November 27, 2011

Hear ye! Hear Ye!
On Saturday next, drums will roll, muskets will boom, plaques will be unveiled and wreaths laid. Re-enactors in British uniforms will charge across a bridge and fall as though dead. Militia counterparts will shout huzzahs. And solemn ceremonies will honor veterans and patriots, faithful and true.

This will be a sort all-day patriotic double-header. Lineal descendents, daughters and sons of those who served in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, will flock to Great Bridge, the site of a one-sided battle, and then to the historic churchyard at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where their ancestors lie.

And John Marshall, better known as the most influential Supreme Court chief justice of all, will get his due as a soldier.

Actually, both John Marshall, who as a lieutenant in the Culpepper Minutemen fought at Great Bridge, and his father, Maj. Thomas Marshall, who served during the war, will both be honored by a monument to be dedicated Saturday morning at Great Bridge Battlefield Park.

And now, hear ye further:

A wreath-laying ceremony will precede a re-enactment of that Dec. 9, 1775 morning when Lord Dunmore’s forces advanced on patriot breastworks near what is now the southern end of the Great Bridge Bridge.

“The British began their march across the narrow causeway with fixed bayonets in perfect parade array to the beating of two drums,” writes Chesapeake historian E. Preston Grissom in the current issue of Patriots of the American Revolution.

The American commander ordered his men to hold their fire until the enemy was within 50 yards, Grissom continues. British Captain Charles Fordyce, leading his grenadiers, was hit in the knee, “brushed it off as if nothing had happened, and then raised his tricorn and shouted, ‘The day is our own!’ ”
“Within a few feet of the breastwork, Fordyce went down, his lifeless body riddled by no fewer than 14 bullets. At least 14 grenadiers fell dead in the volley. . . [and] another 19 were wounded; two or three of them reached the breastwork only to fall against it.”

It was a total rout, with more than 100 British losses, compared to a single slight hand wound to one patriot. The humiliated Dunmore retreated to his ships in Norfolk Harbor and then, on New Year’s Day, 1776, bombarded the city’s waterfront, soon sailing away and ending British rule in Virginia.

There’s almost no connection between Great Bridge and St. Paul’s except that one of Dunmore’s errant cannon balls lodged in the church’s wall.

And now this:

That afternoon, under brooding magnolia, willow oak and live oak trees in St. Paul’s churchyard, several groups representing both sons and daughters of the Revolution and War of 1812 will lay wreaths and dedicate plaques to patriots and veterans of both wars who lie there.

Years of painstaking research have matched names either with obituaries or service records. Lt. George Chamberlaine of Warwick County has one of the most colorful biographies. At about the age of 22 he was captured and imprisoned in England only to escape and return to service, commanding several ships during the war.

The patriots were not only soldiers and sailors but others who helped the cause. At the south side of the church yard is a marker for both George and Miriam Abyvon. George served as mayor before during and after the war. Miriam is recognized for providing the troops “three gallons of rum.” Another’s name was added to the plaque for contributing to the cause a gun and a horse.

Among the War of 1812 veterans is Pvt. Charles Donaldson, a native of Scotland who, after the war was for “many years the proprietor of a Beer and Porter Cellar in this Borough,” according to an obit in a local paper. He died in 1825 “after a tedious indisposition.”

Then there’s Midshipman William C. Hall or Queen Ann County, MD, who, on March 9, 1814, while on board the frigate Constellation near Craney Island, “fell from the mizzen-topmast head of that ship and was instantly killed.”

The plaques, with more than 40 names between them, will be placed on the south side of the church tower. They have been given by so many sons/daughters organizations it would be impossible to name them all, so let’s give them all one rousing huzzah.

For more information, go to

Photo: Graves of several Revolutionary War and War of 1812 patriots and veterans lie in the churchyard of historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. (by Paul Clancy)

November 20, 2011

A rainbow of colors pouring through stained and painted glass windows splashes across the altar of Portsmouth’s historic Trinity Episcopal Church and drenches its pale gray walls and white pews.

These windows, including half a dozen Tiffanys and several equally prized Whitefriars, nearly all bear inscriptions to loved parishioners and ministers – or, in the case of the “Confederate Window,” one that raised the hackles of Union occupiers and nearly got the shipyard and naval hospital closed down.

