Fast-forward 183 years, and the fort lies abandoned - a hushed maze of walls and stairwells that form a timeline tracing the evolution of coastal military defense.
Droplets drip from stalactites on the curved brick ceilings of the fort's inner passageways, feeding moist stalagmites along the granite floor.
Tiny trees and ivy vines snake in and out of cracks and crannies in the walls, searching for water and sunlight.
The manmade island has been virtually shut off from visitors since 2003, when Hurricane Isabel wrecked the pier where nearly 20,000 tourists and history buffs a year used to disembark to tour the fortress.
Hampton officials hope to resume guided tours next summer, when a huge U.S. flag will be hoisted above the post atop a 90-foot-tall pole.
The post is quiet now, except for the low rumble of traffic, the distant screeching of terns and seagulls, and the occasional choppy roar of a helicopter fly-by.
The rickety dock stands on the south coast of the island, where haphazardly strewn planks are weathered deep shades of brown or bleached near-white.
In some places, the concrete of the newer fort is peeling away, betraying the original stone walls that form the base's backbone. Originally designed to house more than 200 guns on four levels, engineers curtailed the plans when the base started to sink into the bay.
"You really do see the evolution of 1,000 years of military engineering," said Mike Cobb, curator of the Hampton History Museum. He visits the fort at least a few times a week because of his passion for rehabbing the post.
"The designs track back to the castles and fortresses of Europe."
The immense stone walls that line the northern coast of the fort are broken only by window-sized holes large enough for cannon barrels. The iron-lined openings are rusted a deep shade of red that runs down the outer granite.
Three-inch-thick iron armor doors cover the holes hiding reloading cannons from enemy shells. The hinges, long since rusted in place, would swing open when Fort Wool's guns were ready to fire. Granite and sandstone boulders line the edges of the island, the farthest ones stained dark shades of brown and green from the tides. Those closer to the fortified walls shine white and red from the sun.
Dried crab shells bake atop the walls of the fort, likely the remnants of a tern's feast.
Those lucky enough to visit the base must navigate through baby cactus, nettles, clover and dandelions.
The fort is speckled with the telltale fingerprints of high tides and the pounding waves of Hurricane Isabel, which pushed more than five feet of water and debris over the island.
Random piles of shattered lumber, the odd boogie board, and other chunks of rubble and wreckage mark the spots that are waiting to be cleaned.
Volunteers shovel away buckets of dirt and dust pooled inside the empty batteries that once held formidable 6-inch guns.
During its history, the base played host to a legion of presidents and prominent historical figures.
President Andrew Jackson used the secluded island as a summer White House refuge from the scrutiny and bustle of Washington, vacationing there in 1829, 1831, 1833 and 1835.
At the time, the island still bore the name of Jackson's chief political rival - John C. Calhoun, who eventually resigned as Jackson's vice president to become a U.S. senator from South Carolina - so he referred to it in letters by the informal moniker, the Rip Raps.
The fort was the first independent command for Robert E. Lee, who directed construction briefly on the post during the 1830s as a young Army engineer.
President John Tyler turned the island into a personal sanctuary after the death of his wife in 1842.
President Abraham Lincoln watched Wool's guns shell Sewell's Point in Norfolk as Union ships and soldiers mounted a raid on the Confederate port. The fort is home to other ghosts, too. On Dec. 7, 1941 - after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - a company of Gloucester-based National Guard troops boarded boats to secure Fort Wool in case of an eastern assault. That night, the German shepherd that the troops brought along gave birth - a story that made it into the next day's newspapers.
A small granite headstone on the fort's parade ground marks the grave site of Lady, the German shepherd.