J.Michael Cobb was 12 years old when he first saw FortWool.He was on his cousin’s boat,out for a day on the waters of Hampton Roads inVirginia. As he heard his cousin on the radio give their position off FortWool,Cobblooked out and saw the abandoned fort at the entrance of Hampton Roads facing the Chesapeake Bay,a forebod-ing sight under a gray sky. Although it was a landmark for fishermen and boaters,the fort was closed.Today,a tour boat carries visitors,someof them veterans who had been stationed there inWorldWar II,out to explore several periods of fortifications andto learn about the island’s presidential and military past.Cobb is now the curator of the Hampton History MuseuminVirginia.
How did you come to write
Fort Wool: Star-Spangled Banner Rising?
I assisted in the opening of FortWool as a historic site some25 years ago,and over the years since then I have chronicledthe saga of the island fort. As the restoration and documen-tation of the old stone fort progressed,it became clear thatits story needed to be told.This is the first time that in-depth research has beenundertaken on this important battlement.We wanted thethousands of people who visit the island—and the many his-tory buffs interested in its rich legacy—to have the oppor-tunity to be exposed to the wealth of additional informationgathered from new documents,plans,and images uncoveredin preparing this work.
Did you begin your research with the intent to write a book on Fort Wool?
The research actually began to support the original exhibitsthat were created for the opening of the fort in 1985.We hadaverysmallbudget,andIhadworkedintheNationalArchivesbefore.Imadeatwo-daytriptotheArchivesresearchroomsin Washington, D.C., and Suitland, Maryland, and to the carto-graphic division then located inAlexandria,Virginia.There was a wealth of information including 81 plansgoing back to the genesis of the fort in 1819 and through theSecondWorldWar.Over the last 20 years,it slowly formed in my mind to dothe book,which took about one year to put together.
What was it like to hold the dual roles of curator at the Hampton History Museum and researcher at the National Archives? Did your experiences in one role influence the other?
As curator of theHampton History Museum, my dutiesinclude conducting research in all aspects of our city’s his-tory. My first entry into the National Archives was almostthree decades ago,uncovering material on Confederate Rich-mond during the Civil War for an M.A.thesis.I remember first entering the august central reading room in the impos-ing NationalArchives in downtownWashington,D.C.In my current position, I have been repeatedly led back to theNationalArchives as a needed resource for information vitalto performing my curatorial responsibilities.
What materials did you consult in the National Archives?
I used supplemental maps and building plans in the DC area,but I mainly used theNationalArchives in Philadelphiafor the indispensable U.S.Army Engineer record books withdaily and monthly progress reports of Fort Wool’s con-struction. They are remarkable volumes, huge and dusty (they’re like Ebenezer Scrooge’s account books).TheWestPoint–trained engineers recorded everything including thedelivery of granite stone and timber,construction of build-ings, and the names of the workers,free and enslaved.It’s the details that transform the history into a narrativethat vividly captures the imagination.From these pages I not
By Hilary Parkinson
An Island Fort as PRESIDEN-TIAL HIDEAWAY