Skip to main content

Hampton Roads

June 2024
15min read

It is a place of noble harbors, a convergence of strong rivers and a promontory commanding a wind-raked bay; a shoreline enfolding towns older than the Republic and the most modern and formidable naval base on earth; a spot where a four-hour standoff between two very peculiar ships changed the course of warfare forever—and the breeding ground of crabs that people travel across the country to eat. Fred Schultz explains why the fifth annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to

Twice wholly destroyed and twice rebuilt, Norfolk is again redefined and in the midst of an ambitious rehabilitation.

Until I met Murray Frazee, I didn’t know starboard from aft. My entire nautical experience up to that time had been a few weekend crabbing and fishing trips with my Uncle Dick and Aunt Shirley. Mr. Frazee lived on top of a hill on a large estate he called the Dolphin House. He was the father of some of my schoolmates, so I spent quite a bit of time there, and I always wondered about the fish on the mailbox. What I learned later was that it was a dolphin (the fish, not Flipper), the symbol of the U.S. Navy submarine service. I also found out that Mr. Frazee was retired Captain Frazee, who in the thick of World War II in the Pacific had helped define the essence of a submariner.

He had been the first executive officer on the USS Tang, under the command of the legendary Richard O’Kane. With him, Captain Frazee had participated in some of the most daring and devastating patrols of the war, ones that sent more Japanese tonnage to the ocean floor than any others. Fortunately for him—and, ultimately, for me—he was not on the Tang ’s last patrol. Having taken part in more operations than anyone in the service at that time, he’d been sent to San Francisco for a few weeks before he took command of his own submarine. When he returned to Pearl Harbor, he heard that the Tang had been sunk by one of her own torpedoes; only 9 of the 87-man crew had survived.

The more I got to know Captain Frazee, the more intrigued I became with naval history. I even set my sights at one point on attending the U.S. Naval Academy, but the institution’s eyesight requirements precluded that. (O.K., my grades weren’t good enough either.) But all this ultimately led to the pursuit of my present position as the editor of a magazine devoted to the maritime past. I live in Annapolis now, and I’m immersed in what the sea has meant to this country.

Beyond the bracing smell of the salt air are water highways that carry any imaginable provision, while under the surface are a smorgasbord of culinary delights and, like it or not, deposits of fuels that keep us all warm and on the move. But we owe our freedom to ply those waters and to harvest that bounty to the hardy souls who have, over the centuries, come to its defense. There’s something primal about going “down to the sea in ships,” a place where man meets his earliest past. One never conquers the sea; one can only hope to coexist with it, and the struggle to do that has, from the very beginning, played an immense role in defining Americans as a people. Nowhere is this tremendous story told more vividly than on the shores of one of the most heavily traveled complexes of har bors in the world, an area in southeastern Virginia known as Hampton Roads.

When sailors speak of a “roads,” they mean a safe anchor-age, a protected harbor. This is a vast one, nourished by five rivers and ringed with old towns. This natural convergence of several major deep waterways has drawn many to its shores, and so it drew me. On a warm morning last May, my wife, Susan, and I set off from Annapolis to explore this distillation of our maritime past.

We would have missed one of the area’s signal pleasures if we hadn’t stopped at the Virginia Welcome Center on the south shore of the Potomac River. Determined to bypass traffic around Washington, we had decided on the “scenic” Route 301. But the men behind the desk insisted that Route 17 was “the only way to go.” Cruising through sparse traffic and rolling farmland, that’s where Susan and I saw, across the road and in front of a roadside diner called The Oasis, a sign that read SOFT CRABS R HERE . We looked at each other without a word and promptly made a U-turn. With freshly molted blue crabs topping the menu (infinitely more appealing than they sound; you eat the whole thing, legs and all), we knew we were in the land where seafood rules.

