From the Society’s Collections:
Lieutenant Lee Reports to Captain Talcott
on Fort Calhoun’s Construction on the Rip Raps
George Green Shackelford

Note: The following is taken from the July 1952 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 60), pp. 458–87.

Lieutenant Lee Reports to Captain Talcott on Fort Calhoun’s
Construction on the Rip Raps

DESPITE Revolutionary experience, which should have displayed the importance of the Chesapeake Bay to the defense of the United States, it was not until the War of 1812 that the federal republic undertook to safeguard the bay’s littoral, or more particularly that of its great arm, Hampton Roads. In 1807 there were four small gun batteries within the Borough of Norfolk and a few of the proposed flotilla of sixty-five gunboats.1 Additional gunboats and land works were periodically requested but with little result.2 In 1811 Norfolk’s regular naval defense consisted of fourteen gunboats, but fifteen ships of the line also wintered there.3 In 1813 Norfolk’s defenses were strengthened by additional batteries on Craney Island.4 The successful repulse by Virginian militia and the sailors from the Constellation of the British amphibious attack in June 1813 protected Norfolk. But the British were contested neither in their use of Lynnhaven Bay as a safe anchorage nor in their domination of the Chesapeake.5 After the war, Americans placed greater emphasis on permanent coastal fortifications when reorganizing the army and navy. They could not forget the humiliating ability of the British to sail up the Chesapeake to capture the federal capitol.

A mixed naval and engineer commission was named in 1816 to explore the merits of fixed defenses on Cheasapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. The members were unable to agree and submitted separate reports. All recommended small forts to deny an enemy use of Lynnhaven Bay and also a strong battery at Old Point Comfort. Each naval member favored a different site for a naval base: Norfolk; St. Mary’s, Maryland; and the York River, Virginia. The army engineer did not express himself on that point.

Commodore John Rodgers did not believe that erection of fortified towers on the Horse Shoe (or Middle Ground) was practicable or desirable. He reasoned that, if a strong battery were fixed on the shoal of “Willoughby’s Point,” a hostile fleet might not risk passing between it and a fortified Old Point Comfort “but would probably succeed.” Commodore Stephen Decatur advocated construction on the Middle Ground of fortifications close to the channel between Capes Henry and Charles. However, if the defense of Hampton Roads alone was under consideration, Decatur approved fortification of Old Point Comfort, and “the opposite shoal, called the Rip Raps, which are less than one mile distant.” Captain David Porter opposed any construction on the Middle Ground until a test had been made of the influence such a structure would have on the shifting of shoals and currents. To him, the solution for the defense of the Chesapeake was to have a “movable force” to operate from a Hampton Roads secured by fortifications on Old Point Comfort and on the shoal of Willoughby Spit. Those on the latter would be built in fifteen feet of water so that their batteries would not be more than one mile and a quarter from those on Old Point.6

[Sketch of the Hampton Roads Area]

Lieutenant-Colonel George Bomford, of the army engineers, opposed any fortifications on the Middle Ground, as “. . . extremely slow in execution, and (if ever effected) of uncertain durability, independent of an expense which the most sanguine could scarcely deem justifiable.” But Bomford stated his belief that:

A regular fortification on Old Point Comfort, and a castle on the nearest part of Willoughby’s shoal (called the Rip Rap), distance eighteen hundred yards, might, with the aid of a well organized flotilla, not only cover the James and Elizabeth rivers from the attempts of a superior naval enemy, but the latter would threaten the rear of any armament that would pass up the bay.7

Soon after, a commission of Army Engineers also reported on the same matter. They ignored the controversy about the Middle Ground and naval bases. After surveying and examining Old Point Comfort and the Rip Rap Shoals, they concluded that both could be fortified in order to prevent hostile entry into the Roads, but that a more elaborate system of defense than first contemplated was needed.

Such a systems houlde mbracet he occupation of the Rip Rap shoal with a castellated fort; the channel between that shoal and Old Point Comfort with a boom raft; and Old Point itself with an enclosed work; the whole . . . to resist any force which might be brought against the pass into Hampton Roads.8

Although the Rip Rap shoal was not acquired from the Commonwealth of Virginia by Secretary of War John C. Calhoun until 1821,9 a contract had been let in 1818 for the deposit there of stone quarried along the York River.10 Ballasting was probably begun soon afterwards. Plans for the works became more definite. Old Point Comfort and the Rip Raps were to mount 250 guns apiece, housed in “extensive works” costing about $3,000,000.11 Although ballasting continued, it was agreed to delay building the foundations for a fort on the Rip Raps until an engineer was available to supervise it. In November 1825 cranes, a wharf and rail-way carts were installed on the rock-heap to assist in receiving material for the superstructure.12 The cornerstone was laid on 17 September, 1826. None the less, two months later, the deposit of stone still lagged, since in fifteen feet of water the work could be conducted only at ebb tide.13

Colonel Charles Gratiot, Jr., reported in November 1828 that the stone base for the fortification to be called Fort Calhoun had progressed far enough to permit work at all tides and to justify construction “of the first or lower tier of the castle” during the next year.14 Congress had first made appropriation for “the castle” Fort Calhoun in 1821.15

In November of that year, Gratiot, now a brigadier, reported to Secretary of War John H. Eaton concerning Fort Calhoun that accumulation of building material was proceeding according to plan. Local open-market purchases were preferred to contracts, except in the instance of the stone quarried.16

Andrew Talcott was the first engineer to have charge of the fortification of the Rip Raps. He had graduated as No. 2 man in the class of 1818 at West Point, and had worked on fortifications on Lake Champlain and on the upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers before he came to Hampton Roads as a first lieutenant and assistant engineer in the construction of defenses, 1821–1824. His next posts saw him supervise construction of port facilities and fortifications of New York Harbor and the Delaware River, 1824–1826. He returned to Norfolk to conduct the improvement of the Dismal Swamp Canal, 1826–1828, and became engineer in charge at Forts Monroe and Calhoun in 1828. At various intervals during this last assignment Captain (1 October 1830) Talcott was chief astronomerfo r the Olhio Boundary Commission in fixing that State’s northern limits. His tour at Fort Monroe ended in 1834 while that at Fort Calhoun continued in nominal form until 1835. He left Hampton Roads in 1834 to become superintendent of internal improvement of the Hudson River channel until his resignation from the army in September 1836.

