Friday, February 7, 2014

Attack at Fort Norfolk

Here's a fascinating story of War of 1812 Archaeology in Virginia - please enjoy this article by Mark St. John Erickson, which originally appeared in the Hampton Roads History section of the Daily Press.
Williamsburg archaeologist Alain Outlaw knew he wouldn't have much time to dig when he won the chance to probe for a lost piece of historic Fort Norfolk in 2004.
Williamsburg archaeologist Alain Outlaw used this 1819 map of Fort Norfolk to describe the defensive palisade and ditch unearthed in a 2004 dig. (Courtesy of Archaeological & Cultural Solutions Inc. / June 24, 2013) via
He had only two weeks at first to carry out what looked like an impossible rescue job.

But not long after City of Norfolk workmen demolished a giant early 20th-century warehouse that covered his site, he and his team from Archaeological & Cultural Solutions Inc. unearthed the first signs of a defensive palisade that Virginia militiamen had hurriedly constructed to protect Fort Norfolk from a land attack after a massive British fleet pushed through the Chesapeake Bay in early 1813.

And like the archaeologists themselves trying to beat a tight deadline, the War of 1812 volunteers working under the direction of Army Corps of Engineers fortification expert Capt. Walter K. Armistead were really humping.

"We found dramatic physical evidence that they knew the British were coming -- and that they were rushing to build this palisade," Outlaw says, describing the discovery of an abandoned circa 1780 well that had been stuffed full of limbs trimmed from the timbers used to build the defensive wall.

Workers filled this abandoned circa 1780 well with lopped-off branches during the construction of the 1813 palisade wall at Fort Norfolk. (Courtesy of Archaeological & Cultural Solutions Inc. / June 24, 2013) via
"They looked just like they had been lopped off that afternoon. The state of preservation was incredible."
Outlaw says the discovery made during the preliminary site preparation for the construction of a downtown waterfront development project would not have been possible without the concerns raised by numerous Norfolk preservationists.

Equally important was the city's quick decision to fund a short-lived but productive archaeological investigation of the site before the irreplaceable evidence was lost.

"There wasn't very much time to do the job -- and everything that could have added to the challenge did," he recalls, citing hurricanes, flooding and other problems that dogged the dig.

"It was certainly one of the more amazing projects that I've been part of."

Once the city decided to go ahead with the dig, it dispatched workers and equipment to not only demolish and remove tons of debris but also pump out  as much as 8 feet of water that covered the site on a day-to-day basis.

And when the dig began turning up significant evidence from the historic fort, it gave Outlaw and his crew a third week in which to pursue their investigation.

By the end of that period they'd not only uncovered evidence of the palisade's hurried construction but also retraced more than 120 feet of its triangular path, including the apex. Alongside much of the wall were the accompanying ditches used to strengthen the riverside fort's landward defenses.

Dark stains trace the footprint of the palisade constructed on the landward side of Fort Norfolk in 1813 to protect against a British assault. (Courtesy of Archaeological & Cultural Solutions Inc. / June 24, 2013) via
"I have also directed works to be constructed for the better defence (sic) of the reverse of Fort Norfolk," wrote Virginia militia officer Andrew J. McConnico in a letter to the governor in early March 1813.

"And this morning I have begun entrenching the approaches to the Borough, and two hundred and eighty men, with a corresponding number of officers and non-commissioned officers, are now at work in the absence of the General."

With the previous destruction of War of 1812 fortifications at Craney Island and Fort Nelson, which complemented Fort Norfolk from the other side of the Elizabeth River, the discoveries made in 2004 represent  the only known surviving physical evidence of the land defenses constructed for the 1813 theater of operations in Virginia, Outlaw says.

They also have another distinction.

"These are the only professionally excavated archaeological finds from the War of 1812 in the state," he says.

"And especially with the bicentennial, it doesn't get any better than this in more then 40-plus years of working as an archaeologist."

You can find the previous installments in this series on the War of 1812 in Hampton Roads at

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