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Civil War-Era Fort Monroe Drawing Top Attention In Bid To Be Included In National Park System


How long before Fort Monroe is added to the National Park System?

With personal visits from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, has a Civil War-era fort on coastal Virginia become a slam-dunk to be added to the National Park System?

The two toured Fort Monroe at Hampton last week and attended a listening session with community leaders and stakeholders anxious to see the soon-to-be-abandoned military post [url=/2010/02/missing-system-fort-monroe-preserving-civil-war-history5384]turned over to the Park Service.
“You can read many chapters of our nation’s history in the stones of Fort Monroe, which is one of the many reasons people feel so passionately about the protection of this special place, ” Secretary Salazar said after the tour, during which he looked out from atop a parapet on which soldiers once kept watch for warships at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. “This stone fort is one of our nation’s special historic and cultural treasures, and we must work together to ensure this place is preserved for future generations.”

Joining the secretary and Park Service director at the meeting were Congressman Bobby Scott, Congressman Scott Rigell, mayor of Hampton Molly Joseph Ward, Virginia’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security and chair of the Fort Monroe Authority Board of Trustees Terrie Suit, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army Jerry Hansen, and Garrison Commander Colonel Anthony D. Reyes.

Secretary Salazar has asked the Park Service to hold additional public meetings in Hampton in the upcoming weeks to continue the dialogue with the community on next steps.  These meetings are at the heart of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to support locally-driven efforts to preserve and protect places that hold special historical and cultural meaning to communities across the country, the Interior Department said in a press release following the tour.

Fort Monroe is a 565-acre national historic landmark that represents the largest stone fortification built in the United States. It has been in operation for more than 180 years. During the Civil War it played a key role as Union troops in the fort prevented Confederate forces from using the Hampton Roads harbor. It was one of the few Union military installations in the South never occupied by Confederate forces, according to the release.

"Fort Monroe also played an important role in our nation’s march toward equality when, in 1861, General Benjamin Butler refused to return escaped Confederate slaves to their masters, declaring them ‘contrabands of war,’" the release continued. "The decision permitted thousands of enslaved people to find safe haven after crossing Union lines during the course of the war and helped lay the groundwork for President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation," it added.

“Fort Monroe is a compelling chapter in our nation’s arc from Civil War to Civil Rights,” said Park Service Director Jarvis. “With such a rich history, it’s no wonder that so many in the community feel strongly about ensuring the fort is preserved. The National Park Service will continue to work hand-in-hand with the state and stakeholders on this front.”

The Department of Defense placed the Fort Monroe on its Base Closure and Realignment Commission list in 2005.  Several proposals for reuse of the fort after Defense’s scheduled departure in September are being considered.  The proposals outline ways to combine preservation of the fort’s historic and natural resources with adaptive reuse of the Army post for economic development. An option to transfer portions of the installation to the Park Service has wide support in the Hampton community and with the Virginia governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation.

Built for coastal defense between 1819 and 1834 and in operation since then, Fort Monroe has been called "The Fortress of Freedom."  Surrounded by a moat, the six-sided stone fort is the only one of its kind left in the United States that is still an active Army post.  It served as the staging area for General George B. McClellan's 1862 Peninsula Campaign and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at the fort for two years after the Civil War.


This, in my opinion, would be the most significant addition (new unit) to the National Park System since the 1990's given its long and storied history.  I'm looking forward to its proclamation as a national monument.

In my opinion, we can't afford to add yet another high maintenance historical landmark to the list of places to be shut down because there aren't enough funds to keep them open. Currently places like this, rich with our nations history are in jeapardy of being closed or us being charged and additional fee to see them. Budget doesn't seem to matter .........

Once again the old tired saw--which bugs me--about insufficient money for parks (while there's always enough money for the military, direct payments to billionaires, ad nauseam). Also, it isn't a given that there would be an admission charge if Fort Monroe were a park rather than a military base--many parks have free entry. 

Plans to add Fort Monroe to the National Park System as America’s next great urban national park have widespread, bi-partisan support. Moreover, as we commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the history of Freedom’s Fortress helps extend the relevancy of that conflict far beyond the battlefield to encompass the long, perilous journey at least 10,000 African Americans made from slavery to freedom. Fort Monroe is more than just another historic site.
Fort Monroe would be co-managed by the National Park Service and the Fort Monroe Authority. Such a partnership would ensure that the historic integrity of the fort and public access to the surrounding natural areas were maintained at suitably high standards while also allowing the FMA the flexibility to adaptively re-use and lease existing structures to generate revenue. The financial model is viable and the significance of the fort is unimpeachable. The time is now to designate a national monument at Fort Monroe and take full advantage one of the best opportunities to help the National Park Service cultivate and engage a 21st century constituency for a 21st century park system.

Alan Spears
NPCA Legislative Representative

With all deference to the Fort's considerable role in Civil War History -
Fort Monroe aka Old Point Comfort - has as an equally significant colonial and
national history that should and must not be understated or overlooked. 

