Discriminating Explorer: Fort Monroe National Monument—Hub Of A Classic Historic Harbor Tour

The Casemate Museum anchors the Fort Monroe experience just as Fort Monroe anchors the experience of nearby Tidewater cities. It's all one big nationally significant coastal destination if military and naval history and Chesapeake Bay maritime culture are of interest. Photo by Randy Johnson.

“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.

Casemate Museum

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.

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The architecture of the fort's casemates is a dramatic backdrop to the stellar interpretation of the Casemate Museum's exhibits. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Great Exhibits

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.

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Jefferson Davis had it rough during his first four months as a prisoner in this very casemate at Fort Monroe. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Jefferson Davis

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.

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From the fort's walls, Chesapeake Bay landmarks surround. Flag-flying Fort Wool lies offshore, also a focus for Robert E. Lee when he was an engineer helping build Fort Monroe. Photo by Randy Johnson.

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).

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Walk the Walls! You can stroll the grassy top of the fortifications. It's easy to see why escaped slaves sought refuge here. Welcomed to safety as "contraband of war," the former slaves called Monroe "Freedom's Fortress." Photo by Randy Johnson.

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.)

Hampton

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

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.

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Nauticus flanks Norfolk's bustling waterfront. Between Norfolk and Portsmouth, it's often easy to see tall ships in port. Photo by Randy Johnson.

Norfolk

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.

Portsmouth

Almost opposite Norfolk’s attractions, Portsmouth’s vibrant waterfront includes the sister attrctions Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum and the Lightship Portsmouth Museum.

Jamestown/Yorktown

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.

Comments

Thanks for this fine article showing why Fort Monroe is a wonderful place to visit. Great stuff. But if I may, I'd like to comment briefly on two dimensions that you've touched on only very slightly.

One is the main historical significance of Fort Monroe, which is many orders of magnitude more important in world history than, say, the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis or the presence of Edgar Allan Poe, interesting though those are. In a profile last year (see the very end at http://chronicle.com/article/U-of-Richmond-Chief-Stirs/127879/), the Civil War historian Edward L. Ayers was quoted calling Fort Monroe the site of "the greatest moment in American history." He was referring to the events set in motion on May 23, 1861 (not May 24!) by Black Americans -- the brave, enterprising self-emancipators at the center of the story that Adam Goodheart told in the New York Times last year, "How Slavery Really Ended in America" (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/magazine/mag-03CivilWar-t.html). If you believe that America is exceptional not because we're better than others, but because our country was the first on the planet to be built on ideas, you'll like this history story. The late Gerri Hollins was far and away the originator and leader of efforts to get the story its due recognition. But over the years, I was privileged to follow her in one respect: writing in various newspapers, from the Washington Post to Richmond to Tidewater, about why this story affects how the nation should decide Fort Monroe's post-Army future. I hope National Parks Traveler invites me to submit an article about that.

And that leads to the second dimension that I'm grateful for the chance to mention here. If Fort Monroe is indeed the site of the greatest moment in American history, and if it is the place where America finally began at least trying to live up to its stated creed, then this assertion is valid: With the unwise, credulous complicity of too many in the preservation and national parks support communities, and thanks also to an astonishing lack of skepticism at the Washington Post and elsewhere in journalism, Virginia's overdevelopment-obsessed leaders are getting away, at this very moment, with cementing an American cultural disaster at Fort Monroe.

The former Army post, including the moated stone citadel that takes up only part of that historic landscape, occupies land that was almost all designated a national historic landmark a half-century ago. Yet Virginia's leaders have engineered a new national monument there with a footprint that means the complete obliteration of the indispensable Chesapeake Bay sense of place. These leaders' apologists tell a tooth-fairy version of the seven years of cynicism and lack of vision that have led to the present endangerment of this national treasure, but the illustration at http://www.fortmonroenationalpark.org/images/Please_unify_split_national_monument.gif shows the actual story: the most important viewshed land in this historic landscape, colored red in the illustration, was omitted from what is therefore only a fake national monument.

It is argued by newcomers to the controversy that oh, well, national parks grow over time. But that doesn't happen when some of the most expensive waterfront land on any American coast gets privatized. When the Chesapeake bayfront heart of Fort Monroe is privatized and lost, as now seems nearly inevitable unless national media intervene, it won't be a mere matter of finding a way to buy some more forest land beside a western national park. This unwisely sacrificed urban waterfront land will be gone forever.

Virginia's leaders should, but probably will not, follow through on their plain national civic stewardship duty, which is to get the split national monument fixed by having its huge, gaping omission of crucial land incorporated in a national monument/park.

Readers might want to consult my long comment appended to "Fort Monroe: A New National Monument Has A Rich Past And A Potentially Complex Future," which appeared last week in NPT at http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2012/08/fort-monroe-new-national-monument-has-rich-past-and-potentially-complex-future10316 .

Thanks. Steven T. Corneliussen,

Thanks for your comments Steven. National Parks Traveler inevitably covers park topics that "overview" parks, monuments, etc. and their attractions—and only nod at debates about them. In the case of this article, and my previous piece which you hotlink to (which covers other historical elements "left out" here, including the New York Times article you cite above), we link to deeper resources about the management/boundary debate in an effort to provide context for the "visitor" focus we take here. There will be ongoing coverage of the development issues and you can be sure that the red hot political differences perceived between "priceless urban shoreline" and "some Army base in a corn field" will get significant further attention from The Traveler. For now, be assured that our approach to articles on FOMR is not intended to either embrace or deface partisans on either side. It never ceases to amaze me that whether The Traveler mentions/covers/includes anything from mountain bikes to motorized beach access in a story—the most passionate people at either pole often seem to feel we're part of a media conspiracy against them. I can assure you this article has one aim—to convey just how wonderful a visit to this national monument, and the larger area, can be.

