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Where did presidents go before Camp David?

Ned JIlton II • Dec 5, 2018 at 6:30 PM

When the president of the United States needs a place to get away from the glare of spotlights, hold a discreet conference or welcome a major dignitary, they can go to Camp David.

Located in the mountains of Maryland, Camp David was built in the late 1930s as a military facility. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned the place into a presidential country retreat, naming it “Shangri-La,” and in 1943 Winston Churchill stayed there. President Dwight D. Eisenhower would rename the place Camp David in honor of his father and his grandson, both named David.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter negotiated peace between Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in what became known as the Camp David Accords. In 2012, Barack Obama hosted both the 38th G8 summit and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev there.

The question is, what did presidents do before Camp David existed?

For Tennessee’s President Andrew Jackson, the answer was Fort Wool in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Fort Wool, originally known as Fort Calhoun for John C. Calhoun, was built on a manmade island as part of the post-War of 1812 building program which also produced Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Jackson first saw Fort Wool in 1829 during an inspection of the new dry dock being built at the Gosport Navy Yard near Portsmouth, Virginia. While sailing back, he decided to stop and check on the progress of construction at the new fort.

From the moment he stepped on the riprap making up the island, he was impressed with the fortifications under construction. But he also noticed the ocean views and solitude.

It was that solitude that brought Jackson back to the fort a few months later. His health was not good and he was missing his wife, who had passed away just before he was inaugurated.

The time at the fort did Jackson a world of good, both mentally and physically, and he continued to return to the fort regularly. It was not unusual for sailors on passing ships to catch a glimpse of the president bathing in the ocean.

Jackson had some amenities built on the island, including a hut that overlooked the bay where he could sit and watch the boats pass by.

He would have goods purchased from a hotel on shore when he entertained guests. One such shopping list included a gallon of whiskey, ice, candles, coffee, ketchup, English cheese, steaks and turtle soup.

Despite the fact that his political rivals were suspicious, Jackson began bringing Cabinet members and other officials to the riprap to work on major legislation, including the Indian Removal Act, his actions against the Second National Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina threatened disunion.

It was a dispute between Jackson and Calhoun during the Nullification Crisis that spurred Jackson and members of his administration to refer to the island as the “Rip Raps” rather than Fort Calhoun. The engineers and military assigned to work on the island called it Castle Calhoun.

In 1831, construction was halted when cracks appeared in the walls due to the man-made island settling under the weight of the fort. The efforts to reinforce the island would fall to a lieutenant a little more than a year-and-ahalf out of West Point, Robert E. Lee. It would be his first independent command.

President John Tyler followed Jackson’s example and took sanctuary on the island after the death of his wife. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln also visited the fort, which by then had been renamed Fort Wool in honor of Maj. Gen. John Ellis Wool, a Mexican War hero and commander at Fort Monroe.

Neither Tyler nor Lincoln made as much use of Fort Wool as Jackson did.

The fort saw some action during the Civil War as the soldiers stationed there witnessed the clash of ironclads between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S Virginia.

They even fired an experimental cannon at the C.S.S. Virginia, but failed to damage the ship’s armor.

The fort remained in service through World Wars I and II before being decommissioned in 1953.

Today, Fort Wool is on the National Registry of Historic Places, and the island on which it sits is called Rip Raps Island on the nautical maps. You can tour Fort Wool via the Miss Hampton II harbor tour and private boats are welcome to dock for tours May-September: Mon.-Sat. from 9 a.m.-5p.m.

You can learn more about Fort Wool in the book “Fort Wool, Star Spangled Banner Rising,” by J. Michael Cobb, who is the curator of the Fort Wool Historic Site.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@ timesnews.net .