Even those who claim to encapsulate this landmark's past usually dwell on structures and miss the bigger truth of this in "...Fort Algernourne (1609 - 1667), which was rebuilt in 1632, was first located here.
It was a triangular stockade containing seven cannons and fifty people in 1614. Later,
Fort George (1727 - 1749) was built on the site, but it was destroyed by a hurricane..."  "A Brief History of Fort Monroe", ..

Yet, so much more  happened here of historical import beyond the military...culturally, politically..

Are our fellow citizens and their elected executive and legislative representatives so
short-sighted in this "spin-cycle" world as to not consider the breadth
and scope of a place such as Fort Monroe - which exemplifies a vast, abundant heritage and
natural beauty?

Poet Oliver Wendell Homes once described it as
"sacred soil.."  Indeed, it is soil which goes back beyond our founding as a nation and
played a pivotal role in the settling and sustainment of a

Fort Monroe-Old Point Comfort  exemplifies 400 plus years of the integrated history of the American "way of life"  from its founding through its settlement, development and defense.

Starting with the Kecoughtan tribe who lived on its landmark shores before the time of the first English landing, it tells a remarkable, unparalleled multi-cultural story of exploration, interchange, competition, and yes, played a role in many great "Ifs" central to our national story

Early 16th century -1570: Spanish Jesuits passed by in search of an ideal spot to establish a mission in what they knew as Ajacan (Virginia). The mission was eventually founded near Yorktown in but was later wiped-out by the natives prior to 1572 - this.."spelled the end of Spanish ventures to colonize the area..."   ( - "a Native American from Tidewater Virginia who in 1561 traveled to Spain, was baptized in Mexico, and in 1571 returned as a missionary to Virginia...")

From the English landing in 1607 - various place names, appelations and monikers included:
Cape Comfort - Algernourne Fort  - Point Comfort Fort - Fort George
- Old Point Comfort -  Fortress then Fort Monroe - AMERICA'S GIBRALTAR -
Freedom's Fortress - Defender of the Chesapeake. Taken separetely but mostly together they are indicative of the transitional and constantly evolving
sense of place that this once sandy spit evoked in its various forms as:
safe harbor - shelter - meetin place - watch keeper - warning - deterrence -
protection and defense - vactioning and tourist attraction.

Pre Civil war events alone justify designation as a National Park..

28 April 1607 - founding
September 1607 - the Kecoughtan feed Captain John Smith - The Kecoughtan entertained the English "very kindly," presenting them with gifts of dainties, bread, and tobacco, all the while performing a ceremonial welcome dance and song.
December 1608 - first Christmas celebration
"From all we can learn the town was never in such desperate straits as the neighboring settlement of Jamestown, and its subsequent growth would seem to justify the opinion of those historians who believe that the English would have been wiser had they made Kecoughtan their first Virginia settlement...."p.36
Round about Jamestown: historical sketches of the lower Virginia peninsula, by Jane Eliza Davis, 1907
October, 1609 - first fortification - Algernourne Fort - with two more small forts later built nearby in Elizabeth County (Hampton)
21 May 1610 - Governor Gates and relief arrives; Captain Davis informs him of Jamestown plight
8 June 1610 - Dates and Davis turn back the Jamestown evacuees - renewal of settlement
1619 - late summer - August?- Dutch? ship offloads first Africans stolen from Spanish ship in exchange for food resupply (the ship may actually have been an English ship turned "pirate"
to conceal certain facts - History of Colonial Virginia: The First Permanent Colony in America, by William Broaddus Cridlin,1922
1621 - In adjacent "Buck Roe"  French Vignerons were sent to
instruct the settlers how to raise grapes and make wine to better - ethnic of diversity of the colonial scene (Germans at Jamestown too)
1627 - Chesapeake fur trade begins - vessels set sail from today's Hampton area rivers and inlets - Hampton River, Back River, Harris Creek, Buck Roe, Grandview, Point Comfort William Claiborne.
1728 - second fortification - Fort George
26 October 1775 - Battle of Hampton
Jun-July 1781 - Old Point Comfort was at the center of British strategic discussions during the period leading to the decisive Yorktown campaign and their surrender; it was briefly occupied by the British who set fires here and elsewhere (rejected as unsuitable) and then fortified by French who, in conjunction, with their fleet thought otherwise. This poses a  Great What if in the story of our fight for Independence - could Cornwallis have been rescued? escaped? Alan Axelrod poses such a question in his page 334 sidebar - Why Yorktown? - opining that "It is difficult to understand just why Cornwallis was attracted to Yorktown, which offered no advantage over Old Point Comfort..."
The Real History of the American Revolution: A New Look at the Past, by Alan Axelrod, 2009

