Freedom’s Fortress: Visiting Fort Monroe National Monument
Of course it was the hottest day of the year, over 100°F, but I was not deterred. Newly single and determined in my National Parks pursuit, I scampered east, to Fort Monroe National Monument. I slathered on a thick coat of sunscreen that I immediately started sweating off, grabbed a bottle of water I’d later forget in the gift shop, threw my camera around my neck and I set off.
Virginia is chockfull of National Park units, many of them sites deeply entrenched in the history of both the state and the nation. And yet, I haven’t been to most of them. Or, if I have, it’s been most of my life since my last visit. I was seven the last time I went to Williamsburg. I grew up on the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park, but I’ve never done the park the justice it deserves.
So, having a free Sunday given that aforementioned newly single state, I scampered.
Fort Monroe is on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula, at Old Point Comfort. It was an active military post until 2011 when it was decommissioned. Less than two months later, President Obama signed a proclamation designating parts of the fort as a National Monument. As such, Fort Monroe is one of the nation’s newest National Parks.
While there were native inhabitants at Fort Monroe long before it was ever named Fort Monroe, the first Europeans arrived in 1609, and included such notables as Christopher Newport and John Smith, who you might know as the dude saved by Pocahontas. They built Fort Algernourne, for coastal defense, which was destroyed by fire in 1612.
In 1619, the first Africans arrived, on a Dutch ship named the White Lion. Their arrival marks the beginning of slavery in America, but these first Africans were probably more indentured servants than slaves.
There were a few other forts built at Old Point Comfort over time, one in 1632 and in 1728, but they didn’t survive. Hurricanes and fire kicked the ass of the earliest structures built on the point.
In 1819, President Monroe designed a network of coastal defenses that included 42 new forts, including Fort Monroe. Built from granite, Fort Monroe became the largest stone fort ever built in the United States. It’s built to hold around 400 cannons, in casemates, which are basically fortified gun positions. It’s star-shaped, with six sides and a tidal moat. When I was there, the moat was full of jellyfish. Apparently, jellyfish really like warm, shallow waters. Today, the moat averages around 4-5 feet during high tide, which means it’s basically paradise for jellyfishes.
Fast forward to 1861, when Virginia decided to join the Confederate States of America. President Lincoln reinforced Fort Monroe to try to keep it from falling into Confederate hands, which worked. It was held by Union forces throughout the Civil War.
In May of 1861, slave owners lent their slaves to the Confederate Army to help build and fortify Confederate strongholds. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was in charge of Fort Monroe at the time, having taken command just before Virginia seceded from the Union. In the early days of his command, three slaves stole a rowboat and made their way to Fort Monroe, hoping the Union forces would take them in. This was an exceptional feat for these three men. The waters are rough and challenging to navigate and yet these men, who probably didn’t know how to swim, did it in a rowboat. They were worried they would be shipped away from Virginia in support of the war effort. They had families and connections at home and they didn’t want to lose them. So they went to Fort Monroe, Virginia’s Union stronghold.
Butler met with them the morning after their arrival to hear their story. When their owner sent for his property, Butler declined. The slave owner balked, saying Butler simply must return his slaves because the Fugitive Slave Act said so. That Act, from 1850, was a compromise between free and slave states and required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters, even in free states.
Bulter wasn’t buying it though. He was basically like, fuck you, no. You don’t get to wave U.S. policy around when you have left the U.S. and besides, he reasoned, the slaves were being used as part of the war effort on the Confederate side. They are contraband of war and so no, fuckers, you can’t have them back, the end.
As word spread, more and more slaves fled to Fort Monroe and it earned the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress,” since any slave who made it there would be free. In the months and years that followed, thousands of slaves made their way to Fort Monroe. Eventually, the Army built the Great Contraband Camp in Hampton, Virginia, just outside the walls of Fort Monroe. Locals freaked out, packed their bags, burned the city to the ground and fled.
I managed to get in on a ranger-led tour at Fort Monroe and I nerded out over this story. The audacity and bravery of these men and women, the risk they took to get to Fort Monroe – it just absolutely astounds me.
TIPS FOR VISITING FORT MONROE NATIONAL MONUMENT
+ One of the best places to start at Fort Monroe is the Casemate Museum. It takes you inside the walls of the fort, into the casemates, and covers the whole history of Fort Monroe. You can visit the casemate where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, was held as a prisoner of war for two years, until 1867.
+ There’s a ranger-led walk everyday at 11 a.m. that covers the basics of Fort Monroe. I fatigue quickly when it comes to reading my way through museums, so the walk helped give me the basics on Fort Monroe and allowed a chance for questions, too. The walk lasts about 45 minutes and departs from the front of the Casemate Museum.
+ Take the self-guided walking tour. Maps are out front of the Casemate Museum and it allows you to see a good bit of other structures that make up the fort, both inside and outside its walls.
+ If you only have time for a few stops on the walking tour, I’d recommend the following:
- The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse. Built in 1802, it’s the oldest continually active lighthouse along the Chesapeake Bay.
- Quarters #1. Built in 1819, this is the oldest house inside the moat. Visitors include Marquis de Lafayette, Generals Grant and Sherman, and Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and Hayes.
- The Main Gate. This was the first portion of the fort to be finished, in 1820. This is the gate escaped slaves came to, hoping for freedom.
+ There are actual miles of beach at Fort Monroe, seeing as it’s surrounded by water on all sides.
Fort Monroe park grounds are open 5 a.m. to midnight, daily.
Admission to the Casemate Museum is free. Open daily 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. May-September and Tuesday-Sunday, October-April.