It was to Old Point that Andrew Talcott brought his first wife, Catharine Thompson of Philadelphia. She died there in October 1828 after one and one-half years of married life.17 The widowed young captain had plenty with which to busy himself at the works at Forts Monroe and Calhoun, although his tasks connected with the Dismal Swamp Canal were over. Engineers on such projects entered into contracts with carpenters, masons, etc., for the govemment and had to disburse funds in that connection.18 Chief Engineer Gratiot wrote to Secretary of War Lewis Cass on 4 November 1831 of Fort Calhoun:

When the walls and piers of this fort have been carried up to the level of the second battery, it was found that the additional weight caused a subsidence of the foundations, which made it prudent to suspend the construction of the masonry, and confine the operations of the past year to the reception of materials, which have been so distributed as to equalize the pressure on the bottom as much as possible, and produce a uniform settling; as this still continues, it is judged best to pursue the same course next year, and to continue it until the weight of materials equal to that which the foundations must finally bear, shall have been accumulated on them, after which the construction may with safety be completed.19

Most prominent of the army engineers associated with the Rip Raps was Lieutenant Robert Edward Lee, who, under Captain Andrew Talcott’s direction, had charge of operations at Fort Calhoun between 7 May 1831 and 1 November 1834. As senior engineer in the Hampton Roads area Talcott lived at Fort Monroe, but he resided much of the time at his wife’s home on the Norfolk side of the Roads. In addition, during much of 1833 and 1834 he was on survey parties in Ohio. Lee lived first at Fort Monroe, but during most of 1834 he was in quarters on the Rip Raps at Fort Calhoun.

When Lieutenant Lee reported for duty at Fort Monroe in April 1831, he was twenty-four years old and his superior, Talcott, was thirty-four. Young Lee, too, had graduated as No. 2 man in his class at West Point in 1829. His previous service had been as assistant engineer at Cockspur Island, Georgia, in the Savannah River. He was there confronted with a problem which had much in common with that he faced at the Rip Raps: construction of a heavy fort on an insecure foundation.20 Early in August 1831 Lee brought to Old Point Comfort his bride, Mary Custis, whom he had married a little more than a month before.21 On 11 April 1832 Andrew Talcott married his second wife, Harriet Randolph Hackley of Norfolk,22 whose graceful figure, brown eyes and fine complexion are depicted in a portrait by Thomas Sully. The two families saw much of one another and shared simple pleasures; the dashing Lieutenant Lee’s avowed admiration of the beautiful Mrs. Talcott seems to have not irritated one whit the much-less beautiful Mrs. Lee. The latter spent much time at Arlington during her husband’s tour of duty at Hampton Roads. In these years he was brought to bed twice with child, but she had not yet begun to suffer general ill-health.23 During such a period of Mrs. Lee’s absence, Douglas S. Freeman describes the young Robert E. Lee as follows:

. . . The company of the wives of the officers of Old Point interested him vastly. “I am left to console them,” he said of the women whose husbands were sent South in the Seminole War [1835–1836], “and am in the right position to sympathize with them, as Mrs. Lee and her young limb [George Washington Custis Lee] are at Arlington.” And again, “As for the daughters of Eve in this country, they are formed in the very poetry of nature, and would make your lips water and fingers tingle. They are beginning to assemble to put their beautiful limbs into this salt water.”24

The letters which follow touching Lee’s activities in connection with the construction of Fort Calhoun have been transcribed from the originals in the possesion of the Virginia Historical Society.25

Andrew Talcott, as a Cadet
by Thomas Sully

Courtesy of the Misses Talcott

Harriet Randolph Hackley Talcott
by Thomas Sully

Courtesy of the Misses Talcott

Old Point Comfort, Va. Dec’r. 6 1832


PAY to the order of Lieut. R. E. Lee

Forty 41/100 Dollars
$ 40.41/100

Dear Capt.,

I have deposited $40.41 in the U.S. Bank at Norfolk to your credit & will thank you, if you can obtain the money from the above check, to pay to the Treasurer at West Point, $3.41 for me, being my proportion of the cost of the portrait of the present Chief Eng[ineelr as notified by the Adj[utan]t at W[est] P[oint]. Also I will thank you to pay John Smith, the Tailor, $37. for a Frock Coat made for me last Spring & get his receipt for the same. We have not more than hay enough to last till the middle of next month (Jan[uar]y) & if you can engage a cargo, it will be well. The arches are done & we shall knock off next week. Mrs. Lee has gone home & all are well in N[orfolk]. The Boat is here. Remember me to Mrs. T[alcott]. Yours &c


[Addressed] Capt. Andrew Talcott U.S. Engineer Corps West Point, New York

Old Point
Decr. 7th 1832

Dear Capt.,

I send by this morning’s mail the warrant which arrived yesterday & a receipt for the Aud[ito]r. I told you when I wrote yesterday that we should probably close operations next week. We are still receiving stone at the Rip Raps. We have had some cold & disagreeable weather, But it is now more pleasant. There is nothing new here or in these parts, Nullification! Nullification!! Nullification!!!26 Corprew27 is ordered to N. Hampshire (Portsmouth) & He, Johnston28 Monroe29 are now on a Court Martial at Annapolis. Thornton30 & Gott31 on furlough, the former it is said, to be married. I saw them all in N[orfolk] a week ago. All is well. Remember me to Mrs. T[alcott] & tell her I am dying to see her & that I remain Yours


In 1832 nothing was done at Fort Calhoun other than to continue the reception and disposition of stone. Colonel Gratiot was, nonetheless, pleased with the result of Talcott’s and Lee’s efforts. He wrote Secretary of War Cass:

. . . Settling produced by the mass of materials already collected. . . . in 1831 . . . amounted to six inches, and during the year ending 30 September last, it was but little more than three inches–indicating, clearly, a tendency in the pile to assume a fixed position, at the same time that it shows the necessity of loading the work; and allowing time for equilibrium to be established. To give the work the relative relief contemplated in the original plan, it will require 20,000 tons of stone to compensate for the subsidence of the mole during the last two years. The estimate of this work, for the next year, is based upon the supposition that 26,000 tons of building and breakwater stone will be added within that year.32

