Episode 15

The Last Army fort created by George Washington - Fort Norfolk

In the late 1700's, George Washington ordered the building of Army Forts at key locations throughout Virginia...Fort Norfolk was one of those locations. While the buildings didn't come along until 1810, the history and constant usage of this fort is one of a kind and the stories we learned you couldn't make up!

Video - First Battle of Ironclads | On Location at Fort Norfolk

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Transcript
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greetings and welcome to the talk with

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History Podcast I'm your host Scott here

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with my wife and historian Jen hello on

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this podcast we talk about history's

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continuing impact on us in our personal

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journey through YouTube as we continue

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to explore record and share our history

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walks with you

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you may have heard about the Monitor and

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the Merrimack Ironclad ships that were

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instrumental during the American Civil

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War I know I did I learned it in high

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school but did you know that the first

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ever Ironclad battle was right here in

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Norfolk Virginia changing the face of

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Naval Warfare forever in just four hours

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so Jen

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where did we visit today and why is this

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place so important

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[Music]

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we went to Fort Norfolk and I I want to

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make sure I say it like a native so it's

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it's Norfolk yeah the the the locals

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here they they don't use the r it's

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nafak

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so not it looks like Norfolk yes but no

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[ __ ] and so it's named after a place in

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England

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um but one of the earliest cities here

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in America we're on the coast of

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Virginia and George Washington had

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ordered some forts to be built to guard

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the Atlantic side of well at the time

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was the only side of America and so Fort

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Norfolk was ordered when he was

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president to be built in the late 1700s

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and it's the only one that Still Remains

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to this day

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of course the other ones think in

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DC area of course have been rebuilt or

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used for something else and even our

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tour guide today you know he said like

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this fort right I mean it's been around

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for 212 years yes 18. 17 18 10. well it

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was it was it was first dug out Earth

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Earthen works right in the 1700s that's

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right and then the first bricks were

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laid in the 1800s yeah and so even like

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the literally the buildings

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I mean we were walking on original yes

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you know where they used to walk right

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and there's all sorts of interesting

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stories and stuff like that it's 212

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years old the the green doors that you

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see in our in the video that come in

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through the little Archway yes those

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doors are 212 years old and

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the reason why I guess it survived all

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this time it it was used for the Civil

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War it was it was a retrofitted during

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World War One and World War II to be

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used by the Army Corps of Engineers they

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used it for Logistics they used it as

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offices Communications places and then

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they built a bigger more modern building

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outside of the fort and just kind of

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moved over to there and they never tore

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down the Old Fort yeah it's it's prime

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location it's on the waterfront in

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Norfolk but it's not so Prime that it

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ever was

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basically destroyed so it's still there

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well and I think what they said too was

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and it's so common even today right is

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they filled in certain areas around you

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know where where that was so there's so

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there's like part of the harbor and you

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know and yeah has been filled in with

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yeah you know whatever yes

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at the time of the Ironclad battle you

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could see the battle from Fort Norfolk

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now you couldn't be able to see it they

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have filled in they basically have built

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Landing yeah ships can't come that close

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yeah so you wouldn't be able to see it

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today but at the time you could see it

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so I just thought it was really neat

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to go there and to not only talk about

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the history of the fort but two iron

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clads so it's such a neat idea that this

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was the first place the two ironclads

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met and battled right and and the

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ironclads too is like

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like I said in the intro the monitor in

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the miramak I remember those from high

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school they talk about how you know

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these two ironclads kind of shoot each

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other and nothing happens nothing

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happens I think the canning balls keep

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bouncing off so I so I had known that

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story generally from high school

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but then all of a sudden when you say

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hey I want to go to Fort Norfolk I was

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like what's in Fort Norfolk like again

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yeah like it's another Fort okay we're

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doing a walk with history let's go to

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Fort Norfolk what's what what's

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interesting about Fort Norfolk and you

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say well the the first two iron the very

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first ironclad battle the monitor of the

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Merrimack it wasn't actually the

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Merrimack well I guess you can talk

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about that Virginia they fought right

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there that was their first battle and

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then everybody after that was like yeah

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we want that we're gonna make more of

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those yes so and you know you and I love

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movies and if you see Sahara

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there's an iron clad right with Matthew

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McConaughey that is the CSS Texas

