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Discriminating Explorer: Fort Monroe National Monument—Hub Of A Classic Historic Harbor Tour
“Freedom’s Fortress,” the Fort Monroe National Monument, is the perfect place to start a visit to one of the nation’s most historic harbors. The massive Chesapeake Bay and the historic towns that cluster at its mouth are a premier destination for history buffs and water enthusiasts. You won’t believe the diversity of resources that complement Fort Monroe.
Start with the fort. Cross the moat, pierce the walls and just inside, the Casemate Museum (visit their popular Facebook page) is an insightful tribute to one of the nation’s most historic and scenic shoreside national monuments (contribute to the Casemate Museum Foundation). Check out the Old Cistern on the way in, shown on a map of the fort in 1830s. There was never drinkable water at the fort, despite a well drilled to nearly 1,000 feet. The entire garrison depended on recycled rain water and whatever could be brought in from the mainland.
Plan plenty of time for this extensive, interesting bunker of insight. Step into the cavernous cool where one exhibit defines a casemate as “a vaulted, bombproof room of masonry construction used as a firing position for a cannon.” Part of the appeal is wandering the geometrically complex interiors of the casemate structure (where windows in the walls show construction details).
If you find castles fascinating, either traveling outside the United States or just in theory, Fort Monroe is a great chance to delve into their defensive architecture. One exhibit recounts the various features that defy the fort’s enemies, among them parapets, bastions, revetments and more.
Edgar Allan Poe
You’ll round one corner to find a bearded Edgar Allan Poe (who enlisted as Edgar A. Perry) staring out a window, pen in hand.
Poe served about 4 months with the 1st Regimental Artillery at Fort Monroe in early 1829, but got out of the military by arranging to pay another man to serve his enlistment (a casemate exhibit says Poe never paid him). Just six months after leaving, a collection of Poe’s poetry was published. Oddly, he subsequently got an appointment to West Point but left the military for good when the school charged him with “gross neglect of duty...”
No doubt the dungeon-like interiors of this fort fueled Poe’s dark fantasies for years.
After the capture of Jefferson Davis in Georgia, one of the casemates that make up the museum was used to incarcerate the President of the former Confederate States of America.
Davis lived in this cell from May 22-October 2, 1865. Just walk into the air-conditioned cool of the museum from a muggy, 95-degree summer day on this coast to imagine the damp, steamy suffering endured by Davis (or anyone stationed here). Davis indeed suffered.
A plaque outside the casemate, erected in 1939 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, memorializes US Army doctor John Craven whose “humanity, intelligent companionship, and professional skill lightened the monotony, the loneliness and the physical suffering of Jefferson Davis...” Craven was relieved of duty for treating Davis so humanely. Davis gave him a pipe, on display in the museum, as a token of thanks. When Craven published his memoir of Davis' treatment, outrage from North and South got Davis released—and Craven’s commander fired.
In October 1865, Davis was moved to the Fort’s Carroll Hall where he stayed until May 1867 when he made bail and was subsequently never tried.
A Museum With a Story Worth Telling
There’s much more to the museum than Poe and Davis. This facility has it’s own story to tell—which happens to start with Jefferson Davis’ cell.
In 1949, local physician and history buff Dr. Chester Bradley made a presentation to a local civic group and suggested that the casemate at Fort Monroe that held Jefferson Davis should be on public display. The comment made the local paper’s editorial page, and Colonel Paul Goode, deputy commander at the base, read it and met with Bradley.
The museum was dedicated on June 1, 1951—long before federal policies even managed museums on military bases. The Confederate president’s great grandson Jefferson Hayes-Davis dedicated the facility. In 1952 the museum’s stunning models of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia were dedicated (courtesy of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company). Descendants of the Virginia’s designer were on hand.
Thus started a great museum destined to be a main attraction in one of the newest units of the National Park Service. The Casemate Museum tracks the military role of the fort in fascinating detail, but save some time for the museum’s shop.
The Walking Tour
Pick up the shop’s walking tour brochure and walk, drive (or better yet, bicycle) the 14 stops to really be enlightened.
Lee’s Quarters are just across the street. It’s worth a climb up to Flagstaff Bastion to gaze out at Fort Wool and Hampton Roads.
The 1858 Chapel of the Centurion is next, with the Lincoln Gun on a side street, but climb up to the walls again at, believe it or not—Jefferson Davis Memorial Park! Here the view includes the Old Point Comfort lighthouse, which you’ll get closer to later. This is the fort’s oldest structure, and the oldest lighthouse in the Chesapeake, in continuous operation since 1802 and still run by the Coast Guard).
Moving on, the artfully decrepit Quarters One where lincoln stayed is now occupied by the Fort Monroe Authority (see our story on the fort's history that touches on future management issues). There are a few other batteries, one inside and one outside the walls, then the tour moves along the shore past access to a beautiful beach. These sandy spots outside the national monument are great places to jump into the Bay. Beaches run north, back into national moument acreage and on to its farthest boundary. Those are among the recreational and scenic resources that lead proponents of the monument to urge that the fort and northern area of the monument be unified with designation of the so-called Wherry Quarter just north of the moat.
Next, check out the lighthouse and Engineer’s Wharf (free fishing-saltwater license required). You can't miss the massive former hotel Chamberlin, now converted into a retirement community (one kind of “reuse” that is projected to commercialize structures and land outside the walled fort not currently designated as national monument).
In the late 1840s, not long before his death, Poe returned to read his poetry to guests at the Hygeia Hotel, located where The Chamberlin is stands now.
There are a few additional sights on the tour outside the walls—Saint Mary’s Church and the Fort Monroe Arsenal—but I capped off my afternoon visit to the fort at The Chamberlin. This landmark's long popular restaurant is still open to the public. I chose a table with a great water view and had dinner. As I looked out over the harbor, I raised a toast to Edgar Allan Poe.
Sidebar/ The Area’s Options
Fort Monroe (whether you're referring to just the fort or the entire national monument) is just the start. Military history—and an assortment of massive modern military might—are on display in Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and the Virginia Beach area. The fort’s story predates the beginning of the country. An amazing assortment of maritime attractions take that to the present day and make this region a nationally significant coastal travel destination. Many of these museums offer free admission for active duty military personnel and their families. (For fans of Poe, keep in mind one of the country's best museums of his life is as close as Richmond.)
Just across the bridge from the fort is the city of Hampton. The Virginia Air & Space Museum, the visitor center for the nearby Nasa Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, occupies the scenic waterside heart of the city. With “Freedom’s Fortress” so close, it’s appropriate that Hampton University is one of the nation's preeminent “historically black colleges.” Its rich history started as an outgrowth of the very first educational efforts aimed at former slaves seeking shelter at Fort Monroe.
Newport News is adjacent to Hampton and home to the world-class Mariner’s Museum. Its extensive exhibits include the remains of the USS Monitor that battled the CSS Virginia in sight of Fort Monroe, one of the great collections of global small craft, and a focus on the maritime culture and history of the Chesapeake Bay.
Downtown Norfolk’s waterside district has a wealth of attractions. Nauticus is a major museum space dedicated to all things maritime, that includes the battleship USS Wisconsin (which just fronted for Mitt Romney's announcement of a vice presidential running mate) and the schooner Virginia, both open for tours. There’s also the official museum of the US Navy, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
Not far away from Fort Monroe and its neighboring cities, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, the Yorktown Victory Center, and Yorktown National Military Park are all linked by the Colonial Parkway.