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Andrew Jackson Goes to the Beach

  • Marsha Mullin VP Museum Services & Chief Curator at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage

Andrew Jackson c. 1833 by Ralph E. W. Earl

Andrew Jackson's Hermitage Collections

Okay – so he didn’t exactly go to the beach but he did spend four long vacations on the Virginia coast indulging in sea air, privacy, and “bathing.” Close enough!

In 1829, during the first summer of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, he went on an inspection tour of several military projects around Norfolk, Virginia. One of the places he visited was a man-made island called Fort Calhoun. President Jackson had heard much about Fort Calhoun in the years before he became president due to a War Department scandal regarding the contract for its construction. The facility was built from tons of stone hauled in and dumped in the waters at the mouth of Hampton Roads to form the island. It was named for John C. Calhoun, secretary of war under President James Monroe, despite rumors of Calhoun’s alleged involvement in the construction scandal. Jackson, and many others, called the place the Rip Raps or Rip Rap Shoals instead of Fort Calhoun, deriving the name from the rip rap stone which comprised the island.

He was so taken with the place that a few weeks after the official visit he returned from Washington with his Tennessee friend and Secretary of War John Henry Eaton. The men stayed for ten days. Apparently the president staying for a lengthy visit on an isolated and unattractive island with little company raised concerns for many observers. There appeared to be some anxiety that he was purposely staying on the barren island in order to hide the true condition of his health. There were even rumors that he was a prisoner—with journalists asking why go to the island when he could have the same benefits at the Hygeia Hotel? “The state of Gen. Jackson’s health is the engrossing subject of conversation in our political circles,” wrote one reporter.1

A Google Earth photograph of the entrance to Hampton Roads. The Rip Raps are in the red circle near the center of the picture. The larger island, attached to the Rip Raps, was constructed as part of the Hampton Roads bridge and tunnel. Fortress Monroe is at the top of the picture, visible because of the moat which surrounds it.

Google Earth

The Hygeia, a posh tourist hotel built to attract those wishing to take in the sea air, was located near Fortress Monroe, Fort Calhoun’s mate in defending the entrance to Hampton Roads. The president and Eaton obtained their food from the hotel and the itemized bill reveals among their supplies were many varieties of meat, bread, milk, and even a bottle of ketchup! Jackson’s purpose for not going to the hotel and staying on the island was likely for solitude and privacy. After the visit he reported to another friend, James Alexander Hamilton that “the fine air & pleasant bath” steadied his health.2Jackson returned to Rip Raps three more times—in 1831, 1833, and 1835—all of the summers of his presidency that he did not make the trip home to The Hermitage in Tennessee. Health was a big reason for his trips, not to keep his condition secret, but rather to gain some rest and rejuvenation. Since Jackson’s health was always a constant vexation there was no reason to go into seclusion as his critics had claimed. However, his visit in 1833 did come on the heels of an exhausting tour of the northeastern states that had to be cut short due to Jackson’s physical condition. A newspaper account also listed Jackson’s physician, Dr. Thomas, in the Rip Raps party in 1833.

On his later trips he brought many different friends and family members for company. Jackson had numerous family members and friends staying at the White House throughout his two terms in office to help ward off the loneliness of widowhood. In 1831, he brought his Nashville friend John Overton, his temporary secretary Nicholas Trist, and his friend, the artist Ralph E. W. Earl. In 1833 he brought a large entourage: his adopted son and his wife, Andrew Jackson Junior and Sarah Yorke Jackson and their young daughter Rachel (named for her deceased grandmother); Emily Tennessee Donelson, Jackson’s White House hostess, niece, and wife of his secretary A.J. Donelson, as well as their three children; and Ralph E. W. Earl. There were also five servants—likely enslaved—two for Emily Donelson, one for Sarah Jackson, and two for the president. Jackson’s friend and editor of the Washington Globe, Francis P. Blair, visited with him on several of these trips to the island. Emily and her children, including her new baby, also returned for the 1835 stay. Outsiders were not forbidden to visit, as some speculated, but their stops on the island were quite brief.

