Known first as "The Gibraltar of the Chesapeake" and later as "Freedom’s Fortress," Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort in Virginia has a storied history in the defense of our Nation and the struggle for freedom.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order Tuesday granting national monument status to Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, ending a five-year, grassroots effort to protect a storied spit of land that witnessed the beginning and end of slavery in the United States – and lots of military history in between.
Obama’s proclamation on Hampton’s Fort Monroe, which he signed in the Oval Office before more than a dozen witnesses, signals the start of a new chapter for the former Army base, built between 1819 and 1834. The National Park Service will manage more than half the land, including hundreds of acres of undeveloped waterfront property and the moated stone fortress itself.
Tuesday marked Obama’s first use of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which empowers presidents to designate federally owned land of significant historical value as a national monument. Politicians from both parties supported the idea, which was first suggested and long advocated for by a local group of history buffs that formed an alliance called Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park.
Work on the stone fortress began in 1819 under President James Monroe, who sought to protect the fledgling democracy from invasion after the British navy sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and burned Washington during the War of 1812. When it was completed in the 1830s, the "Gibraltar of the Chesapeake," surrounded by an 8-foot-deep moat, enclosed 63 acres.
Fort Monroe was a military base until mid-September, when the Army moved its personnel to comply with a 2005 base realignment and closure decision. A little over half of its 570 acres will be managed by the park service. A state entity, the Fort Monroe Authority, will oversee the reuse of the rest of the property, including limited development in certain sections.
A yet-to-be-announced park superintendent will begin working at Fort Monroe this week, Barna said, with the rest of the staff assembled in the coming months. In the meantime, he said, rangers and staff from other sites will be temporarily assigned to the fort.
Fort Monroe, designed by Simon Bernard and built of stone and brick between 1819 and 1834 in part by enslaved labor, is the largest of the Third System of fortifications in the United States. It has been a bastion of defense of the Chesapeake Bay, a stronghold of the Union Army surrounded by the Confederacy, a place of freedom for the enslaved, and the imprisonment site of Chief Blackhawk and the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. It served as the U.S. Army’s Coastal Defense Artillery School during the 19th and 20th centuries, and most recently, as headquarters of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
Old Point Comfort in present day Hampton, Virginia, was originally named "Pointe Comfort" by Captain John Smith in 1607 when the first English colonists came to America. It was here that the settlers of Jamestown established Fort Algernon in 1609. After Fort Algernon’s destruction by fire in 1612, successive English fortifications were built, testifying to the location’s continuing strategic value. The first enslaved Africans in England’s colonies in America were brought to this peninsula on a ship flying the Dutch flag in 1619, beginning a long ignoble period of slavery in the colonies and, later, this Nation. Two hundred and forty-two years later, Fort Monroe became a place of refuge for those later generations escaping enslavement.
During the Civil War, Fort Monroe stood as a foremost Union outpost in the midst of the Confederacy and remained under Union Army control during the entire conflict. The Fort was the site of General Benjamin Butler’s "Contraband Decision" in 1861, which provided a pathway to freedom for thousands of enslaved people during the Civil War and served as a forerunner of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Thus, Old Point Comfort marks both the beginning and end of slavery in our Nation. The Fort played critical roles as the springboard for General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862 and as a crucial supply base for the siege of Petersburg by Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 and 1865. After the surrender of the Confederacy, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was transferred to Fort Monroe and remained imprisoned there for 2 years.
Fort Monroe is the third oldest United States Army post in continuous active service. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It provides an excellent opportunity for the public to observe and understand Chesapeake Bay and Civil War history. At the northern end of the North Beach area lies the only undeveloped shoreline remaining on Old Point Comfort, providing modern-day visitors a sense of what earlier people saw when they arrived in the New World. The North Beach area also includes coastal defensive batteries, including Batteries DeRussy and Church, which were used from the 19th Century to World War II.