The window, dedicated to Confederate officers who gave their lives defending their homes “against the invasion of the U.S. forces,” was removed in 1868, then restored two years later with a less-offensive dedication.

The stories behind the windows are recounted in detail in a new book by Portsmouth historian Dean Burgess in honor of the church’s 250th anniversary – A Picture History of Trinity Church, Portsmouth, Virginia.

The Colonial-era church, with its Greek revival exterior touches and barrel-vaulted ceilings, is the second oldest in South Hampton Roads. The parish church was formed in 1761 and the church building rose at the corner of High and Court streets the following year.

With its windows, churchyard and baptismal font held by a lifesize stature of an angel, Trinity is as close to being a history museum as you’ll find. Louis Comfort Tiffany was partial to the window depicting an angel speaking to a centurion about alms.

“In the pencil list Tiffany noted that persons wanting to see an example of his work should see this window,” Burgess writes.

Of all the windows, there’s one without an inscription, but that’s about to change.

It’s the Emmerson Window in memory of Arthur Emmerson II, the fourth rector of the church (1785-1801), and his son, Arthur Emmerson III, a one-time ship captain who helped save Norfolk, Portsmouth and the shipyard from invasion by the British in the War of 1812.

The younger Emmerson raised and trained a light infantry militia squad as the war broke out. Then, in June 1813, facing a landing of far more numerous British forces at Craney Island, he uttered a stirring cry that was to ring down through a couple of hundred years of local history:

“Now my brave boys, are you ready?”

A Trinity Church committee has agreed to commission a memorial at the base of the window with those words inscribed on it.

The wide glass panel at the base of the window will also include art work depicting the British Union Jack and the Stsr Spangled Banner. On one side it will show the battle on the island; on the other, Trinity Church – symbolizing the community the soldiers were protecting.

The brave boys of 198 years ago were indeed ready and answered the command to open fire with a devastating barrage that splintered landing craft and sent the attackers back to their ships with heavy casualties. Not a single patriot was injured.

The Battle of Craney Island, one of the few American land victories of what has been called the Second War of Independence, has been all but ignored by historians outside of Hampton Roads. It is not even included in the Star Spangled Banner National Historic Trail – which lavishes attention on Maryland and, of course, Fort McHenry, the inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s oh-say-can-you-see lyrics.

Never mind that the red glare of British rockets had pierce the dawn’s early light over Hampton Roads more than a year before, or that a tattered flag – with 15 broad stripes – was still there after the invaders’ resounding defeat.

Armed with a copy of Burgess’s book and accompanied by J. Brewer Moore, a retired Portsmouth planning director and avid local historian, I got a tour of the church last week.

Moore has long sought recognition of that long-ago American victory, only to be told that it was only of local, instead of national, significance. The window is to debut on Sunday, June 24 during OpSail Virginia’s massive War of 1812 celebration.

Pausing before the window, he said, “I have high hopes that it will attract people and bring attention to what happened here.”

Well, we didn’t have a lawyer-poet to memorialize the victory, but we did have this unsung hero.

Interior view of Trinity Episcopal Church shows the Emmerson Window, near right. Courtesy of Dean Burgess.

November 13, 2011

One of the most interesting parts of writing a history column is finding illustrations to go with them. Sketches, often from Harpers Weekly and other Civil War-era magazines, are frequently available online. And photos? What a joy it is to find the right historical photo.

Among the best places to look for old photographs are the Norfolk Public Library’s digital photo archives and the Virginia Beach Public Library’s Edgar T. Brown postcard collection. Another is the Library of Congress, especially for Civil War photos and, curiously, child labor conditions.

A tremendous resource for nautical pictures is the Mariners’ Museum, and for old Navy ships and planes, the Naval Historical Center in Washington is the place to look.

Now there’s a new source: Two years ago, the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority decided to drag dusty boxes of photographs, negatives and slides out of storage vaults and digitize them. It was a huge job, sometimes requiring the images to be restored first. But when it was over, more than 14,000 photos had been scanned and made available online. Furthermore, the images are in high-resolution format, and they’re searchable.

