History sits next door

Published 10:10 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An “Afternoon Conversation” with the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and Suffolk Public Library on Wednesday started with the playing of a historical version of the National Anthem on Wednesday afternoon.

The original “Star-Spangled Banner” was played before John Lindberg addressed the small audience to tell the story of Fort Norfolk, the maritime frontier that was built to protect multiple American harbors and has served multiple purposes over the years.

Lindberg, who serves on the board for the Norfolk Historical Society, gave a detailed history of the importance of Fort Norfolk during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

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During the discussion, Lindberg told the audience of 10 how important the Leopard Affair was to the history of Fort Norfolk and its importance leading up to the War of 1812.

The Leopard Affair began because a British ship, the HMS Leopard, was looking for deserters that had found sanctuary on American vessels. The USS Chesapeake, which resided at Fort Norfolk, was off the coast of Norfolk when it was hailed by the Leopard to be searched. The American ship did not submit and was hit with cannon fire.

Three crewmen died and many were wounded, and Americans viewed it as a humiliating loss. The attack was not a direct cause of the War of 1812, but it did cause considerable tension between Britain and the United States.

The maritime fort was upgraded in anticipation of another British attack, and most of the brick and masonry buildings were completed by 1810. Most of those buildings still remain at the fort now.

Fort Norfolk never saw any conflict during the War of 1812, but it provided soldiers to help in the defense of Craney Island.

Fort Norfolk was promptly abandoned by the government after the completion of Fort Monroe in Hampton in 1834. From there the installation was home to a squatter, Lemuel Fentriss, for some time.

During his stay, it is said that the squatter billed the U.S. government $1,500 for taking care of the government’s property, but it isn’t known if he was ever paid.

Fort Norfolk wore many hats — an ammunition depot, a battery, a federal prison and now a historical site.

Fort Norfolk, located in Norfolk near the Midtown Tunnel, is still a government site and it is currently owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They used to occupy the fort but have since built a new building adjacent to the fort.

Currently, the historical society in Norfolk cannot do any type of archaeology to confirm railways at Fort Norfolk or look for other artifacts, because the Army won’t allow it.

Lindberg was adamant that everyone stops by to visit Fort Norfolk to understand the importance of the history right under their nose.

“It’s pretty simple. You walk by this stuff every day and not know what you are walking on or walking by until someone shakes you and tells you,” Lindberg said.