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 George Washington

Fort Norfolk History

The French Revolution began in 1789, and soon afterwards France was at war with many of the European Powers. George Washington issued a proclamation of neutrally on April 22, 1793 in an effort to keep the United States out of the war.

Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to Govenor Henry Lee on April 29, 1793; "Our situation is rather alarming — not a Gun mounted, and no militia formed; that a very small armed force would be able to lay us under contribution." "We are much at a loss how to act here, & shall be obliged for your opinion. It appears by the Treaties with Holland & France, that both have power to arm vessels in our Ports, & to sell prizes. I shall be happy to hear from you as soon as possible, as vessels arm'd will be daily coming in. If your Exc'y will please to send commissions for the artillery company & Light Infantry, they wou'd be immediately raised; with directions what kind of caps they are to wear."

On May 2, 1793 Henry Lee (Govenor of Virginia) wrote George Washington about the need to the erecting some defence for the Town of Norfolk. Henry Knox (Sec. of War) wrote a response on May 10, 1793 stating that the President of the United States acknowledges the propriety of your observation which apply to all the important towns of the extended Seacoast of the United States, he finds himself restrained at present from directing any measures, which must lead to considerable expenses for which there is neither authority nor appropriation by the legislature of the United States. On May 21, 1793 Thomas Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee "The legislature has not considered the idea of putting US harbors on the defensive, which means that there is no money to do so and therefore the President cannot comply with the suggestion. The treaties with France and Holland do not allow them to arm their vessels in US ports, and such action should be prevented."

Thomas Newton Jr. letter May 11, 1793; "our Exc'y's favor of the 8th, with the Commissions for the militia officers, I received & return you my sincere thanks for your attention to this place." "The most proper places in our river for defence, are Old Point Comfort & Point Nelson — the place where the old Point stood, nearly opposite to us, & half a mile out of Portsmouth. If the ten-pounders were mounted at the first place & the twelves at the last, I think they would answer every purpose."

John Hamilton (The British Consul in Norfolk) wrote to Richard Lee of Norfolk on May 16, 1793; "According to the tenor of the Proclamation issued by the President of the United States & the Governor of Virginia, it appears to me that the civil authority is required to use all lawful means to prevent American Citizens from any interference in the war now carried on by certain European powers. I therefore think it is my duty to acquaint you that here are the Masters of two British vessels lately taken by an armed schooner, under French colors, on board of which armed vessel was one Innels, who acted as Lieutenant of Marines in the capture of the said vessels, & who is now in this Borough at Mr. Cannons, and to submit to your consideration whether such conduct comes within the meaning of the said proclamation, and whether the said Innels should not be prevented from returning to acts of Hostility against British subjects."

Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to the Governor June 16, 1793; "By a proclamation Just rec'd from Charleston, there is reason to apprehend a kind of plague prevails in the Winward Islands of the W. Indies." On June 30,1793 he wrote;"nothing further has occurred relative to the pestilential disorder raging in Grenada, but from report great numbers have died."

Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to Miles King, Esq., Hampton on July 6, 1793; "A French 74 Gun Ship is arrived with a number of passengers on board who have been drove from Cape Francais, that place havi'g been destroyed; & a large number of distressed are momently expected in; it is said 150 Sail of vessels, full of all descriptions of persons. As it is requisite that some provision should be made for them by the public, I think an Express should be sent to the Governor on the occason. If you think with me you can dispatch one, & I have no doubt of the Governor's paying the Expences thereof and taking such steps as he may Judge proper for the suppty & reception of those unhappy & distressed people. Husbands, wives, parents, & children are distributed in such a manner that they Know not where to find each other. Twelve thousand are supposed to have been massacred at the Cape ; many were taken out of the water & thrown on board the vessels without cloathes or any subsistence whatever. I beg you to do what you can, & if you have places fit for the reception of some of them that you'll give the Gov'r information thereof." Governor Henry Lee wrote "a French 74 Gun Ship, with a number of other vessels from Cape Francais, has arrived at Norfolk, and appealed for permission to land their sick and wounded, amounting to 400; that the Unfortunate emigrants being in extreme distress & without money to purchase the mere necessaries for their immediate relief, the Marine Hospital had been by the Directors thereof opened for the reception of the sick and wounded, & the necessary steps taken by the Borough for their immediate accomodation."

Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to the Governor on July 9, 1793; "We much want a cruising vessel off our Capes, & no force on land can give the necessary assistance to vessels daily attacked. If the two cutters that belong to the U. S. were armed, they would answer very well, a few hands added to their present number. Our place is crowded with Frenchmen, and too many negroes have been brought in with them". "A Republican Brig gave us a salute on Sunday, and we are at a loss how to act on such occasions."

Robert Taylor and Thos. Newton, Jr. wrote to the Governor on July 13, 1793; "a letter directed to us this day by the British Consul, requesting us to apply to the French Admiral for a protection or pass port to several Brittish Vessels ready for sailing."