In other words, you can search for all photos of, say, Atlantic City, Ghent, downtown or, more generally, slums. These last pictures, before Norfolk’s massive slum clearance projects, are extensive and heartbreaking. There are lots of shots of the old waterfront, including this one of the Oyster Dock, once the center for ship stores and imported goods, taken in 1875:

Norfolk's population surged from 137,500 in 1939 to 305,121 in 1943 as a result of World War II. Here, in the fall of 1945 is a war-ending victory celebration on Granby Street:

Norfolk’s slum housing conditions, prior to massive urban renewal efforts in the 1950s,
were described as the worst in the nation. This undated photo shows a girl emerging from a house on Smith Street in Young Park.
Photos courtesy of Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

November 6, 2011

Postcard showing how Granby Street looked in 1868 before the area that is now City Hall Avenue was filled in. Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection.

It’s an odd coincidence. Here I am in the local history rooms – the Sargeant Memorial Collection – at the Norfolk Public Library, looking up the city’s oldest history: the Indian settlements, the arrival of white folks, the first land purchases – and the library is closing down.

Temporarily, of course.

The Downtown Branch, tucked into a former federal courthouse and post office on Plume Street, is about to expand into new space and reopen two years from now as the Col. Samuel L. Slover Main Library. In the meantime, much of its historic resources will be moved out to the Pretlow Anchor Library at Ocean View.

While I’m here, local history staffers are explaining to patrons and callers that this is the last day and the collection won’t reopen until mid-January. Meanwhile, there’s an almost constant sound, from somewhere downstairs, of plastic wrap being stretched around stacks of boxes that will go into storage.

So I’d better read fast, cram in as much local history as possible before the region’s most authoritative local history operation takes a (temporary) powder. Come to think of it, Portsmouth’s local history room is also temporarily closed due to a fire at the Main Library.

In a way, history has taken a holiday.

Meanwhile, what about the origins of Norfolk? The library staff kindly laid out about eight books for me, some no bigger than a pamphlet, others as fat as cinder blocks. And so here I present a hurry-up early history of the city:

Somewhere on the eastern side of the Elizabeth River – probably around Lambert’s Point – there’s a Chesapeake Indian city called Ski-co-ak. For farming, fishing, pleasant climate, not to mention “multitudes of bears,” great woods of sassafras and walnut trees, it is “not to be excelled by any other whatsoever,” a 1585 scouting party from Roanoke reports.

Now along come the English, establishing Jamestown, Elizabeth City, Lower Norfolk County, etc., etc. A fellow named Capt. Thomas Willoughby, who helped drive the Indians out, gets 200 acres of land near Ocean View in about 1636.

The Virginia Assembly, hoping to stimulate commerce, passes an act in 1680 providing for towns. Nicholas Wise, a house carpenter, sells the authorities 50 acres of land for 10,000 pounds of tobacco.

“Norfolk Towne” at this point is almost an island. Bounded on the south by the Elizabeth River, the north by Back Creek (now City Hall Ave.) the west by Foure Farthing Pointe (now where Nauticus sits) and the east by Dun-in-the-Mire Creek (near the present Harbor Park).

(Quick trivia: To draw dun – a stuck horse – out of the mire, is to lend a helping hand to one in distress. Shakespeare’s Mercutio: “If thou art dun, we’ll draw thee from the mire.”)

A surveyor, John Ferebee, lays out a town, including Main Street, “The Street that leadeth Down to the Waterside,” “The Street that Leadeth into the Woods,” and other curiously named thoroughfares. A sea captain named Peter Smith, buys the first land, three one-half acre lots, around 1683.

Norfolk becomes a hustling seaport town, its waterfront lined with warehouses “huge, sprawling, ugly – and innocent of paint,” observed one writer. “Wild men and desperate women were always alert for human prey. Low dance halls and music halls, saloons and vicious taverns were scenes of endless fights, quarrels, brawls, robberies and even murders.”

There’s more, much more, but that’s as far as I get before the Sargeant Memorial Collection, with its thousands of books, maps, photographs, deeds, newspaper files and all the rest, takes a history break.

The library says much of the collection will reopen about January 17 at the Pretlow Branch. Ground is to be broken for the new Slover Main Library next spring, with a late fall 2013 opening planned. Meanwhile, we can ask questions of the staff at

Now let’s see, where were those “vicious taverns?”