Location: Hampton, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula is a prime location for a fort to protect the lower reaches of Chesapeake Bay leading to Baltimore and Washington D.C. Early wooden forts were built on Old Point Comfort beginning with Fort Algernourne in 1609 to protect the Jamestown colony up the James River. It is assumed to have been a triangular shaped fort with wooden stockade, but nothing remains of this fort which burned in 1612. Other wooden forts were built nearby including Forts Henry and Charles around 1610, but all of these forts were poorly maintained. A masonry fort was built in 1728, named Fort George but it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1749. During the siege of Yorktown in 1781 that ended the Revolutionary War, the French West Indies fleet used the remains of Fort George for a battery. Throughout the Colonial Period, the ruins were used for cannon batteries from time to time, but the Chesapeake Bay was simply too wide to adequately cover with the cannons of the period. The British simply bypassed the fort when they burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. Following this war, President James Monroe realized the importance of having a permanent fort at this location to protect the coast and approaches to the capital. Construction began in 1819 and continued for the next 25 years. When finished Fort Monroe was the largest stone fort ever built in the United States. As the first of the Third System of coastal forts, Fort Monroe features a moat completely surrounding the fort which is over a mile in circumference. From 1831-34, Robert E. Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe where he played a major role in the final construction as an Engineer for the Army. When completed in 1834, it was known as “The Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” The location of the fort played a pivotal role in the Civil War as it was the only southern fort that was never occupied by the Confederacy. In cooperation with the Navy, the U.S. Army used Fort Monroe to maintain a blockade of the southern coast. Fort Monroe was also the first location of emancipation of former slaves, a year and a half in advance of the formal Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg. On May 27, 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, made his famous “contraband” decision determining that escaped male slaves reaching Union lines were to be considered contraband since the Fugitive Slave Laws did not apply to southern states as they had left the Union. Thus Fort Monroe became a haven for escaped slaves that began showing up in the hundreds, thus naming Fort Monroe, “The Freedom Fort”. By the end of the war this grew into the thousands with over 100 “Contraband Camps”. In March, 1862 Fort Monroe was the site of the Battle of Hampton Roads that took place off Sewell’s Point between the first ironclads, the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. While the battle was inconclusive it signaled the end to wooden fighting ships. Later that spring, the presence of the Federal army at Fort Monroe allowed for the unmolested landing of Union troops for Major General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign that reached a few miles short of Richmond during the spring of 1862. In 1864, the Army of the James was formed at Fort Monroe under Major General Butler that participated in the siege of Petersburg beginning in June. Fort Monroe played a key role in protecting and trans-shipping materiel from the North to City Point up the James River, where General Grant had created huge wharves, warehouses, and transportation hub to supply the Union Army at Petersburg, Richmond, and Bermuda Hundred. Following the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe from his capture in May, 1865 until his release two years later. Over time, Fort Monroe continued to be improved with the latest in coastal defenses while it also served as the training center for coastal artillery. During the Endicott Period of Coastal Forts which began in 1890, a series of 12 detached batteries were constructed up the coast from Fort Monroe that mounted disappearing cannons and mortar batteries. During both world wars, Fort Monroe along with neighboring Fort Wool and Fort Story continued to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads. Since World War II, Fort Monroe was the home of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command until it was decommissioned in 2005. It became a National Monument in 2011, making it one of the newest additions to the National Park System.
1) Since Fort Monroe is a relatively new National Monument (2011) it is still a “work in progress.” Except for the Casement Museum, and the outer walls, there is not much that can be seen of the fort. Most of the housing within the fort are private residences and I don’t know if there are plans to continue this into the future. There is no formal Visitor Center at the fort and parking is limited around the Casement Museum.
2) Your first impression of Fort Monroe is it’s sheer size. Simply stating it is the largest stone fort ever built in the US, does not adequately capture its size. Since it is totally surrounded by a water moat, there are only three entrances (Sally Ports) into the fort. Once you drive inside the fort (yes you actually drive into the fort) you realize that it is a small town. With a circumference of over a mile around the walls of the fort it is big enough to contain all the other coastal forts we have seen.
3) The Casement Museum is VERY well done. It is called that because the Museum is inside the casements of the fort on the south side. The Museum obviously predates the National Monument designation and shows a lot of TLC. They have made extensive use of mannequins throughout the museum to visually tell the historical story of the fort. The museum takes you chronologically through the history including the cell where President Davis was imprisoned for 3 months in 1865 and how the casements were used as living quarters for officers with period furniture and wall paneling. It is very well done and alone takes a couple of hours to fully appreciate.
4) We took a walk around the top of the fort taking multiple pictures of the view and old cannon emplacements. I hope the NPS invests in some interpretive signs that would provide information on the different gun emplacements and other structures you can see along the wall.
5) The most surprising feature along the fort walls were the multitude of pet graves. All around the wall has been used since the 1930s as a pet cemetery for the officers living within the fort.
6) There are a couple of historic buildings within the fort that are not currently open to the public. Again I assume they will be at some point in the future. These include the commanders house, known as Quarters No 1, Building #50 that was the quarters and office space for engineers, and Building #17, which were Lee’s Quarters when he was stationed at Fort Monroe from 1831-34.
7) The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was built in 1802 as a British observation post and is the oldest operating lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay.
8) While not all of the Endicott system of Batteries are within the park, you can see the remains of Batteries Irwin, Parrot, DeRussy, Church, Anderson, and Ruggles. None of these batteries are accessible by the public and in bad states of repair. I hope there are plans to fix up at least one of them so visitors can bet a better understanding of the last system of coastal defenses.