Although cholera had reduced the labor supply and increased the demand for both workingmen and wages in 1832, operations at Fort Calhoun were not seriously affected.33 Another reason for the scarcity of labour in the Hampton Roads area was the reluctance of tidewater slave-owners to hire out their slaves as contract labour, which reluctance had been caused by the Nat Turner insurrection in nearby Southampton County, Virginia.34 At Fort Monroe during this time not even a 15% increase in wages overcame the labour shortage.35

In addition to the strain of family matters, Lieutenant R. E. Lee in the summer of 1833 had to undergo inspection of his work by the most renowned American general of the day, President Andrew Jackson. The latter established a Summer White House on the islet, which his secretary Nicholas P. Trist described as “the most delightful spot, as to atmosphere, I have ever been at.”36 Jackson’s hope of a vacation from the paperwork of his office was largely unrealized, but he did have ample opportunity to indulge in salt-water bathing and in kibitzing on affairs at Forts Calhoun and Monroe. He ordered not only that the fort be finished in two years, but that changes be made in its design. “The President has played the Devil with the plan of Fort Calhoun,” wrote Lee to Talcott,37 sensing that to finish the fort might be too great a labour even for a Hercules. As if to reassure the military-minded President, Chief Engineer Gratiot wrote in his annual report to the Secretary of War that Fort Calhoun had “for some time been a leading object” of the expanded defense programme, and that its completion awaited only firmness of the earth, to be achieved by ballasting the shoal heavily enough to balance the sinking force produced by the weight of the walls. 12,500 tons of stone had been added to the mole during 1833, Gratiot hastened to state, and 11,800 tons of building stone had been deposited on or near the walls.38

Ft. Monroe 29 Mar[ch 1833]

Dear Captain:

I send you up all the Acc[oun]ts. against Fts. M[onroe] & C[alhoun] held in N[orfolk], which you can pay at your leisure., That of C. Hall embraces all the articles received from him, but only the check for the balance unpaid. Also two letters received by the last mails. There is a letttr here from the Dep[artmen]t acknowledging the weight of your letter accomp[anyin]g Estimates &c as. called for by the Dep[artmen]t dated 22nd Inst[ant]. We require 50 bbls. of flour, 500 ft. 2 inch white oak plank & 2000 Arch plank for cranes, Mr. Tunis39 only having sent down before 2000 ft, instead of 2000 face measure, being ½ of the requisition. I think it would be better to lay a rough floor in the Mess room for Lab[orer]s at Ft. C[alhoun] in stead of paving it S should you agree, you must send an additional 2000 ft. arch plank. I have written to Mr. Young for the brick.

We knock off for the Holy days at 12 today. The foundations for bridge pins are completed & I think another week would have completed a ditch of ft. 7. Millions of stone at Rip Raps. You will find an acc[oun]t of Hamby & Abecee40 [?] among the rest to be renewed. It should have been against Ft. C[alhoun] & not made so filthy. I hope all the Ladies are well. My family is ailing. Remember me to everyone. I hope you will pay us a visit before long. Yours &c


There are 2 kegs of 30 d. nails @ $13.00 included in Allyn & Robertson’s41 Acct. which were returned to be exchanged & . . . others sent in their place. Those first sent were 20 d. instead of 30 d. Make him send them down.


[Addressed] Capt. A. Talcott

Old Point
June 11th 1833

Dear Captain,

I am sorry that I was so particularly sleepy headed this morning & only rose in time to SEE you safe aboard the boat. I hope however to get another peep at yourself & Mrs. T[alcott] as you pass tomorrow. I have just finished putting up the things pointed out by Mr. [?] & have been in some little doubt concerning some minor articles, your portfolio & some books were among them. Any thing that you find missing, if you will let me know by the Hampton tomorrow I w ill bring out in the ev[enin]g. I have sent the little instrument of Col. Thayer’s,42 thinking you might wish to return it. The keys of the boxes are in one & of this one the key I enclose. Also a paper handed me by Mr. Mc. The two pipes that were sent down yesterday were not returned. I send them up this ev[enin]g. It require as length of 5′ 7″–20″ to the crown of main arch, 5″ throughs and above arch, 3″ through 1st course & lead, 3′ through arch & 3″ projection below arch. Please remember us to Mrs. H[ackley] & Mrs. T[alcott] & take care to be back before 30 Sept. [when annual reports of work on fortifications have to be sent to the War Department]. Yours truly


P.S. I have copied the enclosed from the State. Please let me hear from you sometimes.


[Addressed] Capt. A. Talcott

Ft. Monroe, July 3rd 1833

Dear Captain;

Accompanying this you will find a statement of Proceedings &c. I forgot to mention that in laying the covering course over the gutter on casemated courtway, I found that it was laid in cement. There being no inclination in this course, the water had principally to filter through the brick, except the fall occasioned by its finding its way through, immediately’over the pipe—which being a slow operation, there was danger of a head of water accumulating. I therefore thought best to lay this course dry, & by using the pressed brick on hand & rubbing away the surfaces coming in contact, I think there is no danger of sand passing through. The gutter which was laid last year in this way, upon removing the covering course, no sand has found its way through. If you think this will not answer please let me know. We are all well & Mrs. Custis & Mary have gone up to Shirley which is as much to say that I am as happy as a clam at high water. Mrs. H[ackley] has been spending about a week here & I think her health was benefitted. She talks of coming again when the Ladies return. I would have written before but thought you had probably not arrived on the ground. Everything here is as usual. The boat is at hand & I must stop. Write to me when you can & believe me Yours truly,


As all major portions of Fort Monroe were thought completed in 1834, an intra-service dispute arose between the engineer and artillery corps as to which would direct the finishing touches to that installation. The commanding officer of Fort Monroe, Brigadier-General Armistead won out; and supervision of all activities and personnel at Fort Monroe was given wholly to the artillerist. Captain Talcott demanded a formal investigation, lest the transfer of authority be a slur on his supervision of engineering works in the Hampton Roads area, but this was denied and Talcott was given a well-done. These developments did not at first affect Lee. In 1834, 28,000 tons of stone were added to the islet, of which 654 were of dressed building stone, 5,139 of rough building stone, and 23,073 of breakwater stone. Most, if not all, of the stone for the building of the fort was now assembled on the Rip Raps, and 3,465 cubic yards of sand were added to the inside of the structure completed to that date in order to elevate the platform. When finished and garrisoned, it was estimated that Fort Calhoun would add about 63,000 tons to the weight on the Rip Raps, of which 61,866 were then in place. Twice the amount of weight had been added in 1834 than in 1833, and it was reported that:

