Abundant natural resources made this small piece of land attractive to the American Indian for centuries before Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company identified its strategic importance for the defense of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1609 the first fortification, Fort Algernourne, was built here along the bay. Arriving ten years later were the first "20 and odd" reported Africans brought to the English colonies.
The defense of the nation and the quest for freedom converged at Fort Monroe in 1861, barely one month after the first shots of the United States Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Three enslaved men, known to us today as Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory, escaped and sought freedom with the Union Army at Fort Monroe. Under provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act these men had to be returned.
The fort's commander Major General Benjamin Butler, a lawyer by profession, reasoned that since Virginia had seceded, stating it was no longer part of the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply. Further, because the Confederates considered enslaved persons as property and were using these enslaved men in their war efforts against the United States, Butler argued these freedom seekers should be considered "contraband of war." Like seized goods, these men would not be returned to bondage, giving rise to communities of men, women, and children known as "Contraband Camps" near Union forces.
This landmark decision to consider these freedom seekers as "contraband" forever changed the legal status of enslaved people in the United States, influencing thousands to seek sanctuary behind Union lines. This decision ultimately led to President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally abolished slavery in the United States in 1865.
The fort became known as "Freedom's Fortress," and has remained a national symbol for protection and freedom. Fort Monroe continued as a bastion of defense and training until it was deactivated in September of 2011.
Fort Monroe Points of Interest
Building #1, Quarters No. 1: Major General Benjamin Butler occupied these quarters in 1861 where he made the pivotal "Contraband decision." These quarters were also President Lincoln's residence while planning the attack on Norfolk in 1862.
Building #50: Constructed in 1834 as quarters and office space for engineers posted to Fort Monroe, the building has seen many architectural changes during its transformation to the set of three houses seen today.
Building #17, Lee's Quarters: While on leave from Fort Monroe, Robert E. Lee married Mary Custis, great granddaughter of Martha Washington, at Arlington House in present day Arlington, Virginia and occupied these quarters from 1831-34. The Lee's first child, a son, Custis Lee, was born here in 1832.
Casemate Museum: A partner operated museum depicting the complex history of Fort Monroe in the defense of America's freedoms. Occupying former artillery emplacements that form the fort's walls, these casemates have also served as living quarters and a holding cell for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Chapel of the Centurion: Dedicated in 1858 in honor of the Roman centurion Cornelius and designed in the style of noted architect Richard Upjohn this chapel features many impressive architectural details including three Tiffany stained-glass windows.
Parade Ground: This open area, surrounded on three sides by mature live oaks including the 500 year old "Algernourne Oak," was historically used as much for recreation as military exercises and ceremonies.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse: This 1802 lighthouse was a British observation post during the War of 1812 and is the oldest operating lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay. The lighthouse is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Planning Your Visit
A Brand New National Park
The best way to explore "Freedom's Fortress" today is on foot. As the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, experience and understand the fort's scale and strategic location in defense of the Hampton Roads Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay simply by walking the ramparts encircling the top of the fort. From here, look across the water to Fort Wool; see how the geography of Old Point Comfort was vital to the coastal defense strategy of the nation. The Fort Monroe peninsula has been home to thousands of military families throughout the centuries. The scenic streets and historic homes that remain are reminders of American domestic and civic life the fort was established to defend.
Today Fort Monroe is a home and workplace just as it was during the period of active military service. Please respect the residents' privacy as you enjoy exploring Fort Monroe National Monument.
For a Safe Visit
Getting to the Park
From Virginia Beach/Norfolk: I-64 West towards Richmond, VA. Take Exit 268 (169 East Mallory St/Ft Monroe), the first Exit on I-64 West after the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.
Then, for both: Turn Left at the light onto S Mallory St (0.1 miles). Turn Right at the light onto E Mellen St and continue (approximately 0.6 miles) over a small bridge and causeway onto the Fort Monroe Peninsula. At the light take the Left fork onto Ingalls Rd and follow the signs for the Casemate Museum.
Source: NPS Brochure (undated)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Fort Monroe National Historic Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/FOMR/NRR-2018/1604 (Todd Lookingbill, Katia Engelhardt, Connor Geraghty, Nadia Hatchel and David Kitchen, March 2018)
Proclamation: Establishment of Fort Monroe National Monument (November 1, 2011)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2021