back to "A Brief History" to wrap up ante-bellum days...
In 1802, the Old Point Comfort lighthouse was built. The British occupied this area
during the War of 1812 and used the lighthouse as a watch tower [itaclics are my emphasis - this occurred in June of 1813 - a full year before the burning of Washington
(August 24, 1814) and was contemporaneously known as the Sacking or Rape of Hampton].
The current moated irregular hexagon-shaped stone fortress is the largest in the United States.
(Fort Jefferson in Florida is bigger in height and potential armament). This National
Historic Landmark
was named after President James Monroe, and was designed to hold 200 guns
(380 were originally called for). With the addition of the Water Battery casemates the number
increased to 412. It was garrisoned in 1823 and has been continuously occupied
since then. Prior to 1832 the official name was Fortress Monroe. Construction was
completed in 1834. This is one of four southern permanent forts that was never taken by the

In addition, Old Point Comfort was once a national tourist and vactioning mecca :
"The Chamberlin Hotel still stands today as a dominant landmark along
the Hampton Roads Harbor. This restored hotel symbolizes the days when
Old Point Comfort was the premiere health and holiday resort in the
South. The Hygeia and Chamberlin were grand hotels that lavishly catered
to invalids, travelers and vacationers seeking relief from the summer's
heat during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Steamships
and trains brought hundreds daily to enjoy Old Point Comfort. These
elegant buildings combined a luxurious health resort and waterfront
atmosphere with military bands, parades, promenades, historic sites,
fresh breezes and the promise of courtship. Longtime Fort Monroe
resident and Hampton historian John Quarstein has woven together tales
and images, recipes and artifacts to tell the wonderful story of the
"Old Point Comfort Resort." "Old Point Comfort Resort: Hospitality, Health and History on Virginia's
Chesapeake Bay, John V. Quarstein, Julia Steere Clevenger, Wendy
Drucker, Molly Joseph (FRW) Ward, History Press, 2009

Then there is Fort Monroe's own contribution to Army history (Home of the old Coast Artillery)...including the lessons in inclusion, desegregation and diversity - religious* and racial - witnessed within a post situated in the proud southern "Old Dominion" of Virginia and Hampton "the oldest continuously occupied English settlement in the North America."

[*St Mary's Star of the Sea .."the oldest Catholic parish on
the Peninsula, holds a unique distinction: It is the only diocesan
church in the nation located on a military installation"..[since 1860]

Fort Monroe definitely qualifies for National Park System designation. A few short years -- even months -- ago, advocates were worried that it may never happen. But they persisted and people are finally beginning to recognize the area's significance. Now, Fort Monroe looks like it may really get the national park recognition that it deserves.

There are many other areas across the country that are also tremendously significant, but which should be added to the National Park System. The lesson of Fort Monroe is not to give up. The hard-working activists working to save the fort are succeeding against all odds -- you can save your own special places, too!


Urban camping and American heritage; Republicans and Democrats need to agree on this much. But to hear nothing about all of the other worthy national park proposals and just be hand fed 565 acres by this administration leaves me very dissatissfied. If we want an urban national park, what about Niagara Falls? Now that's world class history and scenery. Tear down those casino walls, Mr. Obama!

Fort Monroe, like most government properties, was in the best of hands with DoD by being well groomed and maintained to high standards.   Turning this property over to the NPS is the best option to avoid seedy deteriotation and greedy exploitation by the city and developers.   Fort Monroe in NPS hands will rival the world class Presidio in San Francisco, another closed army based turned over to the NPS.   Here is an opportunity to reuse a turnkey ready installation for the public good.  Historic officers' housing can be used for termporary lodging for tourists, scholars, dignitaries and other public/private interest groups  Facilities can be resused for restaurants, historic, art, nature and cultural museums, educational institutions, athletic purposes, art and sciences, technology, nonprofit public interest groups (e.g., Ocean Conservancy, Revolutionary and Civil War buffs, Veterans Groups, etc.,) and government agencies to name a few.  The shoreline, with its world class broadwalk, can be expanded for more camping, nature and beach recreational activities.  The NPS can continue what the Army started with popular concerts by developing a Chesapeake BayFront historical replication of the world famous money making NPS Wolf Trap Amphitheater in DC.
The marina will be the first money maker for the NPS Fort Monroe.  We are eager to work with the NPS.  Next to the marina is the Navy vessel facility which can be reused for civil war naval history, complete with a ferry dock to ferry passengers to the nearby Fort Wool, an cannon battery island.  This is a ready made opportunity for both U.S.Navy and Mariners Museum historians to showcase the area's history to the public   We were severely disappointed with the Fort Monroe Redevelopment Authority (FMRA) who ignored and avoid the existing marina stakeholders in an attempt to convert the marina into a high society marina for the wealthy and priviledged.  They did not embraced the marina as being accessible and affordable by the average income public.  It is a glaring example of why Fort Monroe needs be completely public domain and not subverted to the affairs of the city and developers who have their own agendas. 

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