The Hampton Roads Naval Museum in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, is one of nine museums presently operated by the Navy History and Heritage Command. While small, it’s packed to the gills with more than 238 years of local U.S. naval history, which visitors can experience on a self-guided tour. A large map of Hampton Roads greets them at the entrance, and a team of docents stands by to answer questions and share stories.
The journey begins off Virginia’s Cape Henry and Cape Charles—the 5 September 1781 battle there, to be exact. After 3,000 French troops supplemented General George Washington’s Continental Army, the French navy defeated the British navy at the Battle of the Capes. Isolated and soon besieged at nearby Yorktown, Virginia, Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to Washington on 19 October. Maps, art, and a detailed model of the French flagship Ville de Paris give additional information.
The War of 1812 proved that the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay needed to be protected and resulted in the rebirth of the port of Norfolk. A drydock, naval facilities, and a naval hospital were constructed, as well as Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort across Hampton Roads. Visitors can learn more about prominent local battles and see models of the frigate Chesapeake and brig Norfolk.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk was a vital Hampton Roads facility. But it was partially destroyed when Union forces evacuated the area on 20 April 1861. At the shipyard commander’s direction, the garrison burned the ships-of-the-line Delaware and Pennsylvania—the largest sailing ship ever constructed by the U.S. Navy—and other vessels to prevent their capture. History enthusiasts can scrutinize intricately detailed models of two big ships and learn about the Union blockade of the South and the Confederates’ efforts to break it.
Next is an exhibit detailing the battle between the Monitor and Virginia, which includes some original pieces of armor plate from the latter. On 8 March 1862 the Confederate ironclad Virginia, rebuilt from the scuttled Union frigate Merrimack, steamed into Hampton Roads and destroyed the wooden sloop-of-war Cumberland and frigate Congress, effectively ending the era of wooden warships. That evening the Monitor arrived on the scene, and the next day she and the Virginia faced off in the battle of the ironclads. The ships fought to a draw, with each claiming victory, but the Virginia retired first.
Detailed models and information on the ships as well as a number of other ironclads are displayed. (Intrigued visitors don’t have far to go if they want to learn more about this pivotal battle, as the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum is only about 30 miles away in Newport News, Virginia.) On display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum are also artifacts from the Confederate raider Florida, which captured 36 merchant ships before sinking at Newport News on 28 November 1864. Items include a coffee pot, leather water bucket, shoe, silver ladle, and shells.
In 1907 Norfolk hosted the Jamestown Exposition, an event with a world’s fair feel, on a 340-acre site at a local peninsula known as Sewell’s Point. In celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of nearby Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, 21 states contributed buildings that showcased their history and industry. Attractions included a model of the Panama Canal (which wouldn’t be completed until 1914), wild animals, a Wild West show, and recreations of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Monitor-Virginia duel. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum features posters and artifacts from the popular event. The Jamestown Exposition also hosted an international fleet in addition to the Navy’s Great White Fleet, which set out from Hampton Roads on its around-the-world cruise on 16 December 1907. (It would arrive back at the roadstead on 22 February 1909). A larger display related to the exposition, a cooperative effort between the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and Nauticus, can be found upstairs.
In 1917 Norfolk Naval Station was founded on the site of the Jamestown exhibition to train new recruits, supply the Fleet, service submarines, and act as a naval airbase. The naval station received as many as 1,200 new recruits every three weeks. The state houses that remained from the Jamestown Exposition became officers’ quarters.
The museum also celebrates the birth of naval aviation at Hampton Roads, which happened on 14 November 1910 when Eugene Ely flew a Curtis Pusher aircraft off a wooden deck constructed over the bow of the cruiser Birmingham. It was the first time an airplane had successfully taken off from a warship. Photos, a video, and a model of the aircraft are on display.
Those interested in World War II will find a large display on the Battle of the Atlantic, with informative charts and maps, as well as ship models and the bell from the Alabama (BB-60) riveting. Rare naval aviator flight-officer greens, recruitment posters, and a large-scale model of the escort carrier Santee (CVE-29) round out the collection.
In the Cold War display, models of ships of the era include the Stump (DD-978), America (CVA-66), Norfolk (SSN-714), and an A-6 Intruder in maintenance at NAS Norfolk. When leaving the museum, visitors can soldier on (no pun intended) with a tour of the battleship Wisconsin (BB-64), conveniently berthed next door, or the Nauticus Maritime Center.
The Hampton Roads Naval Museum
1 Waterside Dr, #248, Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: (757) 322-2987
Open: Tues.–Sat., 1000–1700; Sun., 1200–1700
Visiting a good museum? Why not contribute a report? Contact us at: [email protected].