Fort Monroe: History & Personal Reflections

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Michael Nelson.

The Fort’s Story

I spent nearly two years working at Fort Monroe National Monument as a communications assistant in the Casemate Museum.

The museum covers over 400 years of history at Fort Monroe, too much for anyone to know in full. Still, I had to know a lot if it — enough to guide visitors on tours of the museum and grounds, enough to answer most of their questions.

I got pretty good at it. I knew how to tell Fort Monroe’s story.

It went something like this:

Fort Monroe is situated on a sandy spit known as Old Point Comfort. Water surrounds the almost-island except for the narrow thread of beach at its northern end, tethering it to the southeastern edge of the Virginia Peninsula. Land vehicles can only enter Fort Monroe by way of two bridges that converge at one point on its western side over Mill Creek.

The 565-acre spit holds a wealth of natural resources– beach, waterfront, wetlands.  It is a thriving ecosystem where various wildlife take refuge. Fort Monroe has long been valued for its prime location by humans too. The Kecoughtan tribe, first used the land for its plentiful fish and game. The land’s proximity to deep water made it a safe port of entry as well as a strategic defensive position. The Jamestown settlers recognized this in 1607. Captain John Smith called the land “Point Comfort” and in his journals, deemed it “a little isle fit for a castle.”

Smith’s description was prophetic. A series of four successively more impressive fortifications were erected on the land beginning in 1609. The War of 1812 exposed weaknesses in seacoast defense and led to the construction of Fort Monroe. The fort stood the test of time and Old Point Comfort took on its name. It still stands as the largest stone fort in America.

The fort’s location has also made it a prime vacation spot. Two luxury hotels and an inn stood at various points throughout history. A streetcar service, a railroad line, and a steamship port have helped visitors travel to Fort Monroe. The turn of the last century was Old Point Comfort’s heyday as a resort when all these amenities coexisted.

The fort is star shaped, with seven fronts and seven bastions. The structure is encircled by a tidal moat, fed by Mill Creek. The walls are 25 feet tall and six feet thick, made of granite and brick, reinforced by earthworks. The walk around the top of the ramparts, the fort perimeter, is a mile and a third. Three vehicle bridges and 1 footbridge cross the moat for entry to the fort.

As if its appearance weren’t formidable enough, the fort has a 412-gun capacity. While most gun emplacements sat on the ramparts, 125 were located in “casemates” or chambers within the fort walls that provided protection to the gun crews.

The land inside the fort takes up 64 acres. A little village of its own, there are historic homes, a wooden chapel with three tiffany windows, and an office for the National Park Service. There’s an old barracks, a parade ground where military exercises were once conducted, and dozens of beautiful live oaks– including the beloved “Algernourne Oak,” which predates the fort.

Fort Monroe never met combat, a surprising fact considering it remained a Union held fort in Confederate territory throughout the Civil War. Some believe Confederate General Robert E. Lee, having served as assistant engineer on Fort Monroe’s construction, knew the fort’s strength and avoided it. Others believe the Union’s superior navy and the ability to resupply by water  allowed the fort to remain in Union hands.

Even without direct battle, the fort played a major role in the Civil War. Fort Monroe was an important base of operations for both the Union Army and Navy. The famed Battle of Hampton Roads, between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor, took place within view of the fort’s ramparts.  General McClellan began his land approach to the Confederate capital in Richmond by landing troops at Fort Monroe in the Peninsula Campaign.  President Lincoln himself traveled to Fort Monroe to liaise with military leadership and ensure the capture of Norfolk.

