Fort Monroe: A New National Monument Has A Rich Past And A Potentially Complex Future
There are those for whom forts of any kind do not a national park experience make.
For them perhaps, a new unit of the park system, Fort Monroe, Virginia, is now a national monument—the largest stone and masonry fort in the United States, no less. There are dozens of smaller such forts strewn around our coasts in national parks, seashores, lakeshores, state parks—erected in separate waves of 1800s effort to defend the early United States.
This fort, however, embodies much more than just a historical look back at the “coastal fort era.” Militarily, Fort Monroe reaches back to the 17th century and moves from there forward to the 21st century—as in last year.
On this same site was the very first defensive embrasure erected by English settlers in the New World. This is such a perfectly strategic site that the folks at Jamestown sailed over to fortify it in 1609. Fort Monroe was also an active Army base from 1819 until 2011, which makes it the longest serving military installation in our history. More than that, the range of military technology arrayed at this fort traces the active defenses of the United States back from way before the Civil War to well after WW II—a pretty broad span of relevance.
And that’s the “boring stuff,” albeit, a list of distinctions that delivers a glimmer of just how pivotal this place is. All of the above and more is why the surrounding, heavily military and tourism dependent communities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach, are talking about the future of this new 325-acre national monument. More accurately, the talk is largely centered on the equally historic 240 undesignated acres of the former base that could be privatized and developed with unknown impacts on this jewel in the rough.
No one living today can imagine the overpowering wilderness surrounding 17th century Jamestown. Factor in Indians, the Spanish and Dutch, and it’s easy to understand why settlers under John Ratcliffe came back to Old Point Comfort to build Fort Algernourne (or Algernon) in 1609. The site oversees the entire entrance to Chesapeake Bay, one of the largest harbors in the world. It also dominates the James River channel to Jamestown—so it was perfect as a first line of defense for the colony.
John Smith had chosen the site and unknowingly foretold the future by calling it “a little isle fit for a castle.”
By 1614, that early fort was a stockade that housed 50 people and seven cannons. The fort didn't defuse friction with the Indians. In 1610, the colonists “expropriated” a fertile farming area from the local Kecoughtan Indians, starting an era of bad blood that killed a quarter of the colonists in a 1622 Indian assault. The fort burned to the ground in 1612, was rebuilt, and then rebuilt again in 1632 as Old Point Comfort Fort. It was discontinued in 1667 and twice within the folowing six years Dutch warships burned English vessels near Jamestown.
Another fortified site came to Old Point Comfort in 1727—Fort George—a formidable defense with masonry walls separated by 16 feet of sand. But that entire structure washed away in a 1749 hurricane leaving the point empty till Fort Monroe rose 70 years later.
During the American Revolution, Lord Cornwallis thought the point was “poorly situated for defense,” so he landed at Yorktown—where he was surrounded and soon surrendered.
Today, as you wander among the gnarled live-oaks that dot the 63 acres enclosed by the monumental walls and moat of Fort Monroe, be sure to stand beneath the rustling leaves of the Algernourne Oak. At 500 years old, it was very likely growing when the blunderbuss was being carried by troops here in the early 1600s.
It was also growing when the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia echoed offshore, ending the age of wooden warships. And it still grows as nuclear subs sail by—albeit with cables supporting its massive limbs.
Phases of Construction
In 1794, a “First System” of forts was launched in the young United States. Among those was Baltimore’s Fort McHenry that survived British bombardment in the War of 1812. Another phase of forts was started that completed more than 60 forts and batteries by the start of the war.
The current fort got its start in 1817 after the War of 1812. The U.S. Senate resolved to survey the entire maritime defenses of the country and build a comprehensive system of forts. “Fortress Monroe” took 15 years to build, starting in 1819. Robert E. Lee was an assistant engineer at the fort from 1831 to 1834, and oversaw major projects including work on the ramparts, completion of the moat and water battery (away from the main walls, on the water’s edge, that was mostly removed in 1907).
Lee was among those most promising early graduates of the fledgling U.S. Military Academy who were usually assigned to the Army’s prestigious Corps of Engineers. Lee’s wife joined him during his assignment, and they had their first child at the fort.
Lee’s quarters are just across the street from the fort's great Casemate Museum (see this article for a tour of the museum and fort). The museum occupies a number of casemates—defined as, “A vaulted, bombproof room of masonry construction used as a firing position for a cannon.” (Check out the Museum's Facebook page.)
Lee also worked on what’s now called Fort Wool, a flag-flying smaller fortress not far offshore from Fort Monroe that’s a Hampton city park. That, too, has a fascinating history. It was the Presidential retreat of Andrew Jackson and John Tyler, and served as a prison camp during the Civil War. Late in the 19th century, the Army briefly detained chief Black Hawk on the manmade island.
