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Missing From the System? Fort Monroe, Preserving Civil War History
Editor's note: Across the country, there are many spectacular landscapes that would fit appropriately within the National Park System. This article, the latest in an occasional series that looks at some of these places, describes Fort Monroe in suburban Virginia and explains why it would make a strong addition to the park system. This article was written by Scott Butler and Mark Perreault, board members with Create Fort Monroe National Park. To stay abreast of efforts to point out landscapes deserving of inclusion in the National Park System, along with reading the Traveler, check out People United For Parks.
Come September 2011, Old Point Comfort, Virginia, the site of Fort Monroe, will pass from control of the U.S. Army into civilian hands. This transition represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a magnificent national park, one that both celebrates America’s past and protects a beautiful coastal landscape fronting the Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads.
Old Point Comfort is a 570-acre barrier spit with a rich history. Several forts were built on it during the colonial period, the first of these in 1609 at the urging of Captain John Smith. In response to the British incursions of the War of 1812, the U.S. Army constructed a moated stone fortress there that is the largest such citadel in the nation. This formidable structure remained a Union stronghold throughout the Civil War, preventing Confederate use of the Hampton Roads harbor and anchoring several Union assaults. And from its inception it was associated with a number of iconic Americans, including Robert E. Lee, who supervised work on the fortress as a young lieutenant; Edgar Allan Poe, who was a soldier there; Abraham Lincoln, who paid a war-time visit and personally ordered the attack on Norfolk; Jefferson Davis, who was incarcerated there for two years, and; Harriet Tubman, who nursed wounded soldiers there in 1865.
But perhaps Old Point Comfort’s most important claim on our attention is its connection to slavery. It is the place, says historian Robert Engs, where American slavery began to die. Shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union, three young African-American men -- Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory -- rowed a skiff across the dark waters of Hampton Roads to Fort Monroe. They intended to ask for sanctuary, but whether it would be granted, and what it would mean for them if it were, they couldn’t know.
The Union had not yet established a policy for dealing with escaped slaves, some of whom had been returned under the Fugitive Slave Act. As it happened, the three men not only gained their liberty, but also triggered a series of events that helped to create a more perfect union. The commander of Fort Monroe, General Benjamin Butler, granted them sanctuary as “contraband of war.” Learning somehow of this outcome, thousands seized the chance at freedom and poured into Fort Monroe and Confederate-burned Hampton. Gen. Butler’s “contraband” rationale became the mechanism, through the Confiscation Act, for subtracting labor from the Southern war effort and adding it to the Northern effort. And the crucial value of former slaves both in military support services and in uniform expanded the Union’s purpose from preserving the nation to ending slavery.
Now preface this astonishing story with two related episodes: The first African captives introduced into the English coastal colonies either stopped or disembarked at Old Point Comfort in 1619, and two centuries later slave labor contributed to the building of fortress Monroe. When you put the three narratives together, it becomes apparent that the history of Old Point Comfort encapsulates the entire history of American slavery.
A broad view of the Point’s history also reveals something else. The English and then the Americans chose this little peninsula as the logical place for guarding the mouth of the James River, which is to say it chose them. Its strategic significance makes it no less worthy of preservation than the historic structures on it. But even setting that perspective aside, it is blessed with natural resources worth preserving in themselves: hundreds of ancient live oaks, one of which dates back to the founding of Jamestown, beaches with natural dunes, marshes, a migratory stopover, and wonderful views of the Chesapeake Bay and the deep, narrow channel that brings ships so close to shore.
If the area north of the fortress is left largely undeveloped, the two-mile seawall esplanade and the dune beach could provide vistas for a large recreational space with walking trails, picnic facilities, and a nature center to educate visitors about the Chesapeake Bay's present condition and geologic past, the sensitive 85-acres of wetlands at the northern end, and the numerous species of birds that use them. There are also opportunities, either on the Bay side or the shallow-water inlet side, for boating, swimming,kayaking, and rowing.
Will civilian control limit public access to Old Point Comfort and diminish its natural and historic resources? This is less likely now than it was in 2005, when the city of Hampton set itself up as the reuse authority and began drafting plans for a massive real-estate development. A civic group called Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park quickly formed to counter these plans with the concept of a self-sustaining, hybrid federal trust/national park in the spirit of San Francisco’s Presidio, a former coastal fort. CFMNP’s actions and the public’s clear preference for a national park led the Virginia governor to assert the state’s reversionary rights to the property and replace the Hampton authority with a state board (though one in which Hampton still had considerable influence). The new authority created a higher vision of a state-managed Fort Monroe that would preserve its resources partly through the adaptive reuse and leasing of existing buildings. In November 2009, the authority also decided to seek a national park unit that would encompass at a minimum the 63-acre fortress and several other structures.
But these commendable efforts face challenges. There is of course the need to gain congressional approval for the national park unit. Also, the state board can expect very little money from the state for the all-important transition to a civilian entity. It will have to find another source for the $96 million needed to upgrade infrastructure (one of its reasons for wanting a national park unit is to attract federal support). If it doesn’t succeed, it might choose to overdevelop areas that would better serve visitors as historic viewsheds and recreational space -- a danger compounded by the fact that the board has never explicitly rejected development for development’s sake. Thus far it has stressed the idea of a “village” rather than a grand public place.
Old Point Comfort has much to offer as a multi-faceted, easily accessible addition to the National Park System. Its history can illuminate the still-evolving story of American freedom, and its natural delights can invigorate and restore the human spirit. With a robust national park unit, ideally in a Presidio-like arrangement and somewhat less ideally in a well-designed NPS/state partnership, there is a good chance its enormous potential will be realized.