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 Naval Magazine at Fort Norfolk

Fort Norfolk History - 1863

Fort Norfolk was a prisoner of war camp for Officers, soldiers, and civilians. Fort Norfolk's location on the Elizabeth River and it's wharf made it an ideal location for gathering Confederate officers that would be exchanged for specific officer equivalents held by the Confederates in Richmond. The Confederate officers would be placed on a boat at the Fort Norfolk's wharf and sent to City Point where they would pick up the released Union officers.

Overcrowding of military and civil prisoners soon became a problem at Fort Norfolk. On May 25, 1863, Major-General John A. Dix wrote Major-General Halleck, General-in-Chief "I request that no officers may be sent from Fort McHenry or else where here for confinement. Fort Wool is given up to the engineers. We have nothing but a small guard-house at Fort Monroe and we have no other place except Fort Norfolk, which has always a large number of political prisoners and soldiers under sentence or awaiting trial." One account described twenty-seven Confederate officers, cooped up in a room 12 by 30 feet, with but one barred window.

On June 15, 1863, a report by Lieut. Col. J. K. Barnes, medical inspector, U. S. Army reported that clothing of prisoners dirty and worn. The overcrowding of the prison cannot be controlled by the immediate commander. If a number of prisoners arrive it must hold them, whether 100 or 500, and the risk of thus developing a contagious epidemic proportionably increases with the advance of the season. On June 21, Colonel W. Hoffman wrote to Lieut. Col. W. H. Ludlow "Surgeon Barnes, medical inspector, informs me that there are frequently more prisoners confined at Fort Norfolk than the place will accommodate without producing much sickness".

On June 30, 1863, Robert Ould, the Agent of Exchange for the Confederate States of America, War Department, officially complained to Lieut. Col. William H. Ludlow, Agent of Exchange for the United States of America in a letter stating "Frequent complaints have been made to me by our returned officers as to the treatment they received whilst confined in Fort Norfolk. As many as eighteen have been huddled together in an apartment fifteen feet square, with but little ventilation. They have been compelled to obey the calls of nature in that same room, and the excrement was only allowed to be removed once in twenty-four hours." Then on September 3, 1863 Robert Ould wrote to Brig. Gen. John H. Winder "I beg to state that full and satisfactory evidence was presented to me that as many as fifteen of our officers were confined at Fort Norfolk in a room about fifteen feet square, with no window, but only a simple slit in the wall; that they were not allowed to go out of that room at all, but were compelled to perform the operations of nature there in a tub, which was only removed once in twenty-four hours."

The above description could only be the Naval Magazine in the center of Fort Norfolk. The Union Army divided the building up to create 15 by 15 foot cells inside the Magazine. The Magazine has a limited number of slits in the wall, leaving the prisoners in a very dark environment.

Local citizans were also being sentenced to inprisionment at Fort Norfolk like the following account reported in the news paper. "Provost-Judge BELL, of Gen. BUTLER's Staff, has sentenced JOHN J. WOODBRIDGE, a distinguished merchant in this city, charged with importing spiritous liquors into this Department without a permit from the Treasury Department or any officer authorized thereby, and in contravention of the order of the Commanding-General of this Department, upon the schooner Village Belle, upon Nov. 13, 1863, and at various other times, to six months' hard labor at Fort Norfolk. Mr. WOODBRIDGE is a highly respected citizen, and the severity of this sentence has naturally given rise to much comment."

In November 1863 Lieut-Col. John B. Murray of the 148th New York Regiment was placed in command of Fort Norfolk.

On December 17, 1863 Maj. Gen. E. A. HITCHCOCK wrote to Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler "You are instructed to take charge of the matter of the exchange of prisoners at City Point, and the prisoners at Point Look out, Fort McHenry, and at Fort Norfolk are put under your charge for that purpose, and such others will be sent to you from time to time, upon notification to the Department, as may be thought advisable. You are herein instructed not to make any exchange which shall not return to you man for man, officer for officer, of equal rank with those paroled and sent forward by yourself, regarding, of course, from motives of humanity, in the earlier exchange those officers and men on either side who have been the longest confined. Colored troops and their officers will be put upon an equality in making exchanges, as of right, with other troops. Colored men in civil employment captured by the enemy may also be exchanged for other men in civil employment taken by our forces."

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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.