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.