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War, Water Drench Virginia History

A+bicycle+awaits+its+owner+on+a+wintery+day+along+a+sandy+expanse+at+Virginia+Beach%2C+which+is+within+a+day%E2%80%99s+drive+of+one-third+of+the+nation%E2%80%99s+population.%0A%E2%80%93Cecil+Scaglione+photo%0A
A bicycle awaits its owner on a wintery day along a sandy expanse at Virginia Beach, which is within a day’s drive of one-third of the nation’s population. –Cecil Scaglione photo

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By Cecil Scaglione

Norfolk VA— Like a large and loveable family watchdog, the dreadnaught poking its nose into the waterfront skyline is a constant reminder of the role this great natural harbor has played in every U.S. war. While the USS Wisconsin’s massive 16‑inch guns are trained mutely at the business hub of this city of a quarter of a million people, the towering totem is a reminder of America’s maritime muscle prowling the world’s oceans.
The battleship is berthed for posterity alongside the National Maritime Center. An entertainment as well as an educational complex, it allows visitors to take command of the bridge, test their skills as a weather forecaster, pet a shark, design and build a naval vessel, and plow their hands through a tornado.
The museum is but one of several Virginia vehicles that transport you from the Age of Exploration through the Space Age. It’s also within a stroll of several of the scores of seafood venues around this pocket of Virginia that offer menus burgeoning with samples of succulent seafood hauled daily from these coastal waters.
Confetti’d throughout this region are forts that influenced the fortunes of a split nation during the Civil War; early settlements, such as Jamestown, that seeded this land with immigrants; what claims to be the world’s busiest Dairy Queen on tourist‑thronged Virginia Beach – its three‑mile boardwalk and 6.5 miles of beach is within a day’s drive for one‑third of the nation’s population – and eateries that test your ability to distinguish the difference in crab cakes that range from excellent to out of this world.
They also offer she‑crab soup, which has a more demur flavor than the soup of “jimmy” (male) crabs, shrimp by the pound for lunch, and Chesapeake‑style (clear broth) clam chowder.
There’s no real starting point for getting around here.
In Hampton, Norfolk’s neighbor across the storied Hampton Roads that directs the currents of the James, Elizabeth and York rivers and Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic, is the Langley Aerospace Museum. Langley Air Force Base is where the first American astronauts were tested and trained. A couple of examples of its reality games are a simulator ride to land a space shuttle and an opportunity to have your photo taken in a space suit.
It’s a short drive into Hampton’s Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort, where Capt. John Smith landed with his three barques in 1607 – 13 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. He headed up the James River to establish Jamestown on a site more secluded and secure from Spanish and British raiders. (Locals point out you aren’t local if you can’t trace your lineage back to Jamestown settlers.)
Robert E. Lee was in charge of the fort’s construction. Edgar Allen Poe was stationed here as a young artillery sergeant. And it was Jefferson Davis’ prison for two years before he was released in 1867 on $100,000 bail.
In the Chapel of the Centurion on the base, you can sit in the pew where President Dwight D. and Mamie Eisenhower attended their son’s June 10, 1947, wedding.
Across the way, alongside the water‑spanning Hampton Roads Beltway leading south to Norfolk, is Fort Wool, which was built on a rip‑rap island dumped into the bay.
It is one of the many U.S. forts rushed into existence during the War of 1812 to protect these shores from marauding British and pirate vessels.
From the cannon installations, you can watch steel‑gray ships-of-war cruise the same Hampton Roads sea lanes where the Civil War ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (Merrimac) pounded each other just a few hundred yards from these ramparts.
The notorious Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, plundered these waters in the early 18th century. After a special expedition tracked him down and killed him, his head was hoisted on a pole alongside the Hampton River. It disappeared shortly after and a handful of local institutions claim his ghost appears in their environs from time to time looking for the missing head.
Several historical figures are among the ghosts celebrated here.
For example, on the list of more than 300 Civil War sites within an hour’s drive from anywhere in this city is the memorial to Sgt. William Carney, the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor during that war.
And across the street from the downtown mall named MacArthur Center is the memorial building where Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his wife are buried.
Besides all these diversions right at hand, the nation’s capital is about three hours up the road. Along the way are Richmond, capital of the South when it seceded from the Union, and the historic communities of Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.


About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler, writer and currently a syndicated columnist.

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War, Water Drench Virginia History