Coastal Virginia is seamed by tidal rivers, marshes and creeks that feed into and are fed by Chesapeake Bay, which in turn flows into the Atlantic Ocean. One fragile spit of land sits at the crossroads of this watery world—Old Point Comfort. Dominating the point for almost 200 years has been the largest stone fort in America: Fort Monroe, a moated memorial to American history and its ironies. But in 2011 the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay” finally fell—to an acronym. On September 15 the Department of Defense officially decommissioned Fort Monroe as part of BRAC (its Base Realignment and Closure initiative).
A little over 400 years ago, in April 1607, three English ships had sailed into Chesapeake Bay and taken “good comfort” in the advantages of that same sand spit and its channel, which “sounded…12 fathoms,” according to one vessel’s log. Twelve years later the spit again witnessed a history-making moment, when a Dutch ship carrying some 20 enslaved Africans entered Hampton Roads and made landfall at Old Point Comfort—the first known landing of Africans in North America.
Successive colonial forts also occupied the point, despite its sandy subsoil, the lack of skilled builders and funds, and the ferocity of the “hurry canes” that roared in off the Atlantic. When the American colonies declared nationhood, the point was fortless, but by 1802 a sturdy 54-foot lighthouse rose there and—as the Old Point Comfort Light—remains operational to this day.
Neglecting to fortify Old Point Comfort cost the Americans dearly when war again broke out with Britain. In 1813 a British flotilla sailed unmolested into the lower bay. “Not a vessel can pass from Hampton Roads either up or down the bay without being intercepted [by the British], and not a vessel bound from the sea can escape capture,” a Norfolk paper reported. Yet despite having the world’s most powerful navy, the British failed to take Norfolk and Portsmouth. They did manage to wreak havoc on Hampton, however, and to commandeer the Old Point Comfort Light as a lookout station. In August 1814 they sailed north up the bay to take the ultimate prize —Washington, D.C.
The War of 1812 made clear how critical strategic coastal fortifications would be to the new nation. To create these, America turned to a French military engineer and former aide-de-camp to Napoléon—Brig. Gen. Simon Bernard. His commission chose Old Point Comfort as the site of a major fort, and in 1819 construction began on the ambitiously moated and casemated stone fortress named in honor of then-President James Monroe. It was finally completed in 1834, thanks in part to the skills of a young lieutenant of engineers, Robert E. Lee. From 1831 to ’34 Lee and wife Mary lived at the new fort, and their first child, son Custis, was born there. All the while Lee oversaw final construction of the fortifications. A dedicated young officer, he had no idea how his efforts would turn against him in the years ahead.
By 1861 Lee’s loyalties had migrated to the Confederacy. But the fort he had helped build so solidly did not change hands, though surrounded by Confederate Virginia. Recognizing its significance, the Union had ferried reinforcements to Fort Monroe as soon as Fort Sumter fell. By the late spring of 1861, 6,000 men were encamped on the sand spit and the adjacent Hampton mainland, effectively blocking the by then Confederate ports of Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Richmond.
The presence of so many federal troops may have intimidated the local white population, but not the black. On May 23 three slaves from adjacent Hampton escaped to the fort. When the slaves’ owner insisted on their return under the Fugitive Slave Law, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the fort and a lawyer in peacetime, declared them “contraband of war” and therefore confiscatable. News of his pronouncement spread like wildfire, and soon the point where the first Africans had arrived in bondage almost 150 years before was inundated with contraband slaves seeking asylum at “freedom fort.”
The following spring some 100,000 federal troops under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan landed there as well and began the campaign up the Virginia Peninsula to Richmond. A month later President Abraham Lincoln sailed for Fort Monroe and spent four days in Quarters One, helping to plan an attack on Norfolk, home base of the South’s greatest weapon, the ironclad CSS Virginia (former USS Merrimack). By the time Lincoln departed, Norfolk was in Union hands, and the Confederates had torched their own navy yard and blown up Virginia.
Toward war’s end Lincoln was back to meet with emissaries of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. But the four-hour-long “peace conference” held in February 1864 just off Fort Monroe aboard the president’s steamer accomplished little. That spring, with the war over, Davis returned to Fort Monroe, confined to a casemate cell where he would remain for two years.
In the century and a half following the Civil War, Fort Monroe soldiered on, first as home of the Coast Artillery School, then in the mid–20th century as headquarters for U.S. Army Ground Forces, and finally as home of the Army Training and Doctrine Command. On Nov. 1, 2011, President Barack Obama proclaimed the fort a national monument [www.nps.gov/fomr], thus preserving the historic fortification for generations of Americans to come.
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.