. . . subsidence of the centre of the work is less than one and one-third of what it was in 1833—giving a fair indication that equilibrium will, ere long, be attained. . . . All irregularity of settling is rapidly disappearing and the substratum is approaching a state of uniform compressibility throughout.43

Eng[inee]r Office
½ past 12M [22 July 1834]

Dear Captain,

I have just arrived & find that the Genl. & Mrs. Gratiot left this mor[nin]g for Bath44 in Virg[ini]a, the latter being in bad health. Bartlett45 informs me that he sent an order & letter to you yesterday, the substance of which is that you will take charge of the operations on the Hudson. Mr. King46 & Mr. Smith47 [are to be] your ass[istan]ts. The last [is] a new graduate. I for the present will be left at the Rip Raps. There will be a modification of Order 54, & high compliments paid to you. It was all as you supposed got up by Genl. M[acomb]48 & the Act[in]g Sec[retarly [of War]49 knew nothing about it, but supposed matters were arranged after the usual custom, & with a perfect understanding among all parties. I have seen Genl. G[ratiot]’s letters to Sec[retarly accompa[nyin]g yours, demanding a Court of Inquiry, referred to Genl. M[acomb] & the Genl. (M.) replies that he is at a loss to understand, how it was supposed that any answer could be expressed or implied, as none was intended. The Genl’s, (M) official report will be published, coextensively with the order. I must stop to catch the mail. Bartlett’s & my love to all,


Bartlett says everything will be arranged to your satisfaction.

[Addressed] To Capt. A. Talcott Corps of Engrs Norfolk Virginia

Ft. Monroe 26th July [1834]

Dear Captain,

I have the happiness of informing you that from the good steamer. . . . [sic] from Baltimore, landed this mor[nin]g Inspector Genl. Wool50 & Brig.-Genl. Armistead.51 The former informed me that he has orders from the Sec[retar]y of War to inspect the fortifications. I requested him to commence at once, in order that the three inspections might complete our measure of Glory for this week. He accordingly went over to the Rip Raps this mor[nin]g. But the dose of heated Granite seemed to satisfy his Punctilio, & he postponed his annihilation of this side till tomorrow before breakfast. He propounded several wise queries & among them whether, there were not quarters for us outside, which I take for a premonitory symptom. I do not know when he retires. We are tolerable. Custis52 is better. I wish he was in the mountains. Lee53 is as you left her. Miss Anna is scolding that you did not write & professes to know not what to do. I tell her the case is a plain one. Yours truly


[Addressed] Capt. A. Talcott Corps of Engrs Norfolk Va.

Engineer Department
Washington 28th Nov. 1834

Dear Captain,

Your letter from Baltimore arrived this mor[nin]g. I have spoken to the Genl. of its contents. He says you have done perfectly right, is very sorry to hear of the indisposition of Miss Lee, but hopes she is now well. Further, he says you need not break your neck to return so soon, unless you know it to be essential. I am very sorry to learn that my poor little Lee is again in the clutches of the Physicians, & I wish her little husband could impart some of his robust health to her in addition to his love. He is remarkably well, is running over the hills all day, & as red as a rose. But there is no denying it, his hair is in right lines, has the set of the fretful Porcupine, & is of the colour of Burnt Fodder. His Mother in despair has given up her coaxing & teazing. What has wrought such a change in Master Charly’s54 humour? I am afraid they gave him too much sturgeon in Albany.55 I am glad that they are all to spend the winter in Norfolk. Poor Mrs. Hackley looked very forlorn at the thought of their staying in A[lbany]. This will however not add much to your comfort. I have been looking out for a House ever since I came up but can find none. So next month I shall take a room somewhere & leave Mrs. L[ee] over the river for the winter. I hope you may have a favourable time for observing the Eclipse.56 I saw Col. Abert57 a few days since on the subject of observing it here, but he says he has not the means. Genl. G[ratiot] & his family are all well, & send their love &c to you & Mrs. T[alcott]. I have no doubt all at Arlington join us. Please remember me to Mrs. H[ackley], Miss Pat & M[aria Mason].58 There is nothing new here, Genl. Macomb is still sick. I have heard a report that Capt. Plugg Smith59 has been appointed Pay Master in the place of a Mr. Wright,60 I believe. I know nothing about it except that said Plugg is on Eng[ineelr Duty & a person wishing to succeed him to the office yesterday & so reported. Genl. Mapes61 is here, appealing for the same berth (P[ay] M[aster]). Your acct. of the Transportation business corresponds with my recollections. But when I handed the check to Mr. E[veleth]62 to place it with the others for you, he was of the contrary opinion & my memory is so bad I could not trust to it. You drew no Rations of Mine, but your own. You were hard at work for the concern, put to much expense in running up & down to N[orfolk] & various other matters that I have not time to mention. I enclose a letter to Mr. J. Eveleth, will you send it to him, it is about a situation I have been negotiating with Mr. W. B. Lewis. He has none at present but promises to hear from him in March. Yours very truly


[Addressed] Captain A. Talcott Corps of Engrs Norfolk, Virginia

Ft. Calhoun
31st August 1834

Dear Captain,

I have commenced the ‘residence’ upon the Rip Raps & may be considered an old inhabitant. The sour baker’s bread of my young friend Tim, is what I cannot stand & have therefore to request that should you know of any good flour in N[orfolk] you would direct the owner to send to me a bbl. I suppose the new flour must be in by this time & if equally good in half bbls, as my movements are so uncertain, I should prefer one of those. But look to the quality rather than the quantity. Tell Mrs. T[alcott] if she will come with you, we can accommodate her in the handsomest manner. Should you not come tomorrow, let me know the day, that I may have the boat in readiness for you. When you do come, let Tim bring me a few vegetables [sic,] particularly potatoes, as I can get none even for yeast. It is reported that Major Heileman63 is going to Savannah. Remember me to the Ladies. Yours truly


[Addressed] To Captain A. Talcott Corps of Engrs Norfolk Va.

