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 Cannon firing at Fort Norfolk, Norfolk VA - Photo by Steven Forrest

Fort Norfolk History 1794

In early 1794, Congress formed a Committee on Fortifications.  The committee's task was to prepare defenses for port cities in the event of French attacks, and to provide "secure bases" for the proposed United States Navy.  The fledgling government had little money to spend and initially appropriated the paltry sum of $3,737 to defend Norfolk harbor (Clary 1990: 16).  Almost half the budget was to go toward "batteries, embrasures, and platforms." Just over $800 was allocated for a "redoubt with embrasures," while the plan called for a $200 magazine and a "block-house or barracks" at $500.  An additional $500 was set aside for "contingencies" (Bradshaw and Tompkins n.d.:4).

Secretary of War Henry Knox supervised the overall project of "fortifying the Principal Sea Ports of the United States" (CVSP VII:30).  However, in 1794 the federal government lacked both the far-reaching authority and resources that it would later command.  State governments exercised a large measure of control over the construction of the proposed forts (Clary 1990:17).  In February 1794, the secretary wrote to Virginia's governor, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, apprising him of the impending legislation that would provide for the Norfolk fortifications.  "The case of the ships of war on opposite sides being at Norfolk creates a delicate and dangerous situation for that town, " Knox told the governor, "which nothing can remedy so effectually as its being put in a state of respectable defence" (CVSP VII:30).

In addition to the financial and political constraints he faced while trying to implement the defense plan, Secretary Knox found that the army possessed few if any military engineers (Clary 1990:17).  Technical education was virtually nonexistent in late eighteenth century America. The United States Military Academy at West Point, which would later supply the Army's officer corps with professionally trained engineers, was not founded until 1802 (Tindall 1984:492).  Knox sought out foreign-born military engineers who had been schooled in Europe and lived in the United States.  In early March 1794, Knox hired John Jacob Ulrich Rivardi, a Swiss engineer living in Pennsylvania, to oversee the fortifications in Baltimore, Alexandria, and Norfolk.  Rivardi was designated as a "temporary engineer" in the army and initially was allowed the trappings, but not the official status, of the rank of major (Clary 1990:17; CVSP VII:92).

On March 28, Knox informed Governor Lee that Rivardi understood that of the three cities under his charge, the need for the fortifications at Norfolk was "considered as the most pressing" (CVSP VII:87).  On April 3, Rivardi received official instructions from Secretary Knox.  The engineer was directed to inform the governors of Virginia and Maryland of his arrival.  After making "the necessary surveys and investigations relative to [his] mission," Rivardi was ordered to submit his findings to the governors for "their consideration" and to follow their subsequent orders.  While Rivardi was to use his own judgment "in the choice of ground on which the batteries and works are to be erected," the final selection of the site was subject to the approval of the governor. Rivardi was also required to provide the governor with weekly reports on his activities (Clary 1990:18; CVSP VII:92-95).

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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.