Fort Monroe, also known as Freedom’s Fortress, was also pivotal to the story of emancipation during the Civil War. The night after Virginia’s secession was ratified, three enslaved men escaped from a nearby Confederate Army camp. They made a treacherous moonlight journey to seek refuge  at the fort, not knowing whether  they would be allowed to stay. Major General Benjamin Butler, a lawyer by trade and commander of the fort, was technically required to  return the men to their owners under the Fugitive Slave Law. Instead, he cleverly reasoned that because the men were considered property, which the South had used to aid their war efforts, he could claim  them as contraband of war. This loophole became known as the “Contraband Decision.” Soon, thousands of  enslaved people came to Fort Monroe in search of asylum. The Union gained moral and practical advantage by depriving their enemy of a key resource. The decision also sparked a chain of events that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

In 2011, after almost 200 years as a US Army post, Fort Monroe was decommissioned and dedicated as a National Historic Monument. Now, it is cooperatively owned by the National Park Service, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the US Army.

170 historic buildings stand at Fort Monroe, many of them former quarters leased by families. The Chamberlin hotel still operates, but as a retirement community. The lighthouse built there in 1803 continues to operate as an active aid to navigation. There is now a waterfront club, a brewery, a coffee shop, a yacht club, and a campground.

Even with all of this, more can be told.

There is a pet cemetery on the ramparts where military families laid their beloved pets to rest. Several presidents visited Fort Monroe, including Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and both Roosevelts. Edgar Allan Poe was stationed at Fort Monroe in 1828. Some of his works may have been inspired by his time there. For those who believe the energies of bygone inhabitants can linger, many residents and visitors have reported ghost sightings throughout Fort Monroe.

I never had trouble convincing visitors and friends that Fort Monroe is interesting, that it is rich with history, that it holds national significance. There is tangible evidence.

Something about the fort, though, I could never seem to convey properly.

Old Point Comfort has attracted humans for centuries, for sustenance, for shelter, for respite. There is something beyond its physical provisions, though, that it offers to visitors. Fort Monroe contains magic– within the calm waters of the moat, within the silent watchful granite, within the way the structure seems always old and always new.  A place built to aid in the progress of war, Fort Monroe brings peace.

My Story

To me Fort Monroe, Virginia is an island, not a spit. It lies far away from the mainland. The stone structure that lies on it is not a fort. It is a castle — a grand castle full of secret passages, ghosts, mystery, and probably some sort of creature in the moat.

“This is your first real job, Michael, you CAN’T be late” I’d say to myself while rushing out the door every morning, putting mascara on with one hand, holding multiple bags in the other, hoping that the inevitable Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel traffic wouldn’t make me any later than I already was.

I hate being late, but I am always late.

And to make it worse, I had doubts.  I reluctantly decided to not return to school that fall. My family and doctors felt I should stay close to home while recovering from illness. I completed an internship at the museum during the summer, which gave me an “in” when the museum assistant position opened up. It was objectively a sweet gig for a college student. Still, I couldn’t forget that it wasn’t part of my life plan. I kept asking myself: is this where I should be? Not at school?

I drove down Interstate 64 in an anxiety-induced frenzy, gritting my teeth, clenching the steering wheel, tapping the gas a little too hard, swearing I wouldn’t let this happen again. I would.

I’d take the last exit before the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT), 268 to Fort Monroe, my stomach in knots. I could expect my commute to be that way, but the mad scramble only made up the first part of it. The second part of my commute came just as routinely, but I always forgot it would come. It always seemed unexpected.

I’d turn off the exit onto Mallory Street, which leads straight into the Phoebus National Historic District. Mellen Street is the main thoroughfare, lined with small businesses—a jewelry store, a bike shop, a used bookstore, a comic book store, two antique shops, a tavern, a bistro.

Sweet, charming. My jaw loosened.

I reached the end of the street and slowly drove onto the bridge for Fort Monroe. Water, the first glint of magic, stretched before me.

To my right, the faded red boats of the Wanchese Fish Company would greet me — Lucky Danny, Sassy Sarah, Miss Maude. To my left, egrets, herons, and gulls fished in Mill Creek — going about their business, oblivious to me.

Sometimes I would drive one lap around the fort, my concern with the time momentarily forgotten, so I could pass the seawall, fishing pier, and beach. If I were lucky, an aircraft carrier would be in the channel– always stunning because the deep water allows them to pass closely to the fort.