Ft. Calhoun
1st Oct. 1834

My Dear Captain

I received your letter from Phil[adelphi]a I suppose by regular mail, of 5 mortal days, & was very sorry to learn the causes of your detention. I hope long before this, the whole party are on their feet again, that Mrs. T[alcott] has already felt the good effects resulting from her firmness, & that her dear little epitome64 is as blythe as a Lark. As to Genl. Charles65 [Gratiot Talcott], it is useless to waste a man’s good wishes on him, in as much as he never requires them, & will serenely knock his way through life as he has so far done through the hands of the d[octo]rs. But now I think of it, is there no way of cooking the Macomb up & that the “scullions” be so assuaged that I could have one stir in the pot? He is a “most precocious v—n” surely & obeys his instructions as well as another. Something must be done with him, but what can? I enclose herewith a copy of your acc[oun]t current with a statement of the Bank amounts annexed as you requested. The amount of the check on the U.S. Bank is $466.79 & date of 12th Sept. 1834. We will prepare the Annual Statement &c for Ft. Monroe as far as our operations are concerned. Do you wish them sent to you or shall I send them direct to W[ashington]. All your accts. Ec have been sent to W[ashington] except 3 vouchers accompanying, which want your signature. They have been charged in the Abstract ‘I’ & a mem[orandum] accomp[anying] states they will be forwarded in a few days. We have not yet settled with old Laughton66 & as soon as we do, I will attend to those matters you spoke of & send you a statement of the amounts deposited. The old Capt. has moved to Hampton, the night he vacated his q[uarte]rs at the Point, they were burned down. It is said they were set fire to by his direction. The Engr. credit at O[ld] Point I am told is about 50 or 60 per cent, & the Genl. A[rmistead] is in great distress. Genl. Macomb has written to Genl. A[rmistead] that he has misconceived his instructions, as regards the pay allowed to the soldiers and officers employed as mechanics & assistants. The first are to have 15c per day & the 2nd 50 or 60, whereas he has been giving the 1st 50c & the 2nd $1.50. The Genl. is afraid they will come down upon him for the disallowances, in as much the persons have got their pay, & the officers will not give it up. Capt. Thruston67 says he will contend with them for it past & to come. Though I recollect he told me himself his services were gratuitous. Genl. A[rmisteadl starts for W[ashington] to-day in the Chesapeake.68 Poor old man, he has been dreadfully alarmed about the cholera. Some few cases have occurred at O[ld] P[oint] & 2 deaths, among the soldiers. The officers too have been quizzing him [words missing] . . . so that they got 20 drops of camphorated spirit at a dose. Garner69 accompanys the Genl. & will return with the Madam. They have been raising the parapet on Ft. No. 1 since your departure. Mrs. Eveleth has a boy. There is nothing new. The Q[uarter]master has bought the other new boat. I hope you will not be disappointed in not getting it. Mrs. Lee & Custis are very well, enjoying themselves among the mountains, & regret your departure. I was in N[orfolk] last Thursday. Saw Mrs. H[ackley] &c. She is as fat as Mrs. T[alcott]. All well. I have seen Mr. George [Talcott] but once since your departure. Remember me very particularly to Mrs. T[alcott] & the children. The Miss E. who are here desire to be remembered also. If Mr. King & the [illegible] are with you, do not forget them. I have written in great haste, & will write more fully soon. Yrs. truly & sincerely

[Addressed] Private Capt. A. Talcott Corps of Engrs Albany

Ft. Calhoun
1st Nov. 1834

My dear Captain

Your letter of October 19th arrived during a short visit I lately paid to the District, & did not come to hand till my return on the 30th. This said visit was in consequence of an invitation I received from Genl. Gratiot, to “see how the land lays” about W[ashington] as he has it in contemplation to bring me there in Bartlett’s place. You may suppose a situation in W[ashington] will be particularly agreeable to me, though as I told the Genl. the duties of the office, in anticipation, had no charms for me. Yet as he thinks I shall be much pleased with them, I have taken his word for it & will try. He has written to Capt. Eliason70 to know if his health will permit him to take charge of Ft. C[alhoun] & should it not be, he intimates that Major Blaney71 is disposable. I believe it is settled that I am to go to W[ashington] & am only waiting to be relieved.

* * * *72

You may recollect that I announced to you (being in N[orfolk] ) the arrival of Genl. Wool, who informed me before breakfast that he had instructions from the Secretary of War to inspect the works in H[ampton] Roads. I waited on him after breakfast for that purpose & with the intention on my part, should he inspect, to request a copy of these instructions, to hand you. He then said that he understood that Genl. M[acomb] had inspected the works & asked me if it was so. To which I assented. He replied if that was the case it was useless for him to stir in the business, but that for his own gratification he should like to take a look at the Rip Raps. We went immediately to the boat & came over. On our return I invited him to walk around Ft. M[onroe]. He declined doing so then, but said he should be glad to go around with me the next day. We walked around on the ramparts of the work the next mor[nin]g (Sunday) before breakfast. He was never in the office to the best of my knowledge, & Mr. E[veleth] says he never saw a paper or book. I had supposed, he had declined making the Inspection & left it to Genl. M[acomb] to make what reports he thought proper. I shall be very happy to meet you in W[ashington] this winter, touching the Macomb, & it is the principle pleasure I promise myself in going, to endeavour & keep the Genl. in mind of this business. I am truly sorry to learn that my sweet little Lee73 gets no better. I hope though the cold weather has restored her, & the more as I got a letter from King to-day which says you are all well. Beg Mrs. T[alcott] to give her no calomel; it must be her teeth. I saw Mrs. Hackley yesterday. She has had the Influenza, but has recovered. Miss Pat is very well & pretty, & Miss Mlaria74 has grown, improved very much, & curled her hair. The Seldens75 are well & every one else. There is no news. I suppose Mrs. H[ackley] has informed you all about the school &c &c. Everyone in W[ashington] was preparing for Congress. I got no satisfaction out of any one. Mrs. Lee is much improved in appearance, & is very well. Master Custis is the most darling boy in the world, not excepting Charly. He has grown &c &c. Mr. E[veleth] says he did omit to charge the last deposit to the Treasurer for Coast Survey. The centre of the Pile has settled 19/100 of a foot. If it was not Saturday night, I would send you a copy of the Tables. But will do so when I write again. I enclose you the voucher for James Ev[eleth’s] services. I have left the certificate blank, thinking you might prefer filling it. I will do so if you choose. All at Arlington send much love to yourself, Mrs. T[alcott] & the children. Give my love to my beautiful Talcott & tell her I am sparing her that she may recruit herself for a separate epistle, which I will inflict upon her as soon as I get time & find myself in the vein. Present me to Mr. Vische[r]76 & King. I am very glad that you see a prospect of liking your duty. I think you have got him for 10 years. There is nothing new at the Point, except that Genl. A[rmistead] had rated his services at $6.00 per day, but in a fit of modesty only charged $3.00. Yours sincerely


