/default.aspx?id=41328 (last checked October 12, 2012)
4. Barrett Decker, "Bull Run cannon" message on Civil War Message Board, March 7, 2005, http://history-sites.net/cgi-bin/bbs53x/cwartmb/webbbs_config.pl?noframes;read=214 (last checked October 12, 2012)
5. "DOD Lacks a Comprehensive Plan to Manage Encroachment on Training Ranges"(GAO-02-614), General Accounting Office, June 2002, p. 12, http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02614.pdf (last checked October 12, 2012)
6. "Hampton Roads: The military capital of America," The Virginian-Pilot, May 30, 2002, http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-86509270.html (last checked October 12, 2012)
7. "Regional Profile: Hampton Roads," Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, University of Virginia, April 2011, http://www.coopercenter.org/sites/default/files/node/13/HamptonRoads_Region_CooperCenter.pdf (last checked October 10, 2013)


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