Jackson and his guests traveled from Washington to Rip Raps by steam boat, a journey that took about nineteen hours. “The President and his family landed on the huge pile of stone reared from the depth of the channel. Not an inch of area had been reserved for a spear of grass, a shrub, or a tree of any kind. The quarters reserved for the President are exceedingly contracted, and in construction as humble as the cottage of a western emigrant. But there the breeze is enchanting.”3 Francis Blair, originally from Kentucky, found the place breathtaking as he wrote “The first view of the ocean is an era in the life of a backwoodsman… the boundless view, the rolling waves…have made [a great] impression on my mind.”4 The other members of the Jackson party, most of whom had been born and raised far away from the ocean, probably had very similar reactions.

On the Rip Raps the Jackson entourage occupied the officers’ quarters, a newly built two story wooden building with a porch across the second, or main floor. Their food was provided by the Hygeia Hotel across the way. Unlike the food bill for the 1829 trip, in 1833 the group was charged a blanket rate per person for board from the Hygeia. The total bill for food was $267.75 for 26 days at the rate of $31.50 for each of the adults and $15.75 for each of the enslaved persons. The three children are listed at $31.50 altogether. There should have been four children since at this point Emily Donelson had three children and Jackson’s granddaughter, Little Rachel was about 8 months old at that time. Perhaps they did not charge the president for baby food. The bill for wine and liquor equaled almost half of the total food bill—$128.00.

A view of the luxurious Hygeia Hotel with Fortress Monroe behind it. The hotel location was called Old Point Comfort.

Library of Congress

Fort Calhoun on the Rip Raps was under construction for all of the time the Jacksons spent there. The island and the partially built fort were riddled with workers and covered in construction cranes. A young U.S. Army engineer, Robert E. Lee, and his wife were at the island during the summer of 1833 and also occupied the wooden officers’ quarters, which later burned in 1846. Lee later complained about Jackson’s tendency to change and alter the fort’s designs, causing more problems for its construction. However, the Jackson era fort was never completed because the multi-level masonry fortification proved too heavy for the rip rap stone island, causing it to sink.5

Newspaper accounts give some insight to Jackson’s activities at the Rip Raps: “He occupied a small temporary shantee built on an elevated point on the Rip Raps enclosed except in front and rear. These ends were left open to admit the air from the sea…a spy glass was attached to one of the perpendicular posts forming the rear of the building through which he occasionally looked... viewing Old Point Comfort and the vessels in Hampton Roads.” (Newark Daily Advertiser July 15, 1835) He is also reported to have gone bathing off the pier on the shallow side of the island. But what did the others do—especially the children, all of whom were quite young—on that 15-acre island? Jackson did occasionally make a trip to the Hygeia for events so perhaps the ladies also took a boat over to enjoy the hotel’s more formal pleasures. But they likely spent most of their time enjoying the breeze on the porch of the officers’ quarters.

Visits to the seashore and sea-bathing had started to become popular in the late 18th century. Doctors recommended such excursions to cure a variety of ills and Jackson probably had every one of them. One particular advocate of sea-bathing was Dr. William Buchan who wrote of it in his Domestic Medicine. The 22nd edition of Dr. Buchan’s book is in the Jackson library at The Hermitage

Andrew Jackson's Hermitage Collections

He received political jabs for going to the seaside, but by the later trips the newspapers had given up the suspicious theories that Jackson was trying to hide his deteriorating health or that he was there against his will. Several writers commented on his improved physical condition after his stays at Rip Raps. There were also suggestions that he was trying to avoid problems. In 1831 one wit said that Jackson was taking “shelter from the rips and raps he had just endured” from the Peggy Eaton uproar.6 “Where does the reader suppose Gen. Jackson is to pass the summer? At the Rip Raps—not at the Hermitage, This fact speaks volumes. It proclaims most intelligibly—I intended to go to Tennessee, and make my supposed vassals there tractable—but fearing the outcome and that my authority may suffer, I have wisely determined to avoid the contest, and leave them to themselves.”7 (The vassals in question were members of Jackson’s political party, not, as one might suppose, his enslaved laborers.) From all accounts, newspapers and mail bringing news of governmental affairs reached him with no difficulty. Jackson continued to write letters and deal with a variety of government issues while on vacation.

The Rip Raps became an unlikely respite for Andrew Jackson. Relaxation and lack of defined activity seems a polar opposite of our usual picture of Jackson. However, for four summers Andrew Jackson unwound, sought health, and breathed in the refreshing sea air at the Rip Raps. He never returned after the 1835 stay nor did he ever spend time at any other seaside location.

The Rip Raps today. On the right side of the island are the remains of the incomplete casements which were under construction during Jackson’s visits. The structures on the left are later. It is no longer an army installation.

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