The rich military history of the fort actually includes a pivotal incident in the cultural history of the United States.
In 1861, three escaped slaves owned by Confederate Colonel Charles Mallory sought refuge in the fort.
When the Confederates demanded the runaways be returned under the Fugitive Slave Act, Fort Monroe’s commander, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, refused to hand then back. Calling them “contraband of war,” Butler’s “Fort Monroe Doctrine” set the stage for the later Emancipation Proclamation. It also precipitated a large settlement of former slaves who called their new home “Freedom’s Fortress.”
In the absolute peak of irony, Butler’s decision was made on the same site where in 1619, the first Africans arrived in the British settled New World, effectively starting slavery.
Butler’s action is one of the great stories of the war. He brought a new source of manpower into play for the Union, first for construction, then as combatants. Later in the war, the First and Second Regiments of U.S. Colored Cavalry and Battery B of U.S. Colored Light Artillery were raised from the refugee community surrounding the fort.
During the war, Fort Monroe was used as a base of operations for attacks at many locations along the coast and as a staging area for the 1862 Peninsula Campaign against Richmond. The fort was a military balloon camp for a time, and a flight there is credited with the first successful aerial gathering of military intelligence.
President Abraham Lincoln made a few trips to the fort, staying at one point in Quarters #1, the oldest structure inside the fort and still standing (though a bit disheveled, see photo at top). Built in 1819, it is also one of the nation’s longest-serving structures with a military pedigree.
Not far away, sits the “Lincoln Gun,” perched on a mount in the center of the fort. Cast in 1860, this is the first 15-Rodman cannon, named for Lincoln in 1862.
After the war, one of Fort Monroe’s casemates was a prison cell for Confederate President Jefferson Davis during a two-year stay at the fort. (For more, see our story on visiting Fort Monroe.)
Fort Monroe: Active in Defense
Fort Monroe was a military base for 192 years, longer than any other installation in U.S. history. That status wasn’t ceremonial, but based on an ongoing evolution of the fort’s very real role in coastal protection.
It was home to the Army’s Artillery School from 1824 to 1906 and then the base of the Coast Artillery School from 1907 to 1946. In 1917, the first submarine net in the United States was strung between Fort Monroe and Fort Wool.
During World War II, the fort was equipped with the latest coastal defense technology, from "3-inch rapid fire guns to 16-inch guns capable of firing a 2,000 pound projectile 25 miles. In addition, the Army controlled submarine barriers and underwater mine fields." In the 1970s, the Army moved its Training and Doctrine Command Division (which deals with attracting and training recruits) to the fort. It remained there until the base was closed September 15, 2011, under the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005.
The Future Looms
With Superintendent Kirsten Talken-Spaulding just appointed late last year, National Park Service management at Fort Monroe National Monument is transitioning through the “usual” start-up procedures.
But only 325 acres of the 565-acre sandy isle off the coast of Hampton, Virginia, is national monument acreage.
In the 1838 deed, Virginia stipulated that if the “United States should ever abandon the said lands and shoals,” it would revert to the state of Virginia. That reversion is under way, with the Fort Monroe Authority moving forward with plans to preserve and likely further develop the 240-acres of this seaside spit that are not national monument. The goal: historic preservation and commercial diversification of the area with a focus on environment sustainability and financial self-sufficiency.
Some locals fear that future, having wished President Obama had drawn a much bigger boundary around the national monument he created in 2011 with the use of the Antiquities Act. In fairness, until President Obama declared the national monument, there was doubt even that would happen.
The Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park lobbied for park status at Fort Monroe—and recently won awards for that effort from the National Parks Conservation Association and the Civil War Trust. They urge that the two separate parcels of national monument property (the fort itself and the northern beach area) be connected and that less of the land surrounding the fort be open to redevelopment schemes.
For now, the area’s extensive, paved waterside bike path, kid-friendly, enticing bayside beaches, and free saltwater fishing at Engineer’s Pier, are drawing fans. Any visitor would do well to consider making Fort Monroe a multi-activity, daylong experience (see our story on visiting the fort).
Former military recreational amenities, including the pool, beach and restaurant of the Paradise Ocean Club, are soliciting for members. There’s also the Bay Breeze Conference Center and restaurant offering event catering.
While the intensive public input and planning process for the private land part of the peninsula is under way—a process that promises to be lively—the new national monument is also starting its solicitation of public input for planning purposes.
All of that promises to draw a major surge of new visitors. Anyone touring the fort for the first time pretty readily realizes how special this area is and how carefully, and consensually, change should come. It’s pretty rare when one of the nation’s oldest and most pivotal military and cultural monuments gets a chance to hit the reset button on the future.
When those sites occupy a pristine, priceless piece of lightly developed coastline in a burgeoning urban area—the burden of balancing past and future is weighty, indeed.