Robert Brooke wrote to the Governor on July 29, 1793; "I take the liberty to inform you that ten carriage Guns with a Caliber for nine pound balls were purchased at Tappahannock, on the 19th Inst., by a Capt. William Gibson, & sent from there for the purpose of arming the Brandon, (Cap'n Woodrow,) a British merchantman now lying in the Port of Norfolk."

Thomas Newton Jr. (Lt. Coll. commandant of the Militia in the Borrough of Norfolk) wrote to the Governor on August 2, 1793; Mr. Brooke "must be mistaken as to the Ship Brandon. Capt. Woodrowe being here, I have inquired after her and find she is now in East River in the county of Mathews, repairing, & may be fitting there. It has ever been my study to act with that circumspection which y'r Excellency recommends. French ships of war & privateers have * * & repaired here, which I consider is not a violation of the neutrality, but none have arrived that I know or have heard of. Brittish Ships have, before we knew that they ought not so to do. Your Exc'y is well acquainted that my District is confined to the limits of the Borough; in that I shall use every care to prevent breaches of the neutrality." "our militia can have but little effect; they can only prevent Guns from being taken from the shore — vessels armed may do as they please, as muskets in our river cannot command them. Two batteries — one on each side of the River — cou'd prevent any from sailing. I know y'r Exc'jy feels for our situation, & am sorry you have it not in your power to place us on a more respectable footing; & you may rely that if we were well prepared for defence, that it would be the most effectual means of preserving the neutrality. Our defenceless situation causes insults from all parties, which would not happen if they saw the means of preventing them, & at the same time to protect those who might take shelter with us. If as many English ships had been here as French, and as few of the latter as of the former, God knows what would have been the consequence."

Willis Wilson and Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to the Governor on August 15, 1793; "We are sorry to say that we are in a feeble situation for want of a Fort, as a vessel might be in our river & bid us defiance, with out cannon to command respect. We have two situations, one on each side of the River, fit for erecting Forts; and if only six cannon were mounted in each, they would command any vessel that Should dare attempt a violation of the Neutrality. Without something of this kind is permitted, we can only prevent Stores, &c. from being taken off the Shore.
A Fort would be a place of safety for a Magazine & place of arms, which would not only awe those who may attempt, a violation of the Neutrality, but be a means of preventing insurrection. A few men kept in them would answer all purposes, as the places are contiguous to Norfolk & Portsmouth, from whence reinforcements in a few minutes might be thrown in. We want powder, lead, & cannon ball, our situations being the same. We beg leave to communicate our sentiments Jointly. "

Thomas Newton Jr. wrote to the Governor on August 29, 1793; "The Brittish Ship " Orion, " of 74 Guns, is arrived at Hampton road, and is in want of supplies of provisions & water. I have heard more are expected from the West Indies. She took the "Sans Culotte," privateer of this coast."

In the early 1790s, the newly constituted United States government found it increasingly difficult to distance itself from Anglo-French hostilities in Europe.  Great Britain's manufactured goods accounted for most of America's foreign trade-a connection that the new, overwhelmingly agricultural nation needed to maintain.  Yet, the United States and France retained close political ties based on their alliance during the American Revolution.  The French Revolution served to heighten the shared republican sentiments of the two nations and to further strengthen their ideological bonds.  In April 1793, President George Washington formulated a policy committing the United States to work toward friendly relations with both France and Great Britain.  However, he carefully stopped short of declaring complete neutrality.  Still, Washington's diplomatic pronouncement has traditionally (if not quite accurately) been called the "Proclamation of Neutrality" (Tindall 1984:297). 

Washington's policy kept the United States out of war, but it served to antagonize both Great Britain and France.  During the two decades preceding the War of 1812, the United States faced a narrow range of diplomatic options and at times seemed headed for war with each of the European belligerents.  The navies of Great Britain and France prowled the Atlantic, and their men-of-war sailed with impunity into Hampton Roads and Norfolk harbor itself.  These foreign warships posed a serious threat to the poorly defended Atlantic coast of the United States (Calendar of Virginia State Papers [CVSP] VII:30).  In April 1794, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay as a special envoy to London to "settle all major issues" with the British (Tindall 1984:298).  The agreement that became known as Jay's Treaty eased tensions with Great Britain, but did not bode well for the immediate future of Franco-American relations.

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Source of Information

A CULTURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PLAN OF FORT NORFOLK, NORFOLK, VIRGINIA prepared for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District by the College Of WILLIAM & MARY, November 1995 under Contract No. DACW65-94-Q-0075.

David A. Clary's Fortress America: The Corps of Engineers, Hampton Roads, and United States Coastal Defense (1990)

William Bradshaw and Julian Tompkins's Fort Norfolk, Then and Now (n.d.).

The Norfolk Public Library vertical file of recent newspaper articles on Fort Norfolk.  Including articles by James Melchor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that describe archaeological and architectural findings on the fort property.