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for this for the movie but you see the

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Ironclad what it looks like how it's

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floating through the water and how it

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basically gets away but that's that ship

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that very basic metal whole ship how

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they built it the very first one so you

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can think of just how angular it was and

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how basic it was

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and they've been used in Warfare so what

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happened why why you keep saying Meramec

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Merrimack why you keep saying Merrimack

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when actually it was the CSS Virginia

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right so the Confederacy had taken the

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Merrimack and they had retrofitted the

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hull and iron plated it and called it

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the CSS Virginia so when they say the

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first two battle the first battle of the

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two ironclads it's really the CSS

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Virginia and the monitor the USS monitor

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CSS Virginia so when you hear that

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people will say

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Merrimack and monitor but it's Virginia

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and monitor

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it's just so neat so neopins

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when

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yeah

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secedes from the Union

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then that happens in April of 1861 the

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union is forced to leave and abandon the

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city and the fort and the Confederacy

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takes over the fort now they only have

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it for 13 months but in that 13 months

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is when this battle is going to take

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place it happens in March of 1862.

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and so March 8th what happens

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is

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the union that has been kind of

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blockading the area and unable to get

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supplies up to Richmond because if you

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know anything about the Chesapeake Bay

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you have to go through there to get up

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to Richmond and the Richmond is of

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course

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the

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the capital of the Confederacy it has

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the heart yes so it's where Jefferson

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Davis is this is the capital so they

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want to fight back and they the Virginia

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they they were the first ones to do this

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put iron around the ship comes in

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contact with two other ships and it

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fights the Congress and the Cumberland

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and these are wooden chips Wooden Ships

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U.S Navy

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Union Wooden Ships and they destroy them

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one I think is sunk the other one is

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just completely disabled because because

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the Wooden Ships can't do any damage you

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can't do any damage can't move if you

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know anything about Wooden Ships you

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have to get right up beside a wooden

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ship so they can put their cannons out

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and fire at you like it can't your guns

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are very

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rudimentary cemented can't move them

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around you gotta move the whole ship to

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yeah these iron clouds not only could

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now have metal but they had learned how

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to put guns on turrets and fire in

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different directions and so it made the

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chip be much more versatile and where it

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was it could fire at you from any

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position

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and so they had already they've already

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taken two Union ships and they're about

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to take a third the Minnesota is also

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there now the Minnesota to almost kind

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of save itself runs the ground

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that way it doesn't get sunk it runs the

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ground and the Virginia by that time has

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used all of its ammunition

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and comes back to Fort Norfolk to get

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ammunition again for no Focus being

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it's being run by the Confederacy and

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the big draw of that Fort is the

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magazine so it's the biggest building

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and so that was one of the cool things

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just to kind of interrupt the story here

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so one of the cool things is they show

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us like where the magazine was we

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couldn't go in that particular building

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no I think they were fixing in yeah they

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were fixing it up and there was a lot of

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work being done at the Fort this isn't

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like a wasn't a full-blown like

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over-the-top like highly produced for

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Museum but there's the folks told us

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about some but

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um one of the cool things was uh what

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was the the pull that yeah so the magic

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Transportation was right beside like a

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rail that's right almost like a train

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rail yeah and they used mules they would

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load up the ammunition onto the mule and

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they would just pull it right out to the

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point out and out to the ships yeah and

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they the reason they had moved

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ammunition to Fort no Focus the ship

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building was a little bit further away

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and at the one point they had put the

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magazine right beside the shipyard and

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somebody thank goodness was smart enough

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to go hey maybe we shouldn't have all of

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these explosives right beside all this

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wood where we're building ships we this

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blows up we're going to destroy

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everything lose everything why don't we

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move it away oh my gosh there's a fort

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down there and we can build this big

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magazine yeah there's a there's a yard

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here that they use for drilling yes and

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they break for drill practice and they

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built a building there so and then all

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right so so that's just me interrupting

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because you know I'm the host and I get

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to do that once in a while

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um so so they're rearming they're

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rearming for the night so this is March

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8th going into the night the next day is

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March 9th 1862. during the night the

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monitor so the union also is making a

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metal ship they're also making an

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ironclad and so during the night the

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monitor comes down the coast and stands

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and gets in front of the Minnesota