[Addressed] Private Capt. A. Talcott Corps of Engineers

Engr Department
Washington 22nd Nov. 1834

Dear Captain,

I received a letter from Mr. Eveleth this mor[nin]g informing one that he had deposited in the U.S. Bank your audit, the checks I left with him & about which I wrote to you a hasty note a few days since at Albany. These amount to $157.00. So that with these formerly deposited, of which I gave you notice, there has been placed to your credit since your departure $423.50—viz—

On account of Extra Services   $14.21
  ”        ”       “ Old Machinery, Robert Archer     22.00
  ”        ”       “ Hose for Water, J. W. Williamson     33.28
  ”        ”       “ Post Fund, Wm. Laughton     47.41
  ”        ”       “ Jeptha Reed, A Loan   149.60
Wm. Laughton’s77 check, No. 309 for     78.78
R. E. Lee’s do. for W.L. 34     22.58
     do.        do. 33     51.88
     do.        do. 31       3.76

You78 will find yourself charged in your acct. with the U. States, with the first mentioned sums. The last you know where it belongs. I have got from Capt. L[aughton] a part of the amount of the sales of your fumiture, but the amt. of the check which is locked up in the drawer of the office I have now forgotten. It is more than one half. He has promised very largely, that the balance shall be forthcoming when paid off for the last month. I will then square off your acct. with the Post Fund & deposit the balance to your credit. Do you recollect whether I gave you the money for the amount of your transportation to N[orfolk] in the month of September, (four trips) which you recollect was to come under my disbursements. I know that I made the calculation, & that there were some passages between us, concerning my giving you the money & taking the check, when it should be drawn. But for my life, I do not recollect the result. Upon Mr. Eveleth’s evidence I have pocketed the check, but am inclined to think he is mistaken, & the more I think of it, the more I hold to that opinion. I therefore charge you to tell me on your conscience.

The wine left with Dr. Boykin79 had not been distributed when I left, it not being clear enough to draw off. Mr. E[veleth] says nothing about squaring your Post Fund acct. & I expect did not do it. So you will have to look to it when you go there. You never told me whether I gave you the money for the check for your transportation in Sept. Bartlett talks of going to-day. I expect he will see you & tell you of the letter of the Genl. to the Secretary [of War] about the Macomb. I told he (G[eneral] M[acomb]) now has it to answer. Nothing that I know of has been heard from the Sec[retar]y. 2nd Lt. Lee of the Corps of Engrs. yesterday assisted at a cabinet dinner, by the Secretary of War. Present, the Vice-President, Q[uartermaster] Gen[era]l, two Inspectors-Gen[era]l, Adj[utan]t-Gen[era]l,80 Col[onel]s, Majors, &c. Give my love to Mrs. T[alcott] & the children, Mr. King, Mr. Vischer [Talcott], &c. We are all well. Yours truly & in Haste


In 1833 Lieutenant Lee received greater independence in his conduct, as evidenced by his receipt directly of $13,000 for disbursement. He was not unconcerned at his assumption of greater authority and its concommittant responsibilities. “I will do all in my power to repair the damages [to a wharf at the Rip Raps during a storm] but you had better come down,” the young lieutenant wrote his superior, Talcott. On another occasion Lee confessed to Talcott that he would “be in a fever till the arrival of the lime.”81

Reviewing the progress for the past year in November 1835, Secretary of War Cass declared that “It is believed that the depression of the foundation of Fort Calhoun is so nearly checked, that further danger is not to be apprehended.”82

General Gratiot’s report of operations conducted by the Engineer Department for fiscal ’34 stated concerning Fort Calhoun:

As contemplated in my last report, the balance of the stone required for the foundation of the mole has been received, and deposited over the foundations of the walls of the fort, so that there is now acting along their whole extent, a greater weight, by upwards of 20,000 tons, than is estimated will be brought upon them when the fort is completed and garrisoned.

Though an accession of weight continues to cause subsidence, it is a continued decreasing ratio, and should there be no evidence of a contrary nature by next spring, it is proposed to resume the construction of the walls, for which purpose an estimate is given.83

Engr. Dept: Wash:
10th Feby 1835

Dear Captain,

I can only take time while your despatches are making up, to inquire after you & yours, with the high hope that you are flourishing after the manner of your humble servt. He has returned to a state of refievenescency [?] (as Max:84 would say) & has been attending some weddings & parties in a manner that is uncommon. My Brother Smith85 was married on the 5th Inst: & the Bride I think looked more beautiful than usual. We kept it agoing until Sunday, & last night attended a Bridal party in Alex[andri]a. I must leave particulars to Mary, who has received a letter from “my beautiful Talcott” & I am under the impression has postponed answering it, till after this mamrage. I will only tell her that my spirits were so buoyant last night when relieved from the eyes of my dame that my Sister Nanie,86 was trying to pass me off as her spouse, but I was not going to have my sport spoiled in that way, undeceived the young Ladies & told them I was his younger Brother. Sweet innocent things, they concluded I was single, & I have not had such soft looks & tender pressures of the [ha]nd for many years. Congress is pretty much as [usua]l!! Rem[embe]r me to every body & King. All is well at [Ar]lington. Yrs.