The confluence of the Rappahannock, York, and James rivers and the Chesapeake Bay as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean has provided those crabs to European settlers on these shores for at least 400 years and to Native Americans for a thousand years before them. But these waterways have exerted several other attractions throughout history. That fact is hardly lost on those charged with interpreting this long heritage, especially in the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News, on the shores of this gateway to the Atlantic, the great deep Hampton Roads.


You can drive across Hampton Roads, but you must go under it, through the tunnel that plunges beneath the shipping lanes. As we re-emerged on the south side, the expanse of the Atlantic to our left grew wider and wider, its blue-water chop simultaneously inviting and forbidding. To the right was a bustle of maritime commerce and naval strength, giant ships in various stages of construction, repair, and replenishment. There, on the Elizabeth River, a tributary between the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, lies Norfolk, a city that has suffered near-total devastation twice in its history: during the American Revolution and the Civil War. Both times its resilient residents rebuilt it, and today Norfolk is again redefined and in the midst of an ambitious rehabilitation. The city has revivified its downtown seaport area, and the mainstay of this model of growth and refurbishment is Nauticus, the National Maritime Center.

On a quay jutting into the river, the modern building, painted the haze gray of Navy ships, gives the illusion that it’s floating. Obviously designed for the twenty-first century, the 120,000-square-foot structure offers more than 100 exhibits, mostly on its third floor. The exhibits encourage participation, and even though you can try your video-enhanced hand here at landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier, they’re not all geared toward the naval and military experience. Included also on this floor, for instance, are hands-on exhibits that allow visitors to touch aquatic life. A Nautilus staffers assures the timid (namely, me) that it’s O.K. to touch the horseshoe crab and the threatening-looking sea urchin and even the back of a warm-water nurse shark. Programs for kids abound here, and to judge from the decibel level, the core audience approves wholeheartedly.

On the second floor, the museum presents a retrospective journey through the maritime history of the region, focusing on its defense. The story begins in 1607 about 20 miles east on Cape Henry, where representatives of the Virginia Company landed and eventually traveled upriver to establish Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in this country. In these parts, there is already a good deal of talk about celebrations planned for 2007 to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of this truly momentous event.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum gears much of its interpretation toward models, artwork, and artifacts of the Civil War era, which drew the attention of the whole world to this area. “Heavy breathing” is how the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns once referred, in an interview with me, to the world’s collective reaction to the first battle between ironclads, the new USS Monitor and the converted former U.S. steam sloop of war Merrimack , renamed CSS Virginia . The overseas watchers understood almost from the start that the 1862 duel represented a monumental change in how war would be waged at sea. Today, the entire region is eloquent of exactly how the transition from sail and wood and steam and steel has progressed and of what that change has meant.

In the span of a single long lifetime, the hastily extemporized ironclad evolved into one of the most impressive of all man-made artifacts. This year, a superb example came to Norfolk to stay, at the base of Plume Street on the Elizabeth Avenue waterfront. She’s majestic. She’s imposing. She’s the battleship Wisconsin , and her great bow divides the waterfront with the authority of a mammoth cleaver. Susan and I both gasped the first time we saw her.

At first, the World War II-vintage battleship might look out of place here, hitched as she is to the side of the slick Nauticus Center. The Wisconsin is one of the four Iowa-class battleships that until recently were the backbone of the U.S. surface fleet. Naval decision makers have deemed smaller ships —working in conjunction with missile-laden submarines and aircraft carriers (many of them berthed at the nearby Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest)—to be more cost-effective than the huge battleships.

The Wisconsin saw service from World War II to Desert Storm; her lower decks are closed because she’s on ready reserve.

Today, the plugged forward guns of the Wisconsin point directly toward downtown Norfolk. Among naval types, one widely known fact is that the 16-inch-diameter shells fired by these giant guns weigh about the same as a Volkswagen Beetle (the old one, not the new). Nauticus illustrates the comparison in the most literal possible way by hanging from its tall ceiling a 16-inch shell alongside a real Volkswagen.