If I did have time, I’d get out of my car and walk to the end of the pier– dolphins often swam by, their dorsal fins gently rising and falling on the water.

I pulled up to the main gate sally port of Fort Monroe. STOP HERE ON RED, the sign directed. I watched the moat and waited for the light to turn green. If I did not know the moat were tidal, I would believe its rise and fall throughout the day were actually the expansion and contraction of the fort’s lungs.

The fort lives.

My breaths slowed, my mind calmed.

Green.

I drove through the narrow tunnel, big enough for one car, and parked in my usual spot behind Robert E. Lee’s Quarters.

I walked into the museum.

Throughout history, the casemates served many purposes other than sheltered gun rooms — officer’s quarters, a prison cell, an officer’s club. Today, 14 of these arched, interconnected rooms serve as the Casemate Museum.

My first task of the day was always to help Tyree, the weekday security guard, open the museum. Housing artifacts within the walls of a 200-year old stone fort presents unique challenges. Crumbles of the fort — stone, brick and mortar sometimes fell from the ceiling and museum exhibits had to be protected from this “fallout” with cotton sheets.

The two of us would walk through each room of the museum, turn on the lights and uncover the exhibit pieces that we had veiled the night before. We carefully folded each sheet and placed it in a spot hidden from public view – on a window sill or behind a display.

Sometimes we would talk about our families. Sometimes we’d discuss our love lives. Sometimes Tyree would sing gospel songs and I’d just listen.

All the while, the fort whispered around us.

I haven’t seen ghosts at the fort per se, but I have felt an intense and indescribable feeling of life within its walls– energy in the stones. Creaks of windows, rhythmic water drips from cracks in the ceiling, a sudden surprising chill.

My day would go on with usual tasks, organizing files, working on social media posts, booking tours, answering phone calls, helping volunteers– but the magic of the fort never escaped me. A piece of fallout would land on my desk. Someone who used to live at Fort Monroe years before would come in with a story. I would find a fascinating journal entry in the archives. I would sit by the yacht club at lunch and watch birds soar and dive into the water.

At the end of each day, after Tyree and I reversed our morning routine, my sister Darcy and I would make time for a walk around the fort. Darcy worked as the education and volunteer coordinator at the museum. Throughout the work day, we were co-workers first, but our strolls were sacred sister time.  Moat Walks, as we called them, were medicinal.

They allowed me to share in the magic of the fort with someone else– without fear of judgment.

We usually began by walking up the flagstaff bastion, placing a hand on the flag pole to mark our official start. We’d walk the entire ramparts loop or the perimeter of the parade ground and sometimes through the gate and down to the sea wall or around the exterior of the moat.

Darcy and I would discuss business– future museum project plans, tour notes, and new bits of history we’d discovered. We’d also discuss our lives– our relationships, things we had read lately, the troubles on our minds. Our paths were always similar. Some combination of the same elements over and over, but the fort never failed to show us something new.

We’d ask each other, “Has that always been there?”

We would swear it hadn’t, but it was usually an obvious permanent part of the fort– some element of architecture or design, maybe one of the pet tombstones, clearly marked with dates from decades before. These were more than just missed details. They were new revelations, chosen carefully by the fort.

The fort moved with us.

We would end our walk at the flagpole, making sure to touch it again as a proper closure, and say goodbye.

I’d get in my car to head back over the bridge to Phoebus. The sun setting over the HRBT.

The magical fort behind me– breathing, speaking, moving. My friend.

It has made many other friends in its long history — with people just like me, not to be noted in history books– soldiers, sea captains, workers, teachers, doctors, writers, vacationers. The fort has watched them all come and go, love and work, live and die.

With each one, though, it offers the same kind message: “I am shelter and you have purpose here.”

That is the magic.

I was exactly where I needed to be.

Michael Nelson studies journalism at Saint Bonaventure University. She is a writer, visual artist and mental health advocate. In her free time, she seeks out challenging cycling climbs and fine whiskies.

