Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fort Monroe, Virginia - "Freedom's Fortress"

Martha and I visited Ft. Monroe yesterday. Ft. Monroe National Monument is a decommissioned military installation located in Hampton, Virginia at old Ft. Comfort which is at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula.

We took a ninety minute walking tour of the Fort and learned a lot from our visit.

Credit Virginia Places and Virginia Parks and Tourism

Source: Library of Congress, The Mayflower at Old Point Comfort, VA (c.1907)

A History Lesson 

In 1607, the English colonists who later founded Jamestown discovered the point of land that is known today as Old Point Comfort. On April 29, 1607, English colonist George Percy wrote, “rowed over to a point of land where we found a channel and sounded six, eight, ten or twelve fathoms, which put us in good comfort. Therefore we named that point of land Cape Comfort.” The following year while trading with the Kecoughtan Indians, John Smith studied Cape Comfort and considered this “little Isle fit for a castle.” Likely taking Smith’s advice, Cape Comfort was fortified the following year in 1609 with Fort Algernon.

While exploring the Chesapeake Bay region, the Colonists named many rivers, towns and geographic locations. New Point Comfort, in present day Matthews County, Virginia was named and Cape Comfort became Old Point Comfort, the name it is known by to this day. During the winter of 1612 Fort Algernon accidently burned and was completely destroyed. Several attempts were made to erect a permanent fortification at Old Point Comfort but they were built inadequately and only maintained when there was an immediate threat to the Colony.

The first Africans that were brought to the North American colonies arrived through Hampton Roads at Old Point Comfort in 1619. Colonist John Rolfe noted in his diary that in August 1619, twenty plus Africans arrived at Point Comfort on the ship White Lion. Rolfe did not explicitly state where the Africans originated, but recent scholarship suggests that these Africans may have been from the Portuguese colony of Angola in West Central Africa. The Africans that arrived at Old Point Comfort were sold for food and supplies.

In 1730, Fort George was constructed to be a permanent fortification at Old Point Comfort. The masonry fort was destroyed however, on October 19, 1749 by a powerful hurricane. With the destruction of Fort George, Old Point Comfort was once again unfortified and the entire Chesapeake Bay was vulnerable to attack.

The War of 1812 and the Construction of Fort Monroe

In 1813 during the War of 1812, Old Point Comfort and the 1802 Old Fort Comfort Lighthouse became an observation post when it temporarily fell into British hands. As a result of the British invasion and specifically following the burning of Washington, DC Fort Monroe was constructed as part of a coastal defense strategy developed by the U.S. Army. Named for James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, Fort Monroe’s construction began in 1819 and was completed in 1836. As a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe from 1831-1834 and directed the final phase of construction. From Fort Monroe, Lee for a time oversaw construction at future Fort Wool as well. The largest stone fort ever built in America cost nearly two million dollars to construct, covered 63 acres of land, and took over 15 years to complete.

The Civil War and Old Fort Monroe

From 1861-1865, most of Virginia became part of the Confederate States of America; however Fort Monroe remained a Union stronghold throughout the war. During that time, the fort became the birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement when 3 enslaved men escaped the Confederate Army at Sewells Point and fled in a small boat to Fort Monroe. Union commander General Benjamin Butler refused to return the slaves calling them “contraband of war.” General Butler’s contraband policies led to the Emancipation Proclamation and earned Fort Monroe the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress” or the “Freedom Fort.”

President Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Monroe and spent 4 nights in Quarters 1 and the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia fought their epic battle off the shores in Hampton Roads well within view of the Fort. Following the war, former Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis was incarcerated at Fort Monroe in Casemate 22, currently part of the Casemate Museum.

Historical Facts

  • The Fort was also home to Lt. Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary Custis Lee. During his time at the Fort he was responsible for large engineering projects during the Forts construction.
  • The Lincoln Gun resides at the Fort. It was cast in 1862 and was the first fifteen inch Rodman gun. It was the most effective gun made to date.

  • The Algernourne Oak resides behind the first quarters built at the Fort. It's named named for the first English fort (Algernourne) built on the site in 1609. The Oak is over 400 years old and still thrives.
  • Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was constructed in 1802 and was designed by Elzy Burroughs, a native Virginian. It is the oldest continually active lighthouse along the Chesapeake Bay and is maintained by the US Coast Guard.
First Africans in Virginia

On May 23, 1861, three enslaved Virginians named Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend fled from their master, a Confederate colonel who had put them to work building rebel fortifications, and sought protection at the Union-held citadel. When their owner asked for the return of his “property” under fugitive-slave laws, Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler declared the three men “contraband of war,” classifying them as captured goods being used for military purposes by the enemy and thus subject to legitimate seizure. 

Within days, dozens and then hundreds more African Americans came for safe harbor within what they soon began calling “Freedom’s Fortress,” and Butler’s decision was soon ratified as official policy by Congress and the Lincoln administration. Soon, these refugees, known as “contrabands,” were contributing to the Union cause in myriad ways, sometimes even joining the federal troops in battle. Before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect a year and a half later, tens or even hundreds of thousands of fugitives had escaped bondage throughout the South, and even many conservative whites had come to accept that slavery’s days were numbered.

The Place Where both Liberty and Slavery were Born

Fort Monroe is America’s own Cape Coast Castle or GorĂ©e Island. Indeed, it is more than that, for here liberty, as well as slavery, began. A historic place of epic proportions.

Repurposing of the Historic Fort Monroe

After the Fort was decommissioned in 2011 the Fort Monroe Authority was formed for the purpose of utilizing the buildings and repurposing their use. It is now a thriving and beautiful community complete with businesses and all of the creature comforts that one expects in a residential setting.

The Lookout Tower

The first quarters built on the Fort. It is undergoing renovation at this time

One of the remaining gun batteries


The Moat

The Moats in 1905 - Credit Ft. Monroe Authority

The Aircraft Carrier USS George Washington at Norfolk Ship Yard for midlife refueling and critical updates and refitment's

We enjoyed our visit to the decommissioned fort. It is admirable that the Ft. Monroe Authority has retasked and repurposed the Fort into a beautiful residential setting. If you get near by all means visit this history rich facility.  

Stay tuned. Martha and I leave for Cape Hatteras Island National Seashore in the morning.  

1 comment:

  1. very interesting history-lots of nice pictures...we are full time for one year now...first winter in Florida (4 months) I was feeling unsettled...felt like we weren't doing enough stuff...my husband told me something very useful...Honey, we live here for now...don't have to do everything in one week...we approach every longer stay (a month or more) as "we live here now"...very helpful


Comments are encouraged. Please let us know how we are doing.

Our most recent blog

"Stick Em Up" - Old Tucson Studio and Theme Park

High Chapparral Ranch Set Admittedly I'm old. How old? Let's just say I hold the patent on dirt. I grew up in the 50's whe...