Volunteers, many of them veterans of service on the magnificent ship, greet visitors as they step off the gangway from Nauticus and onto the Wisconsin ’s teak topside deck (below decks are closed because of the ship’s ready-reserve status). They detail her service, from naval operations in World War II to Desert Storm. Soon after the Gulf war, the Wisconsin was decommissioned and retired to Portsmouth, Virginia, until she was towed to her new home.

We chatted with Krissa Barclay, sitting just off the entrance to the “City at Sea” exhibit, which interprets the history of the mighty ship and life on board. “When I heard the Wisconsin was here,” she said, “I made plans to bring my father. My dad always wanted to be on a battleship, so I decided we needed to come to Nauticus.” Her father, Larry Smith, who soon emerged from the passageway leading to and from the ship, was elated. “We’re out of Nashville,” he said. “But America started not far from here, and there’s a world of history everywhere you look. There’s history around every corner.”

In downtown Norfolk, history is indeed around every corner. Nauticus is only one stop on the Cannonball Trail, a self-guided tour of historic downtown landmarks indicated by markers set in the sidewalks. An accompanying booklet recommends a minimum of two hours to walk it, but we couldn’t see how that would ever be enough time.

We began the trail tour at the old red-brick St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1739 and billed as the city’s “only tangible link to her Colonial roots.” Nat urally, we wanted to see the cannonball. Fired during a British bombardment in 1776, it remains embedded in the building’s southeast wall, and this atom of British ordnance gives the trail its name.

You’d never guess the tidy church was gutted by fire during the attack of Lord Dunmore’s fleet that New Year’s Day in ’76. In fact, of the many buildings in Norfolk torched by British sailors and then by Norfolk’s own citizens—in order to deny the British anything of value—St. Paul’s is the only one to survive the assault more or less intact. During its 225th year, 1964, the church mounted the funeral of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. While this is decidedly a naval town, MacArthur has left the impress of his implacable personality, having requested that he be buried here, in the city that was the home of his mother, Mary Pinkney Hardy. One of the largest complexes in town is the MacArthur Center, a big new shopping mall with five stars at each entrance to depict the insignia of General of the Army, MacArthur’s ultimate rank.

The general’s remains were interred in the old Norfolk Courthouse. Today, it is devoted exclusively to MacArthur, with a memorial, a museum, and archives. On display are one of the general’s famous corncob pipes and his immaculate 1950 Chrysler limousine.

Cobblestone, red brick, and wrought iron have a way of telling you that you’ve come upon something historic. In this case, it was West Freemason Street, an architectural extravaganza and a journey through three centuries. We whiled away at least an hour on just a few blocks, taking in the rich diversity of building styles. In one small cluster are five structures highlighted on the Cannonball Trail, among them the 1807 Federal house of the Confederate Army’s surgeon general, Dr. William Seiden, at the intersection of Botetourt Street and Freemason. Its neighbors on the same block include examples of High Victorian Italianate (1870), Georgian Revival (1900), and Beaux Arts Classical (1904), as well as an Italianate row house (1889).

Since Civil War days, the towns of Hampton and Newport News have been known for astonishing advances in technology.

By the time we reached the new mall, we thought there couldn’t possibly be anything more to see on Freemason Street, but another block or so away is the Willoughby-Baylor House, which, although built a decade after the Revolution’s end, is perhaps an even more tangible connection to colonial Norfolk than is nearby St. Paul’s Church. From a 1636 land grant of 2.00 acres to Capt. Thomas Willoughby came the site of this house, plus 50 acres to be named the “town of Norfolk.” Its flower gardens were wonderfully trim and colorful when we were there, and We tried not to let the mall’s multitiered parking garage frowning at our backs intrude on the scene.

The house is one of three historic properties under the care of the Chrysler Museum of Art, a red-roofed granite hall on the peaceful Hague Inlet, which is itself a work of art. Tucked away on the fringe of Ghent—a turn-of-the-century planned district of well-groomed houses, trendy shops, and restaurants that have colonized many historic structures—the museum fills nearly 80 galleries with some of the finest art in the world. We were drawn immediately to the works of Manet, Renoir, C»zanne, Monet, and Degas, but if it’s great American art you’re after, have a look at George Caleb Bingham’s version of Washington crossing the Delaware or Albert Bierstadt’s breathtaking landscape The Emerald Pool or Thomas Cole’s astounding 8-by-15-foot canvas The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds .

A bit worn-out from all this touring, we followed our noses back to Town Point Park, next to Nauticus, where a festival was going on. Gospel and reggae music filled the air, as did scents from a variety of food stands that lined a midway. It was the AfrAm Fest, a celebration of African-American and Caribbean heritage and culture. Norfolk was decidedly a city of the Confederacy during the Civil War, but its modern diversity is plain to see. After eating the best jerk chicken we’ve had in our lives, we drove into the Hampton Roads tunnel, heading toward the north side.

On this shore of Hampton Roads lie Hampton and Newport News, towns known for space travel (Langley Air Force Base and the Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton) and for fabricating the most sophisticated merchant vessels and warships in the world (Newport News Shipbuilding). But several sites within these two municipalities are indissolubly associated with the early years of the Civil War, when the region was already known for astonishing advances in technology.

A “Peninsula Campaign” brochure recommends that you begin exploring the era at the Casemate Museum in Fort Monroe. The largest stone fort ever built in the United States and still used by the U.S. Army, Fort Monroe—“the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake”—looks out to sea from Old Point Comfort at the tip of the peninsula where Hampton Roads meets the Chesapeake Bay. Begun in 1819, it took 15 years to complete; its 1.25-mile moat (the the only American fort to have one) circles 62 acres, and soon after the Confederate guns opened on Fort Sumter, the Union War Department, keenly aware of the fort’s importance, reinforced it. The bastion became headquarters for the Union Army’s Department of Virginia.

Of particular interest to the Civil War enthusiast are the accommodations of two Confederate leaders who lived here under very different circumstances. Robert E. Lee was stationed in Fort Monroe as a U.S. Army engineer during the latter part of its construction. He oversaw the completion of the outer works and found it a place “by no means to be despised.” Nor did his later Confederate colleagues. Although surrounded by Rebel forces, the fort remained in Union hands throughout the war. In contrast to the young Lee’s rooms is the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held as a conspiracy suspect after the assassination of President Lincoln (though, in truth, both quarters seem equally Spartan).

The metal tank at the museum didn’t look like much, but when I learned what was inside, it sent chills down my spine.

The trouble with battlefields on water is that virtually nothing remains to be seen. But even at such historic pieces of terrain as Little Round Top at Gettysburg, much is still left to the imagination, and this is the case with the site of the first operations of ironclad warships. On each side of Interstate 664, another passageway beneath the shipping lanes of the James River, are overlooks that commemorate the two sea battles that really made this area famous.

In Christopher Newport Park, the Congress and Cumberland Overlook presents a vista of the brown-water James. We wondered whether the noisy motorboaters and Jet Skiers whisking by had any idea that this was the spot where on March 8,1862., the CSS Virginia —initially thought by her crew to be on a trial run—made relatively quick work of two big wooden Union warships. From this vantage point, Union lookouts spotted the former Merrimack at about one-thirty in the afternoon, coming out of the Elizabeth River, headed for the USS Cumberland . She rammed and sank the Cumberland , while the Union vessel’s shot bounced off her metal flanks. Then she bombarded the USS Congress , which had run aground after seeing the Cumberland sink, and set her afire. Only the coming of darkness saved the rest of the Union blockading squadron from this alarming new creature. And when the sun rose the next morning, it showed that an even stranger vessel had arrived during the night.