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8 Responses to Fort Monroe: History & Personal Reflections

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    So lovely! It is just magical when a person finds that kind of magic in work. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Compelling, inspiring, revealing. What a joy to read. And of especial interest due the fact this respondent had ancestors who “passed through” Fortress Monroe in 1862. (Taken prisoner at Shiloh, the three cousins were released from Camp Oglethorpe in October, moved by rail to Richmond, and at Libby Prison “processed out” of Confederate control with signing of Parole documents. Marched twelve miles to Aiken’s Landing, where contract steamer “John A. Warner” flying the American flag was boarded; steamed down the James River; and paused in close proximity to Fort Monroe for “in processing” of Union soldiers on-their-parole. The Flag of Truce steamer then continued its voyage, up Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, where the 500 or so Union soldiers on-their parole, while awaiting exchange, went into confinement at the parole camp.)
    Thanks again to Michael Nelson for her wonderful article.

  3. Charles S Martin says:

    My story of Fort Monroe occurred while it was still a military installation. I was driving back from the “Siege of Sumter” reenactment on the sesquicentennial of its surrender to the Confederates and wanted to stop in and see it before it was decommissioned. Since I was about to enter the Fort during the Civil War Sesquicentennial I decided to put on my uniform of a Union artillery private when I walked through the museum. I was delighted that each casemate was a history of the Fort with one exclusively dedicated to the Civil War beside Jefferson Davis’s cell. As I was walking through, I heard the voices of several young ladies a couple of casemates back. When I got to the one dedicated to life in the Fort during the Civil war, I noted the mannequins dressed in uniforms identical to the one I was wearing. At that point I assumed the personality of the cartoon character who had a tmy angel on one shoulder whispering “Don’t,” and a little Devil on the other urging me on. Again the Devil won and I stood quietly in the corner of the casemate standing stock still. As the young ladies, two in number, obviously still in secondary school, entered the casemate, one said to the other that the mannequins dressed in the uniforms of the era that they represented were starting to “freak me out.” It was the perfect time for my fake mannequin to move and say “Boo!” The screams brought the parents running, and I truthfully told them that “I couldn’t help myself” and quickly moved ahead. The ghosts in the Fort must have had a sense of humor as I was protected from any consequence of my shortcomings and was able to finish my tour of the museum and leave the Fort on my way home without being arrested, or anything else that would have been designed to correct my behaviour.

    • Norman says:

      Did you know Jefferson Davis was kept at Ft Monroe for 2 years or did I just overlook your mentioning this in your story?

      • Mike Maxwell says:

        After President Lincoln’s assassination, Chief Confederate Jefferson Davis had to be kept “somewhere” while determination was made whether or not he was directly involved in the murder conspiracy. Fortress Monroe was the safest place for that leader to be held (the Dry Tortugas bastion was occupied by proven criminals after July 1865.) Subsequently, the issue of Treason remained unsettled (and whether or not to try Jefferson Davis for responsibility for the late war.) Once the determination was made not to try Davis for Treason, he was released.

  4. Glenn Oder says:

    Dear Michael,
    This is so wonderfully written. thank you for reminded me what a special place we have at Fort Monroe. Pl;ease comes see us again soon and keep writing. The sincerity in your comments and observations is excellent.
    Glenn

  5. DonnaAdkins says:

    Dear Micahel,
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful story. I have always loved Fort Monroe. There is something magical about it. You can feel it’s rich history as walk along around it vast landscape. I will never forgot our daughters wedding at the Chamberlain..she looked like a princess walking down the steps. Sail boats passed by during the wedding and you could hear the birds chirping. I remember the beauty and peace of the day. Again, thank you for reminding us what a wonderful historic landmark we have in Hampton.
    Donna Adkins

  6. Pingback: ECW Weekender: View from the Ramparts – Fortress Monroe, Virginia | Emerging Civil War

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