Over the years, many historic spectacles in Hampton Roads
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — When it comes to historic spectacle, Hampton Roads has produced plenty of sights to choose from, ranging from the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 to the first clash of ironclads in 1862.
But these are just two of many panoramic events that have stopped people in their tracks over the past 400 years. Here are six others that led to gawking:
The Battle of the Capes. More than 40 giant ships of the line carrying nearly 3,000 guns clashed in this massive battle off the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781. In three hours, the bigger, more powerful guns aboard 24 French ships that sailed from Hampton Roads proved decisive against a smaller, less well-armed Royal Navy squadron. Their success paved the way for French reinforcements at Yorktown and prevented the British from relieving Cornwallis.
The British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay. When the Royal Navy pushed through the mouth of the bay on Feb. 4, 1813, it had 10 times the firepower of the 30-odd guns defending Norfolk. Four more massive 74-gun ships of the line and many well-armed frigates and sloops joined them, and when they attacked Craney Island in June the lower James River was covered with British hulls, sails and masts as well as scores of assault craft.
The Union anchorage at Fort Monroe. The Gibraltar of the Chesapeake was a famous fort but its greatest role in the Civil War came as a Union anchorage. Hundreds of transports steamed to its wharves in April 1862 when the largest army ever seen in America arrived for the Peninsula Campaign. Many more expeditions to the south drew fleets so large that the forests of masts rivaled New York Harbor.
The Civil War Siege of Yorktown. When the Army of the Potomac marched up the Peninsula in April 1862, it ran smack into a Confederate defensive line that stretched all the way from the mouth of the Warwick River to Yorktown. For a month, the Union fought back by building its own earthworks and artillery positions, and observers who witnessed the carved-up landscape from balloons reported that it looked like something built by giants.
The Great White Fleet. Made up of 18 giant white battleships — more than half of them built in Newport News — the fleet left Hampton Roads and the Jamestown 300th anniversary exposition at what is now Norfolk Naval Base on Dec. 16, 1907. Some 40,000 sailors manned this demonstration of military and industrial might, which President Teddy Roosevelt sent around the world on a voyage of good will and muscle flexing.
The first B-17s. A few months after the first operational B-17 Flying Fortress landed at Langley Field in 1937, the first formation of the heavy bombers destined to become a World War II icon flew across Hampton Roads. Not only did the flight of 12 36,000-pound planes make a spectacular sight but the roar of 48 Cyclone 9 engines — which generated nearly 45,000-horsepower all told — produced the first instance of an ominous sound that's still remembered in Europe nearly 70 years after the war ended.