[Addressed] Private Captain A. Talcott

Engr. Dept 9th Nov. 1835

Dear Captain,

I am glad to hear by your letter of the 6th that you are all well, though I had anticipated that by this time our beautiful Talcott had something to tell me. I am happy to say that Mary is improving. The 2nd Imposthume (on her left side) which I believe I told you of, has been opened & by its discharge she has been much relieved, in so much that when she moves a soreness is substituted for acute pain. It is now supposed by the Physicians that the inflammation originally commenced on this side & as it acted just on the head & seat of the muscles & veins of that leg, it was that which prevented its motion, that it passed over afterward to the right & suppurated first on that side, & that her complaint does not partake of rheumatism as first supposed. She is dreadfully reduced, & so weak that she cannot stand, but being relieved from constant & corroding pain is a great point gained. Her Phys[cian]s say that they forsee nothing now to prevent her rapid recovery. God grant it may be So, for I have been now more than a month under most miserable apprehensions. I enclose a copy of Capt. E[veleth]’s memoirs.87 I hope you will not find cause to concur in my opinion. Shew it to no one. You will see he has lost sight of the Pile at Ft. C[alhoun] being originally raised 2 feet higher than Ft. M[onroe] and by the statement he puts most confidence in the Pier since 1833 has settled 11/100 of a foot. My notebook I left with him, so I have only my memory to depend on which you know is wretched. Have you yours with you & do you recollect whether the settlement of 1833 (14/100 ft.) was exclusive of the 2 feet. The subsidence of 1834, I made to be 19/100 of a foot, & account for its excess over the preceeding year by the greater quantity of stone piled near it; sand &c. Though there may have been some error, but if that is right you will [agree], it has raised 8/100 ft. a thing not to be thought of. The Captain from these observations makes the subsidence this year in the tabular statement 80/100 of a foot, the greatest quantity since 1825 which was 90/100. They have determined to commence operations next year & $150,000 is asked for. It is after office hours which are not as long as yours, & are [?] twice enough. Love to all from yours truly


[Addressed:] Private Captain Talcott

From a drawing by William L. Sheppard, Harpers Weekly, 6 April 1861.
Courtesy of Valentine Museum

Wash. 17th Nov. [1835]

Dear Captain,

I received yours of the 15th this morn[inlg and hasten to present my warmest congratulations to yourself & Mrs. T[alcott] upon the happy event mentioned therein.88 We cannot be too thankful to our beautiful Talcott for the pleasure she thus yearly affords us, in the multiplication of these little miniatures of herself; A new edition of which I as regularly & anxiously look for, as I do for the Souvenirs & Annuals of the Seasons. God grant that since they are regularly & beautifully got up, they may be as numerous, & sufficient to gratify the tastes of the refined Public. I trotted off at once to find Mr. Wilks89 & Hassler.90 The former regrets that he has made no observations of the Lunar Transits since last Jan[uar]y & as I understand you wanted those that you observed, I did not trouble him. He had not the books you mentioned, & although I have called twice on Mr. H[assler] I could not find him. I will try again tomorrow. The Genl. [Gratiot] says we will not keep the report to hear from you. Therefore you can send on your approximate results when the draw[ing]s arrive & he will make a separate report of the duty then. This will give you more time. I believe the great hurry arises from the President’s wish to mention it in his message; therefore if you can be ready sooner the better. Love to all. Yours


[Addressed] Private Capt. Talcott

Engr. Dept.
Wash 17th Nov. 1835

Dear Captain,

Without knowing that you have forgotten it, I have ceased from my labours a few moments to remind you of the “President’s anxiety &c &c” and to inform you that the Report cut as short as pye crust, is now prepared for submission, in which a space under the head of Northern Boundary of Ohio is left vacant for your say on the subject. If it reaches here by Sunday next it will be time enough, but the above mentioned effusion cannot be delayed longer.

I have the happiness to inform you in continuation that Genl. Macomb has written a letter to the Secretary of War, requesting that Fort Monroe again be relinquished to the Eng[ineer]s, and if he approve the same, that estimates be handed in for completion. Thereby acknowledging that directions emanating from the H[ea]d Q[uarte]rs of the Army are not of themselves sufficient for the purpose. Said letter was referred here by the Secretary & in a reply written for his signature (I never wrote one with more zeal) I did myself the pleasure to state that his proposition was approved, that he would accordingly rescind Genl. Order No. 54 of 1834, & direct the Com[mandin]g Officer of that place to turn over to the officer of Eng[inee]rs selected for the purpose, the Houses, Shops, Stables, Horses, Machinery &c &c & all other public property properly belonging to Ft. Monroe including the balance of funds remaining of former appropriations that might be in his hands. (You see I whetted my memory by turning to said order). This letter has been sent to the Maj.-Genl. and untill the matter becomes public, say nothing. Now do you think the Genl. took this step of his own accord? I opine not, but from what the President said to Genl. G[ratiot] in which he made use of the expression “I gave it to him” (without calling names) we suppose it comes from him. Hurrah for Genl. Jackson, I say. Mary is much better & fast improving. If nothing happens to throw her back, we hope in another week she will be moving about. Smith tells me my sister Nanie is up to her notch, but still on her feet; Ask my pretty Talcott if she can explain that to me & tell me how she is. We are all well & my children growing in beauty, size & every thing that is good. Tell Washington that money has been sent on Rice, in accordance with your estimate, in which was included the transportation of officers, & it was understood in this office, that it was for the purpose of paying it. Nothing more at present. from yors very truly


Love to all

[Addressed] War Department Express Service Capt. A. Talcott Corps of Engrs. Philadelphia[.]

22nd June 1836

My Dear Captain,

“The long Agony is over,” and you have at last torn yourself from the arms of the Corps.91 The reflection has made me quite sad, and should it ever be my lot to take a similar step, it will now be done with less regret than formerly. I have deeply lamented my inopportune absence from the Office on Saturday last, and the more as it was only the second time it has occurred, when not prevented, since I have been on this stage. But not having for one or two days previous much to do in the office, I determined to take advantage of the day to take a ride in the Country. You may judge of my chagrin then on Monday, when I heard of what had transpired during my absence, and of having missed such an opportunity to take by the hand a man for whom I have so high a regard and esteem as the one in question. I was thereby left in ignorance too of your future plans, or rather the minutia of them, as well as the opinion and feelings of my beautiful Talcott upon this unnatural separation. I had a thousand questions to ask too, concerning this last and the little ones. Where are they to live, what is to become of them, and when are they to see their poor Uncle again? Are subjects that are continually arising. I hope that we shall meet at some time and place, sooner than I now can anticipate, and that you may find time occasionally to give me such information of you and yours as opportunity will allow. I shall continue to inflict you with my epistles whenever I can find anything interesting to relate. I believe you will find every thing of public interest in the papers, except the acceptance of the resignation by the President of Genl. Clinch,92 and the rumour of Maj. Gates93 nomination to the Senate, for the purpose of giving him the benefit of a Court Martial. This last is not believed. Mary’s gen[era]l health I think has been improving this Spring, though she is now laboring under an attack of the Mumps. Custis has not been well since he had the Whooping Cough, whether it is the remains or effect of that disease we do not know. He is thin and fretful. They all rec[eive]d the news of your resignation with much regret, and app[eare]d to think there was an addition to our separation, which I hope will not be in feeling. They join me in much regard to yourself, Mrs. H[ackley], Mrs. T[alcott] the children, &c &c and with the warmest wishes for your future welfare and happiness. Yours truly and as ever