To the east of the appropriately named 1–664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (the k in Merrimack was dropped after the Confederates had converted her) is the Monitor-Merrimack Overlook, which commands the wind-combed, watery acreage where the first ironclads fought it out the morning after the loss of the Congress and the Cumberland . The battle is usually called a draw, but the Monitor with only 2 guns to the Rebel ship’s 10, but a revolutionary revolving turret to bring them to bear—kept the Confederate from harming any more Union warships, and after the Merrimack withdrew, she never again came out to give battle. So it’s appropriate that this side of the waterway is the chosen repository for relics currently being raised from the sunken Monitor , where she went down later in the war off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.


That repository is at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. Situated in a secluded wooded complex that could just as easily be in the mountains two hours to the west, the museum is a place visitors must really want to find. Those looking for a sensory arcade like the one at Nauticus might be disappointed, because nothing here is “virtual.” But this museum is, in its way, every bit as engaging.

“We picked a place out of a hat,” said Jeanine Posey, who had come with her family from Hendersonville, North Carolina. “We didn’t really know how much was here. But now we’re gaining a greater knowledge of maritime and naval history, which you rarely hear about until you’re around the water.”

The scope of the Mariners’ Museum is what makes it especially interesting. The first thing the museum spokesperson Justin Lyons wanted to show off was a nondescript metal tank outside, behind the main building. It didn’t look like much, but when I learned what was inside, chills went down my spine. Submerged in that tank is the Monitor ’s propeller. The whole arrangement looks like some sort of science fiction B-movie set, with electrical wires running into the water that surrounds the ship’s rusty screw. This supreme Civil War naval relic is undergoing electrolytic reduction, a process designed to restore sunken artifacts as much as possible to their original state. In mid-July the U.S. Navy-National Oceanic and Atmospheric team in partnership with the Mariners’ Museum, raised the Monitor ’s engine, which is to undergo preservation alongside the ship’s propeller. All the Monitor artifacts will eventually be displayed in a new wing of the museum called the USS Monitor Center.

At the museum’s entrance is the lens from the Cape Charles lighthouse, a gorgeous many-faceted crystal flower that shows how little energy was required to throw a light sufficient to guide vessels through the fogs of the Chesapeake. The light’s angled lenses also point the way to galleries that illuminate the whole vast history of American maritime enterprise. There is an extensive exhibit devoted to the hard lives of the bay’s working watermen, and a huge Alexander Calder statue of Leif Eriksson stands outside an Age of Exploration show that chronicles the history of waterborne conquest and discovery.

Entire galleries are given to a permanent exhibit on the naval architect William Francis Gibbs and to a temporary—and highly popular—one on Chris-Craft Industries, makers of the most sought-after wooden motorboats in the world. The Great Hall of Steam contains models of merchant vessels, several of them built just a few miles away at Newport News Shipbuilding, and one of the largest collections of ship figureheads in the country—mostly women with forbidding expressions and heroically large breasts.

The newest and most impressive permanent exhibit is titled “Defending the Seas,” and it is the work of the museum’s director, Dr. William Cogar, who recently came here from heading the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis. We felt as though we had come full circle from Nauticus, finishing our tour with a depiction of a Revolutionary War frigate, scale models of the Monitor and the Merrimack inside a replica of the Monitor ’s turret, and a World War II aircraft carrier ready room. I hate to ruin a surprise, but this exhibit also includes a torpedo that, when a recording of an actual submarine attack commences, engages its engine and sends its propeller whirring. This certainly got my attention as I walked by, and it got me thinking about my old friend Captain Frazee. It occurred to me that he, and everyone who has served this country at sea—from the submariners of the doomed Tang to the fisherfolk who toil just offshore in the Chesapeake—is handsomely commemorated in this, one of the best museums in the United States.

By now it was day’s end, and we were again ready for replenishment. We opted for some of the bounty of the sea that started this odyssey. What better place, we thought, than something called the Crab Shack, at the base of the James River Bridge in Newport News. Turns out it’s where locals go for seafood. We sat out on the enclosed deck, just in time for a rainstorm to settle in. As we listened to the drops hitting the wa ter, we asked our server, Leah Hionis, what she would recommend. “The soft crabs, of course,” she said. Remember them? Of course. This is a great American place indeed.



Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.