I Just Wanted a Little Background Info on Fort Monroe…

As historians, it can be so easy to get swept up in the larger trends of the profession that we forget to remember the basics. I ran into this very problem this week while doing some research on Fort Monroe.

I was editing photo captions for a forthcoming Emerging Civil War Series book and needed to know when Fort Monroe was built. For a simple fact-check like this, I could have probably gone to Wikipedia, but for reliability’s sake, I always try to go straight to the source when I can. In this case, going to Fort Monroe’s website seemed the most logical and credible source.

Their main page didn’t offer me a quick run-down of the fort’s history, so I looked at the next-most-intuitive place, a drop-down menu labeled “Learn About the Park.” There, a submenu called “History and Culture” looked promising, so I clicked.

And there, at the top of the page, was a header that promised just what I was looking for: “The History of Fort Monroe.” I scrolled down past a full-color lithograph of Fortress Monroe published in 1861, but rather than finding something that offered a brief overview of the fort’s history, I instead found the next section header, “First African Landing in English North America.”

This section told about the importance of the spot as the site where enslaved Africans were first brought to English settlements on the North American continent. If you’ve followed the 1619 Project at all, you’ll know this was indeed a seminal moment in American history, and I’m on board with a fuller understanding of our national history by including slavery as a central part of that story.

But at this particular moment, I just needed to know when Fortress Monroe was built.

For the sake of argument, I could buy this section as the page’s top text because, chronologically, the event happened first. Perhaps the history of the fort itself would come next.

Instead, the next section header read, “From Freedom Seeker to Medal of Honor Recipient: Sergeant William Harvey Carney.” That section of the page consisted of a 16-paragraph story about Carney, who was, indeed, a fascinating man and whose Medal of Honor story is compelling—but as near as I could tell from reading the text, he didn’t have a connection to Fort Monroe. The story did mention in passing that Carney was born in nearby Norfolk, but unless a reader knew of Norfolk’s across-the-inlet proximity to Fort Monroe, they wouldn’t necessarily see Carney’s connection to the site or why his story appeared on the webpage because the text didn’t make that explicit.

Following the Carney section was an 18-paragraph story about Harriet Tubman. Nine paragraphs in, the story finally mentioned Tubman’s connection to the fort. Talk about burying the lead!

I still didn’t have any history of the actual fort itself, though. I just needed to know when it was built.

I found what I needed, sort of, in the fourth section on the page, “Presidential Visit to Fort Monroe,” which mentioned in its first paragraph that construction of the fort began in 1819. It didn’t say when the fort was finished, but I did learn that fourteen presidents have visited the fort in its lifetime (although, ironically, not Virginian James Monroe).

The webpage contained four other major sections:

  • Women at Fort Monroe: Before the American Civil War
  • Women of Fort Monroe: Army Women in World War II
  • Old Point Comfort Lighthouse
  • Hampton Fire of 1861

But nowhere on the “History of Fort Monroe” page was there a section about the history of the fort itself and its construction. Why was the site chosen? Who designed the fort? How long did it take to build? How much did it cost? Was enslaved labor used to build it? Has the fort been expanded/improved? Did it ever see active wartime service? When did it become an NPS site?

And those are just the basics. Someone writing that section could have a lot of fun and give us a “Did you know…” section and tell us how many bricks were used in the fort’s construction or how many service personnel have been stationed there in its lifetime or who the longest-serving person was assigned to the fort or any number of other “fun facts.” People love that kind of trivia.

But in their zeal to tell the fort’s fuller social history, the folks at Fort Monroe forgot to cover the basics. Their page offered a tremendous amount of information that fleshed out the fort’s history without saying anything about the fort’s actual history.

One could argue that a reader can find that sort of “basic” info elsewhere—like Wikipedia, for instance—but why would a site want to cede that ground? Why would it not want a voice in telling the fundamental, basic details of its own core story?

One might also argue that the anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans took place on August 25, so the webpage was featuring that information prominently in advance of the anniversary. I would certainly understand the appropriateness of that on the main page–where it was featured–but “The History of Fort Monroe” page had last been updated on October 21, 2021.

I laud Fort Monroe for making sure interesting, human stories get prominent placement in the site’s overall story, and I am glad they call special attention to the story of the first African landing in the English colonies, an event of exceptional importance. More history is always better, and more history that’s traditionally been overlooked is even better. On its website, where space limitations are not nearly as pressing as they are in a physical publication, Fort Monroe has an opportunity to offer a nearly limitless capacity for addition information. This is not zero-sum history.

