HAMPTON — Long before his audacious victories during the Civil War Robert E. Lee was sent to Fort Wool, a manmade island in the middle of
, to battle against the elements.
He wasn't entirely successful back in the 1830s according to Michael Cobb, curator of Hampton
Museum. Cobb has been giving tours of the three-acre rocky outcrop for more than 25 years.
The Fort Wool experience has been enhanced by a new outdoor "theater" at the fort funded by Dominion Virginia Power with benches built by New Horizons, a program that trains young people in the building trade.
Melanie Rapp Beale of Dominion said the recently built open air theater was funded with a grant of $2,500. "We asked them what would be helpful," she said. "They have picnic tables but this gives people a place to sit."
Cobb said the theater/classroom blends into the environment.
Fort Wool was off limits from 2003 to 2006 after Hurricane Isabel wrecked the pier where nearly 20,000 visitors a year would disembark. Today Miss
II Harbor Cruises runs two trips a day to Fort Wool from downtown Hampton.
In a year in which
is making headlines as the Army prepares to leave in September, Fort Wool remains a ruined backwater, the sort of place Monroe's future custodians don't want the historic post to become.
The Army left Fort Wool in 1967 and the property reverted to the commonwealth of Virginia. The city of Hampton leases the fort from the state and runs it as an historic park.
Cobb remains committed to telling the Fort Wool story and believes a fort that fired more shots during the Civil War than Fort Monroe will see an upsurge in interest during the 150
anniversary of the conflict.
Cobb told a group of visitors Thursday that Fort Wool was built to deter the British after the War of 1812 in which the British attacked Hampton up the Hampton River and went up the Elizabeth River. "These waterways were avenues of invasion," he said.
Work began in 1819 when crews started dumping tons of granite boulders into the water. Four years later a 6-foot tall island rose from the water as part a building program that saw 41 forts completed. Cobb said the forts including Fort Monroe and Fort Wool were designed by Simon Bernard, a Frenchman who had served under Napoleon.
Cobb said the early engineers toiled in harsh conditions. "Can you imagine how hot it was? It was like a skillet. There was no grass out here — just stone."
The fort was dedicated in 1826. It was originally named Fort Calhoun after John C. Calhoun, who was the Secretary of War.
By 1834 Fort Monroe was completed but Fort Calhoun faced continuing problems because its foundations were settling. "This fort was never finished," said Cobb. The plan was a "massive fortification" with 232 cannons and more than 1,000 men, Cobb said.
"Many think it would have been more effective than Fort Monroe," he said.
Lee was given the task of overseeing the stabilization of the fort in 1834 as his first independent command. "In the early 1830s they found after making two tiers of casemates, that this artificial island of stone could not hold the weight of the fort," Cobb said.
More stone was brought in to stabilize the fort than was used to build the fort itself, Cobb said. Despite the stabilization effort, the fort never reached the size it was planned to be. "He laid a lot of the stone but I don't think it ever worked," Cobb said of Lee's project.
Cobb said Fort Wool also has a little-known association with presidents.
, broken hearted after the death of his wife and in frail health, came to Fort Wool in the late 1820s and the 1830s.
Cobb said Jackson made the fort his "
." Ironically Calhoun had become the president's arch rival by this stage by threatening to pull
out of the union. Cobb said Jackson built a hut and would watch ships from on the island. He even made key policy decisions from the fort with cabinet advisers.
took sanctuary on the island after the death of his wife.
was also at the fort — which was still only half built by the time of the Civil War. Soon after the battle of the ironclads the Monitor and the Merrimack near the fort on Hampton Roads, the federal government renamed the fort after John Ellis Wool, who was commanding Fort Monroe.
Fort Wool even has an association with the actor Sir
who was grounded in a minefield off the fort in
. The comedian
also showed up at Fort Wool during the war to entertain troops.
"All great men touch Fort Wool at one time or another," said Cobb.
Much of the old fort was torn down when a concrete fort was built in the early 20
century, although Cobb shows visitors many of the older features that remain on the island.
Cobb said about 10,000 to 12,000 people a year visit Fort Wool. "Most museums today will not draw this many people on the Peninsula. We expect a surge of interest in the Civil War because it has a great Civil War history," he said.
"The island's often overlooked, but it's a great story."
The military left Fort Wool in 1967. It's owned by the commonwealth of Virginia but leased by the
and administered by the Parks and Recreation Department.