[Addressed] Private Capt. A. Talcott

In the interval between 1834, when Lee left the Rip Raps, and the outbreak of the Civil War, there was repeated the patterns etablished between 1817 and 1834: Optimistic preparations for construction were followed by inactivity when it appeared that subsidence of the shoal had not entirely ceased. Gratiot’s report to Secretary of War Poinsett in November 1837 was typical:

. . . The remainder of the stone was this year removed from the foundations of the work, preparatory to commencing the masonry. A board of engineers, appointed . . . to inspect it, recommended . . . on account of the continued subsidence, the reloading of these foundations . . . is now in progress.94

At about the same time, it was determined to expand the nature of both Forts Monroe and Calhoun to 350 and 232 gun forts.95 In 1840 55,716 tons of stone (3,176 in 1839–1840) had been loaded on to the walls and piers of the Rip Raps. Consequent increased subsidence proved to the engineers the necessity of continued ballasting until a load somewhat greater than the whole weight of the work was placed upon the foundations.96 This immense pile of stone and masonry was completed in 1841 and was calculated to be 13,627 tons in excess of the ultimate weight of the fort to be built there. Subsidence was reduced to one-half inch at the centre, but

Prudence, however, demands still further delay, and the actual work should not be begun until the present mass has stood one full year without producing any appreciable settlement.97

Although it was the clear opinion of many in the War Department in 1852 that many of the coastal defense works provided for in 1816 ought to be abandoned, judgement was suspended regarding Fort Calhoun. Brigadier General Totten,98 the new Chief Engineer of the Army reported to Secretary of War Conrad that in 1851 settling was not more than three-hundredths of a foot and that in 1852 no subsidence could be detected. If no change were observed in the spring of 1853 construction would be resumed. Fort Calhoun was considered “essential to the defense of Hampton Roads and the approaches to the Norfolk navy yard.”

It was the opinion of the Chief Engineer that forts in the Black and Baltic Seas had, during the Crimean War, “fully and perfectly accomplished the object for which they were designed—namely, security against naval attack.”99 At about the same time, Brigadier General Totten reported to Secretary of War Davis that “The recent introduction into maritime war of greatly enlarged calibres, will make it necessary to reform to a considerable extent the armament of our sea coast fortifications of all classes.”100 In 1857 the engineering course at West Point was criticized for not fitting engineers for coastal defense work. Nor, it was said, was there any evaluation of the influence railroads and telegraph lines would have on warfare. A possible war for America was envisioned as one where “steam fleets, floating batteries, and gun-boats would prey on the American coast.” Our forts were antiquated by new ordnance. Rifled guns throwing hollowed steel shells had four times the range and penetrating ability than coastal defense guns still in use in America. A critic pointed out that “Our sea-coast defenses . . . must, in the next war, prepare to resist those floating batteries . . . , clad in armor, (proof against the missles which have hitherto been the terror of fleets). . . .”101

In 1855 the stone which had been piled on the foundation site was moved aside, and the construction of temporary barracks begun.102 In a year’s time, 25,000 tons had been removed, and the Secretary of War was assured that the remainder would be taken down in another year. In four years there had been no further settling.103 Totten was unable to report concerning Fort
Calhoun in 1857 that more than unloading had taken place; but construction was “about to be commenced.” Delay had been caused by the necessity of checking measurements of old walls and building others, as the case happened to be. By November 1861 Fort Calhoun had taken on definite shape, although operations had been suspended during a part of the year past. Before this respite, “labors were applied to the building of the third, fourth, and fifth courses of the scarp, piers and foundations, magazine walls, removing, loading, filling, and leveling for casement floors.” Work was resumed in June and directed to making preparations for mounting some guns at this important position.104

Although there was some bickering over jurisdiction between the Navy and Army in the autumn of 1861, the Fort on the Rip Raps continued under the command of the army.105 On 18 March the name of the fort was officially changed to Fort Wool, “in recognition of faithful service by a distinguished and gallant officer.”106 Perhaps encouraged by this praise, Major General Wool proceeded to capture Norfolk, Gosport, and Portsmouth one month later.107

That the combined utility of Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort and Fort Calhoun-Wool on the Rip Raps was considerable, cannot be gainsaid. For instance, John Taylor Wood, Lieutenant of the C.S.S. Virginia, wrote concerning the third foray of the former Merrimac on 11 April 1862:

We exchanged a few shots with the Rip-Raps batteries, but the Monitor with the other vessels of the fleet remained below Fort Monroe, in Chesapeake Bay, where we could not get at them except by passing between the forts.108

There was demand in the North following the famous engagement between the Virginia and the Monitor for heavy-armoured monitors of light draft, and it was argued that

The enemy . . . found many high points upon their inland waters where they could plant batteries of artillery, which looked down upon the gunboats, and were consequently out of reach of their heavy guns. Gallant attempts to attack such batteries, to pass them, to keep open the army lines of communication, were attended with many fatal disasters and a loss somewhat of the prestige of the gunboats.109

Thus evidence from both participants of the War Between the States confirmed the original motives for fortification of Old Point Comfort and the Rip Raps, as well as the War Department’s reappraisal of coastal fortifications after the Crimean War.


Aggregate Spent
or Contracted for
New Unexpended to September Estimated Cost Estimated Cost
Year Appropriation Sum on hand of Year to date of Completion
1824 $90,000 $50,941 $39,058  $374,995
1825 100,000   12,615 123,264 $ 605,893    904,355
1828   80,000   23,497 103,497    815,500
1831   80,000   20,074
1832   80,000        898   80,898 1,207,000
1833   75,000   30,452 105,452
1834 120,000   38,022 158,022
1835   88,536   88,536 1,380,333 2,014,816
1836 150,000   16,536   16,183
1837 142,892 141,108
1838   12,200
1840   50,000   31,414
1842   28,072 1,804,791
1852   18,596
1853   18,596
1854   18,596
1856   20,000   20,000   30,000
1857    50,000?   18,500   68,500
1858  100,000?   46,048
1859   75,000
1860 150,000
1861   50,000