My guess is that this is just an example of good intentions getting in the way of good fundamentals. Talk to any sports coach or music teacher, and they’ll tell you, “Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.” You can’t be Michael Jordan without first practicing your free throws. As boring as those basics might seem, though, they are essential.

We need the basic facts before we can understand what they mean or why they’re important. And I, for one, would rather not have to rely on Wikipedia to get them.

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24 Responses to I Just Wanted a Little Background Info on Fort Monroe…

  1. Glen Robertson says:

    I can’t pretend to be surprised. This is what NPS has made of Fort Monroe. Social history at the expense of military history. Notwithstanding that it’s a friggin’ FORT.

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I’m not opposed to the social history. I just don’t think they need to forget about other aspects of the site’s history in their desire to tell that social history. It shouldn’t be zero-sum.

  2. This is happening everywhere, although some other sites may not have eliminated the actual subject of the discussion so thoroughly. It is definitely a worthy endeavor to expand any discussion to include the related history of African Americans, but Fort Monroe is first and foremost a military installation with a specific history that should be the primary focus.

  3. Stephen Recker says:

    Get used to it. The modern ‘social justice’ ideology that has captured many modern historians and institutions demands that the only legitimate subject is the oppression of historically marginalized communities. ‘Data’ is considered a ‘tool of the cis white patriarchy created to oppress marginalized communities’ so facts are no longer a thing.

  4. Robert Tatum says:

    All of the hoopla over the first “slaves” to arrive in Virginia ignores another historical event that also occurred in 1619, I.e. the first group of vagabond and orphaned children (100 in all) who were rounded up off the streets of London the year before and sent to the colony. The fate of most of these is unknown.

    Britain’s policy of offloading undesirables in the colonies may well have begun at Jamestown that same year.

  5. RFwelch says:

    A historical event of great importance in 1619 was the first meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses,the first representitive body in what would become the United States. American history is becoming totally distorted and unbalanced in the mania to showcase black history at every conceivable opportunity.

  6. Jon Tracey says:

    I agree that a good page with simple summaries is important! It is useful to be able to easily find the types of information you were looking for.

    For years, people trying to learn about historic sites were looking for information about other communities and unable to find it. And there wasn’t wikipedia! Something many people miss (though I’m not accusing you, Chris) is that this isn’t replacing history, it’s telling more complete stories. You spoke of fundamentals, and I will absolutely consider women and slavery fundamental stories of the Fort.

    It is also worth considering that Fort Monroe did not become a unit of the NPS until 2011, and likely had functionally no staffing until years after that. Even now, they have an extremely small (almost certainly single digits) staff. Their building did not open until 2019.

    For what it’s worth, some of the info you were looking for can be found in the Junior Ranger book, which is available on their website. (https://home.nps.gov/fomr/learn/kidsyouth/upload/Jr-Ranger-Booklet-060813-FINAL-2.pdf) It states “In 1609 the first fortification, Fort Algernourne, was built here along
    the bay. This location has proven to be an excellent place for national defense for over 400 years. The United States Army began construction of Fort Monroe in 1819 and named it for President James Monroe. The U.S. Army remained here until the fort closed as a military base in 2011.”

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I don’t think I should have to dig as deep as the Junior Ranger book–not really an intuitive destination for someone looking for that kind of info–to get the basics of the fort. If someone has to dig that much for the basics, they’re going to go elsewhere.

      As I said in my post, I laud the staff of the site for telling the stories they are telling, but the fort is the tangible resource on site that provides the opportunity to tell all those other stories. It’s Tilden 101. The fort is the central story and all other stories spring from that–so they need to be sure they’re telling the basic story of the fort.

  7. Mike Maxwell says:

    There is no “one-stop shop.” No single source of historic material can be trusted to provide complete information: encyclopedias are only useful as “starting points” because they are too broad; and personal letters and journals are too narrow, containing merely a slice of the whole pie, and slanted by inherent bias. NPS sites have competing goals justifying their existence: promote interest (to encourage visits to sites, and entice further investigation into historic figures and actions); provide times of access and helpful suggestions for length of stay; vehicle parking locations; difficulty/ duration of hikes and self-guided tours (along with recommended clothing, hats and footwear); and provide adequate background to verify that THIS site is the one of many fort sites that you are seeking.
    It must be remembered that the United States has just gone through a severe disruption due to Covid-19 that saw all manner of tourist activity and educational visits to historic sites decline. It appears that NPS is taking this opportunity to broaden the base of potential visitors to historic sites, including Fortress Monroe.
    [As a retired Librarian, may I suggest the Library as a worthwhile depository of knowledge and information…?]
    All the best
    Mike Maxwell

  8. nygiant1952 says:

    The Jamestown settlement was founded in 1607. The slaves brought to Jamestown occurred in 1619. Seems to me that the history of whites and blacks in intertwined.