I hear you, Randy. I have a sense of what it's like to get bombarded from the extremes when you're just trying to report a story. Fair enough on that. So I'm glad that when you put quotation marks on "left out," you couldn't be quoting me, for I only wrote, "Thanks for this fine article showing why Fort Monroe is a wonderful place to visit. Great stuff. But if I may, I'd like to comment briefly on two dimensions that you've touched on only very slightly."

But let me add that I see no media conspiracy, and have not used that word. What I do see is a lack of Journalism 101 skepticism. Please have a look for yourself at the Washington Post's minimal, press-release-parroting coverage of this story. The Post and other media have inadvertently advertised the Big Lie that Fort Monroe is a national monument, when in fact it is mainly only the parts that were never threatened that have been so designated.

That Big Lie -- recently promoted by no less than the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as I wrote in last week's comment -- aids the cause of those who want the public to think that post-Army Fort Monroe is already OK.

But in fact even Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, with its strategy of smiley-faced ingratiation with the powers that be, now publicly admits that Fort Monroe will be forever "diminished" without unification of what CFMNP does not admit is a split, fake national monument. CFMNP has also been publicly expressing frustration with disingenuousness by Sasaki Associates, the internationally prominent planning consultants who are now risking their reputation by pressing far more for a Fort Monroe biz-as-usual commercial village than for Fort Monroe as a national treasure.

When any publication presents the falsehood that Fort Monroe is a national monument, it is taking the side of Virginia's irresponsible leaders and their apologists. But I do not mean to launch recriminations against NPT, which is a fine publication and a civic servant. It's just that journalistic skepticism matters, and Fort Monroe is about to be lost.

Will you be reporting on the controversy, and will you consult not just the favored few politically correct Virginia voices, but the actual majority of people deeply involved? CFMNP is only a self-apponted, public-excluding handful. Most active stakeholders in this debate agree with the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot that unless everybody aggressively demands unification of the split national monument, Fort Monroe will remain degraded. (Please challenge me on my claim about what most active stakeholders think.)

Thanks for this chance to reply.

Steven, yes I believe I can assure you that as the process for FOMR moves forward we'll be undertaking a suitably expansive overview of the issues and the folks who are pushing for various outcomes. We always try to be as inclusive as journalistic professionalism and our mission of advocating for parks dictate. I won't challenge you on anything you say above—we strive to provide a valuable forum for public discourse. The Traveler hasn't yet published one of our Traveler's View editorials taking a position on the issues. We'll certainly do further in-depth research before covering the debate in depth. Thanks again.

At Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park (CFMNP) we have always advocated that the Wherry Quarter be given every protection possible and become part of a Fort Monroe National Monument (FMNM) or Park. Certainly our advocacy against development was a major factor in classifying the future of this area as “yet to be determined” for so long. National Park Service (NPS) resistance to accepting so many buildings into the park system and the desire of the Fort Monroe Authority (FMA) to generate income from these buildings worked against an early inclusion in the national monument. Things have changed with the decision to demolish all of the Wherry Apartments due to their poor condition. Proposals have been made for development in this area. The waterfront area that will be opened up should never be built upon again. For more on our stand on the Wherry Quarter, please go to [/b]http://FortMonroeCitizens.org[/b][/b]

Hampton City Council passed a resolution on August 8 that, while not perfect, effectively opposes residential development in the Wherry Quarter. This resolution was far from the position of the City of Hampton in July 2006 when residential development was proposed for all of the Wherry Quarter and extending northeast into the (now Fort Monroe National Monument) Walker Field and Bay Breeze areas.[/b]

Other groups and individuals are free to follow their own strategies toward the goal of a unified FMNM that includes the Wherry Quarter and South Waterfront area. We don’t see any advantage in competing with our fellow advocates for Fort Monroe. [/b]

We at CFMNP characterize ourselves as a group of volunteers who have never excluded anyone from involvement in the process of helping to plan the future of Fort Monroe. Citizens do not need to be a member of CFMNP to attend public meetings and make comments. We do not say we are the only advocacy group; we just happen to be the one group that has consistently attended the meetings and lobbied public officials and educated the public, to whatever extent is possible considering our limited resources, over the now more than six year planning period. Our strategy has not been to shame but to convince officials of the wisdom of a greater Fort Monroe National Park or Monument. The evidence of the effectiveness of our strategy is the progress that has been made during the course of the past six years and especially since the summer of 2011. We have worked to include the involvement of several national advocacy organizations with hundreds of thousands of members and that has provided an important boost in our efforts, which led to the creation of Fort Monroe National Monument on November 1, 2011. Our work is not done and we encourage all concerned citizens to become involved in making Fort Monroe the grand public place that it should be.[/b][/b]

Thanks for your interest and your articles on Fort Monroe.[/b]

Adrian Whitcomb, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park[/b]

[/b]http://fortmonroecitizens.org/ [/b]FortMonroeCitizens@yahoo.com[/b]