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basically to defend the Minnesota and

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honestly it uses the fire from the

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Minnesota to find it yeah so at night

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aim towards the smoke so they get in

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front of it so when the Virginia comes

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back out the next morning to finish what

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they started they're met with the

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Monitor and the Monitor and the Virginia

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just go at it three to four hours just

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firing at each other and shooting each

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other and no damage neither sink neither

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have damage they kind of call it a draw

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and in that moment

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[Music]

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naval ship building Changes Worldwide

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yeah and Naval Warfare yeah everyone's

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paying attention Wooden Ships are

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obsolete nobody makes them anymore for

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Naval battles now it's all metal the

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people are seeing how strong this is how

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you can basically fight a war and you're

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not going to have any damage so

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everything changes when it comes to

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building

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ships from that battle Yeah that's that

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was really cool and like when you're at

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the Fort too so

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um what you can see right now is that

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they've it's a work in progress right so

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I think it's the norfolkest or

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historical society and some other folks

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who are kind of helping kind of continue

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to to work on Fort Norfolk and God bless

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them if you hear this and you know

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people who can help donate you know look

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them up they're really um

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they're working on preservation but they

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definitely need the funds and the help

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to do it yeah and but one of the cool

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Parts is is like the the Earthen kind of

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dig out is still kind of the same shape

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that it was back then so you can

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actually walk up the hill right and if

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this is like the dirt that they piled

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back in the late 1700s exactly right you

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walk on top of this and you can see out

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over the water now there is the modern

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building that you mentioned before but

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before that modern building was there

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you could see the entire Harbor in the

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entire Bay right there it's a key

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strategic point it was a great point and

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those Earthworks they are preserved just

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like if you go to Yorktown yeah the

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Earthworks are preserved where the

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revolutionaries dug in so you can see

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that this is this was done in the late

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1700s early 1800s this was done by the

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men there and it still stands today

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foreign

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and one of the the neat little asides

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that our tour guide told us about was

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um the little brick embankment built

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into the side of one of those do you

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remember that yeah he said it was the

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commanding officer's wife wanted a

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gazebo yeah it was or like uh yeah it

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was like the kernel right so the colonel

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who was in charge of that base at

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whatever time I don't think he knew it

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was like I don't know the early 1900s

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yeah it was probably the 30s or yeah and

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uh so I guess the Colonel's wife wanted

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a gazebo so the colonel said build my

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wife a gazebo over there Fort Norfolk

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and so she had her gazebo and the tour

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guide was great because he said he can

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just picture

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you know the Colonel's wife sitting

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there in her gazebo drinking mint juleps

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you know looking out over the water

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which you know when we went which was

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today for us

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um it was super windy

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um but I can see on a nice day it was

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gorgeous and she's looking out over the

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water of course yeah it's beautiful

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so that battle is called the Battle of

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Hampton Roads so when people say the

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first two ironclads that met in the

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Battle of Hampton Roads that's that's

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what it was yeah and

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yeah so after that it's not long until

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the Union's going to take Norfolk

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they're going to be occupied in May of

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1862. so this happens in March so you

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think March April May the union has

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taken Norfolk again and they're going to

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hold it for the rest of the Civil War so

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Norfolk is not again the Confederacy is

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only at that Fort for about a year and

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then it's taken over by the union again

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and then what's depicted in the movie

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Sahara we talked about this

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is the fall of Richmond so the fall of

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Richmond happens in early

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April 1865. so you we know we're going

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to have the surrender happen in about a

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week follow Richmond happens April 4th

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and then the cement is going to happen a

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couple days after that and so in the

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fall of Richmond

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what's depicted in Sahara is the CSS

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Texas gets away and the CSS Texas does

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have the reputation of being the best

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constructed Ironclad it was I mean by

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that time you're getting better and

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better were they constructing did I

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don't know if our tour guide talked

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about this but did were they

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constructing these ironclads like where

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the ships are being built today yes okay

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yes

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that's where they were doing it yeah

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that's cool but I think the Texas were

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being built closer built closer up to

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Richmond okay because it was it's like

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almost maiden voyage

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right for the movie for the movie and

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and in real life because what happens so

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the CSS Texas in real life doesn't even

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get to make a maiden voyage it actually