    And we know that Jefferson Davis, was no stranger at Fortress Monroe.

  9. Brian Swartz says:

    I have learned the hard way that Wikipedia citations are not always accurate – and nor are some “facts” that contributors provide for specific Wikipedia posts. As for the NPS, how long before the Civil War is reduced to little more than footnote status at certain sites, such as Fort Monroe?

    • Jon Tracey says:

      The story of slavery is the story of the Civil War. Besides, Fort Monroe never saw combat, thought it was a major US installation. The story of Fort Monroe is that of slavery, as it became an early site for enslaved to escape to.

      • Chris Mackowski says:

        I think you’re missing the point, Jon. I agree the website should discuss slavery on the context of the fort’s overall story (and given the importance of the 1619 landing there, it merits prominence particularly because it’s site-specific). But there is other basic information about the site’s history that should probably have at least equal billing because of its importance to the actual site. Otherwise, it’d be like writing about the history of the battle of Fredericksburg without actually talking about the city of Fredericksburg at all.

        And I 100% agree with your statement that “the story of slavery is the story of the Civil War.” That’s an idea that can’t be hammered home enough. You mention that the fort was an early site for enslaved people to escape to, but that site-specific story isn’t told on the “History” webpage–what a great addition that would be!

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Fortress Monroe had nothing to do with slavery after the Civil War; therefore Fortress Monroe has many stories, including the pre-U.S. Army fortification; the role of coastal defence after the Civil War; and the role as clearing house for repatriated prisoners of war during 1862- 1865.
      All stories. Anything else is cherry-picking.

  10. John B. Sinclair says:

    Instead of jumping to the conclusion that nefarious political considerations are at work here, I think a more basic reason may be the lack of a park historian and competent, professional staff. How many NPS sites may have similar problems?

    • Chris Mackowski says:

      I agree, I think the reasons are far less nefarious than some folks on this thread might be assuming. I would even give the park staff the benefit of the doubt and assume they are competent and professional but probably overworked and under-resourced. It’s an agency-wide problem, unfortunately.

  11. Most site-specific NPS websites are an absolute mess and it’s been that way for years… and given the budget and staffing shortages it’s completely understandable. Most NPS pages would probably benefit from just reusing the exact same background information as found in the print brochure. I think the Fort Monroe brochure does a fine job laying out the main story the NPS wants to tell at that site and introducing the overall context for it, including the dates of construction… and that brochure is even on the website but isn’t easily found. The “Basic Information” tab, nestled under “Plan Your Visit” has a digital copy but the resolution is unreadable. Googling Fort Monroe brochure, however, brought me to this page with a full-resolution copy, https://www.nps.gov/fomr/planyourvisit/brochures.htm, but unfortunately there is no link to this page from anywhere else on the website.

    Put that brochure’s information, word for word, on the “History & Culture” page and then list the articles currently there as their own separate pages and it immediately all falls into place in a satisfying, easy to use way.

    I think a lot of parks, though, are finding that their engagement and outreach is much better on social media than on a formulaic website and a quick look at https://www.facebook.com/FortMonroeNPS shows a good blend of “On This Day in History” posts and promotions for the “mud and blood” type history programming that those above are claiming doesn’t exist anymore. The issue is simple website design at an undermanned park, not with interpretive focus or “wokeness”–and people here are telling on themselves with how quickly they want to jump to that conclusion.

    • Jon Tracey says:

      Good thinking to hunt down the brochure and social media, as that’s how most visitors will probably interact with the park.

      I wonder if they have different content on the NPS app? There’s been big pushes for putting content on that.

  12. Robert Kelly says:

    Good morning everybody!

    If anyone ever needs historical background about Fort Monroe, please feel free to reach out to me. I was the Casemate Museum’s Historian for 5 years and still serve as President of the Fort Monroe Historical Society. Oh, and I live “on post” in former officer house. I am always happy to help with research projects and still love giving tours of the site! Do not hesitate to reach out!

    W. Robert Kelly, Jr.

  13. The Africans were slaves but became indentured servants in Jamestown in 1619.

  14. Alton says:

    It would be nice if someone would write a book about the whole history of the fort from 1819 to 2011. There are a couple of books written by local authors that deal with certain periods (Civil War and WWII) but not overall. My favorite tale is Lincoln personally leading an expedition from the fort to take Norfolk. I also have a personal connection as my grandfather worked there as a civil servant during the 1960s.

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