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I love traveling all over Virginia. Finding off the beaten path locations, eating at local dives, learning poignant stories combine to make each trip memorable. Sometimes, however, I don’t have to travel to experience all that Virginia has to offer. Sometimes it’s in my back yard. That’s the case with Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe’s story spans more than 400 years, even longer if one includes what we know of the native Kecoughtan tribe. The original Jamestown colonists first met the Kecoughtans in Spring 1607 before the colonists sailed up river to establish Jamestown. The colonists came back, established friendly relations, and over time built a series of lookout posts that endured through some hardest struggles that the colonists suffered.
That colonial outpost became the port of entry for one of America’s great peoples. In 1619 “20 and odd negroes” from Angola arrived signaling the beginning of a new era in Virginia and America’s history. That history hasn’t always been laudable as those original settlers built new lives and saw their progeny forced into slavery by as early as the 1640s. Those slaves and their stories have left a deep imprint not only on Virginia’s historical landscape, but on her physical makeup as well.
Point Comfort and her early fortifications developed into more permanent bastions in the early 19th century, largely aided by slave labor. After the British marauded the Chesapeake Bay region and burned Washington DC during the War of 1812, the sorely embarrassed government undertook a series of forts built to ensure such an invasion would never happen again. Fort Monroe was the keystone in that military wall.
The best military engineers of the day, including Robert E. Lee, descended upon Hampton to build the stone structure, as well as her sister fort known then as Fort Calhoun, but now known as Fort Wool, just off of Point Comfort’s coast.
These engineers were so successful that when the Civil War exploded onto history’s pages the Union maintained control of Fort Monroe, and never endured a serious threat to losing control of the strategic location.
Because the Union kept control they could use the fort as a starting point of major campaign thrusts toward Richmond. But the fort was also used for something else. Area slaves viewed Fort Monroe as potential salvation. Freedom.
On one May 1861 night three slaves tested their fate. They got into a skiff near Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and rowed across the dangerous Hampton Roads waterway to reach Fort Monroe.
The Fort’s commanding officer, Benjamin Butler, had just been installed a day earlier, and now he had a decision to make. Butler was a lawyer from Massachusetts. He knew full well the law stating that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Law, but in a history changing decision, Butler decided to keep the runaway slaves as “contrabands of war.”
Word of Butler’s decision spread, and many more slaves poured into “Freedom’s Fortress” throughout the war.
After the Civil War ended, the region’s blacks largely remained. They started schools, notably built upon Mary Peake’s pioneering work, some of which was done in Fort Monroe before her 1862 death.
The American Missionary Association brought black and white leaders together in 1868 to formalize education by starting the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, today’s Hampton University. Their mission was to teach and train freed black slaves, which attracted attention far and wide, perhaps most famously, Booker T. Washington.
Because of new opportunities, America’s black history, beginning in 1619, could now be seen as beginning anew in the 1860s, and it still centered at Point Comfort. The shining monument to that storied history is Fort Monroe, “Freedom’s Fortress.”
Brasher, Glenn David. The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom (Civil War America). Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2012.
Clancy, Paul. Hampton Roads Chronicles: History from the Birthplace of America. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
Cobb, Michael J. Fort Wool: Star-Spangled Banner Rising. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
Cobb, Michael J. and Holt, Wythe. Hampton (Images of America). Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2008.
Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation (Studies in Modern Capitalism). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Fairfax, Colita Nochols. Hampton, Virginia (Black America Series). Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.
Gallivan, Martin D. The Powhatan Landscape: An Archaeological History of the Algonquian Chesapeake (Society and Ecology in Island and Coastal Archaeology). Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2016.
Gould, William Benjamin. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.
Lippson, Alice Jane and Lippson, Robert. Life in the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore, MD: John’s Hopkins, 2006.
Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010.
Quarstein, John V. The Civil War on the Virginia Peninsula. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1997.
Quarstein, John V. Old Point Comfort Resort:: Hospitality, Health and History on Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
Weaver, John R. A Legacy in Brick and Stone: American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816-1867. Pictorial History Publishing, 2001.
Weinert Jr., Richard P. and Arthur, Robert. Defender of the Chesapeake: The Story of Fort Monroe. White Mane Publishing, 1989.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author. The featured image is of Fort Monroe as seen from the North Sallyport.
Music used for this episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on iTunes, and “Egmont Overture” by Ludwig von Beethoven, performed by the Chicago Symphony.