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is taken during the the fall of Richmond

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and

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the union basically sells it for scrap

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in 1867. so it comes down to Norfolk to

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be sold for scrap

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so but in the in the movie Sahara it's

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making it's gets away right with all the

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with all the goals with all the

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competitors because they don't want it

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to fall into the Union hands but to make

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that ship for the movie they use the

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Virginia

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the model of the model of the Virginia

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or was it the monitor

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I can remember that I remember one or

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the other but they used one of them that

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actually was the actual ship in the

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Battle of Hampton Roads that's cool and

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they used that ship as the model so

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that's what you're seeing in the movie

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even though it's supposed to be the CSS

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Texas yeah I love that movie that's such

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a great movie it's probably Texas

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because Matthew McConaughey's from Texas

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sure why not you know you know if you're

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gonna stretch uh stretch history for

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facts for some Hollywood stuff uh why

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not make it to your hometown yes

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so there was um 11 buildings there's a

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main gate building there's a carpenter's

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building when you first walk into the

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right there's officer's quarters there's

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the Armory like we talked about the the

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machine the magazine yep and then

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there's enlisted quarters and then there

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is a what was it to make the water a

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cistern yeah to make clean water since

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the rain that was up higher on one of

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the embankments right natural gravity

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that's uh it makes sense but it's been

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it's it's been a fort since the American

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Revolution we're 1812 Civil War so it's

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been there for a while yeah and I what I

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thought one of the interesting things

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and one of the kind of interesting

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characters that our our guide talked

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about was

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um The Hermit so the so the interesting

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thing about this fort so think about you

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know 200 plus years right and if you

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think all the way back to the late 1700s

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200 let's just say 250 240 years right

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it has changed hands it's been active

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and non-active one of the reasons that

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it got taken

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was that it was undermanned right so it

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had been taken to Naval battles that had

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been taken in land battles and all this

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stuff and at one point it was basically

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abandoned yeah what do you remember what

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era this was in I think I'm looking

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there was this hermit that moves into

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Fort Norfolk because it was essentially

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abandoned right the Army in the Navy

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wasn't using it anymore and so he was

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like you know what that looks nice and

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cozy over there I'm gonna go move in and

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he lives at Fort Norfolk for

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a decent amount of time because he

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actually does work he does upkeep on it

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he puts a roof on one of the buildings

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and then eventually

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um eventually one of the one of the

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services says yeah we want that back so

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they come and basically kick him out

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and he he gets all worked up about it

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because he's been living there probably

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for a couple years

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and

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he he's basically tries to sue slash

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send a bill to the government saying hey

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I did all this work and I did all this

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upkeep on North Fort Norfolk I put a

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roof on it on one of the buildings

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um you guys owe me money and I don't

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think anything ever actually came out of

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it because it's not like he was hired to

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do that but I was just such an

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interesting little tidbit

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um

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that our tour guide shared with us yes

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so I'm meeting here the fourth set with

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an unofficial caretaker status until

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1849 the meal Fentress yes the real

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event and he'd been living alone in the

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offices quarters that's right so for the

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past couple decades and he and he had

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been like a volunteer yes like a like a

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volunteer Soldier and so I had never

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gotten to live in one of the buildings

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yes because the buildings were for like

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not the basically the non-volunteers

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like the officers and the actual the

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actual military and if you were a

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volunteer you lived in tents out outside

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of the the building so he went into the

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building and took care of it and he said

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he put a roof on and then he

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files a bill he demands payment of

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fifteen hundred dollars for taking care

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of the government works and he signs the

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bill with an X and it's actually at the

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National Archives oh is it really yeah

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that's what he said oh my gosh bill is

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at The Archives now there's no proof

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that he was ever paid but that bill and

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that writing is at The Archives that was

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just one of the most entertaining asides

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of like yeah here's a super interesting

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character that has inserted himself as

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has had his tail told for the past you

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know 150 years now about here's the

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hermit that moved into North Fort

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Norfolk and charged the government money

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for upkeep that he did while he was

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living here yes um I just it just kind

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of made me smile

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um the other thing that I will say is

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that our kids had plenty of questions oh

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yeah for and God bless the tour guide

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yeah yes and they they loved it it was a

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great tour I recommend you take it it's

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free

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and the kids had plenty of questions

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just about life in general for people

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who lived in the fort they had

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they there are some stories about

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prisoners being held at the Fort and

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they do believe that they took a

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profiteering ship during the Civil War

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yeah they had some yeah

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and the men

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wrote on the walls with pencil yeah and

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they did had some carvings in the

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ceiling yes they carved their names and

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stuff they tried to preserve that so you

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can see that as well now it's there's

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other claims of prisoners but this this

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is the one that's actually like has

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provenance and facts that they could

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find but it's it's a very interesting

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place and it's like very old and it has

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a like there's original doors like you

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had said there's original Metal Works

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there's a you're standing on the

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original floors you're looking at

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original beams and it really has been

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used and not just used for like storage

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like it was used in World War II yes

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right the communications that our tour

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guide talked about he said about five

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years ago okay so as we're recording

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this is 2022 and he said about five

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years ago so let's just say in 2017 he

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said this 80 80 to 90 year old lady came

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with you know what may have been her son

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or something like that came to visit

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they were looking around she couldn't

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even make it up the step she and she

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just her comment was kind of an aside

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she said I just wanted to see the fort

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again

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and so

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he that that caught his attention and he

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said oh well what do you mean and so it

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turns out that she had been like the

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lead Communications person

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at the Fort you know for a number of

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years and I don't know it wasn't during

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World War II but it was it was a World

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War II I love how you have to listen to

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a story yeah you crack me up baby but it

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was just it was just so interesting to

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lead Communications for World War II in

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that room breaking codes and messages

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from Germany in that room that's so it

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kind of shows you where are things

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happening that are not even close or

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connected to where the actual fight is

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going on sure but yes and so we were

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looking at how that Old Guard house was

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retrofitted for wires and power and

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that's when

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after World War II they build that new

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modern building because that's the the

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core of army Engineers so that's who she

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worked for so she's getting plans and

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stuff from them trying to help them with

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World War II

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so yeah you're funny I love how I love

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doing history with you babe but again I

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just thought that was super interesting

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because here's something that has like

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legitimately been used right it's it's

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not there's some spots that we visit

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where people knew in the earlier

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mid-1800s are like hey we need to

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preserve this this is going to be

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We're Not Gonna We're Not Gonna use this

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it's gonna be preserved right and so

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it's been preserved for 100 years 150

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years or whatever like that this is

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something that has been used

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for 200 plus years yeah it just I think

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it went on the historic places in

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1975 but it just reminds me Norfolk is

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very much like this

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we have that building why don't you use

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that building like the the city owns

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certain buildings and when they're

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thinking of we need this and we need it

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now and you can think of wartime when

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you know supplies are scarce you're like

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we have we have the fort retro hit the

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fort put it in the fort I mean it's it's

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solid there and you probably have very

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good you know conductivity and frequency

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and you could probably watch you know

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things happen real time let's put the

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stuff at the Fort so Norfolk recycles

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their buildings like that and that's

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what happened with the MacArthur

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Memorial so when we talk about that I

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mean that was the old city hall of

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Norfolk and now it's uh Memorial to

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General Douglas MacArthur so they do

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that they're very I have to say they're

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very good at recycling their buildings

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here

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[Music]

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again this

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caught my eye you know it was a little

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maybe a little more interesting because

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I was trying to listen to the tour guide

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but I was also trying to manage uh

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Madison to keep her from asking too many

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questions that only a six-year-old can

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ask but well Fort Norfolk it may not

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ring a bell to many people if the walls

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of that Fort could talk they would tell

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Tales of Soldiers and Sailors land

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battles and Naval Warfare

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it was an honor to visit the last

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remaining fortification that President

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George Washington ordered to be built

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for Harbor defenses in the late 1700s

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so again thank you and thank you

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listening for talk to the talk with

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History Podcast and please reach out to

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us at our website talk with history.com

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but more importantly if you know someone

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else that might enjoy this podcast

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all every day we'll talk to you next

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time thank you

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foreign

About the Podcast

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Talk With History
A Historian and Navy Veteran talk about history inspired travels, their YouTube channel journey, and examine history through conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there

About your host

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Scott Bennie

Host of the Talk With History podcast, Producer over at Walk with History on YouTube, Editor of the Hashtag Historic newsletter.