Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Visit to Fort Monroe

Last Thursday, I was fortunate enough to join in on the National Park Service Historian's Tour of Fort Monroe and the Mariner's Museum in Hampton and Newport News respectively.

I had never visited Fort Monroe before, so I was especially looking forward to that particular stop. This site's historical association with slavery in America is truly unique. It was here at Old Point Comfort in 1619 that the first Africans designated for labor in the recently established English colony arrived aboard a Dutch man-of-war.

It was also at Fort Monroe that many historians date the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. In May 1861, three enslaved men; Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory, who all belonged to a local man in Confederate service made their way by rowboat across the bay from Norfolk to Fort Monroe, then under the command of Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler. When their owner came to claim the men, Butler, a politician and lawyer before the war, claimed that since the owner was a citizen of Virginia and that Virginia had seceded from the Union, Butler was under no obligation to return the men under the direction of the Fugitive Slave Law. Butler instead claimed that since the men were working on Confederate defenses they were considered "contraband" of war and to be retained by the Union forces in occupation of Fort Monroe. Word soon got out and what began as a drip of fugitive slaves arriving at "Freedom's Fortress," quickly developed into a stream and then a flood, as thousands of Virginia slaves first claimed their liberty at Fort Monroe.

Butler's decision helped influence Congress's passing of the First and Second Confiscation Acts and the Militia Act of 1862, which in turn influenced Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and final Emancipation Proclamation. These, along with Union victory led to the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which ultimately abolished slavery in the United States.

As the historical maker above notes, two United States Colored cavalry regiments, as well as regiment of black light artillery were raised from Fort Monroe men. Fort Monroe also served as the kick off point for both the Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862 and the campaigns in the winter of 1865, which eventually conquered defiant Fort Fisher at Wilmington, North Carolina.

Although this location was first fortified in 1609, a concerted effort constructed what would become Fort Monroe from 1819-1834, which was named for president James Monroe. A young Robert E. Lee, recently graduated from West Point, was stationed at Fort Monroe from 1831-1834 to direct the fort's continuing construction. His period brick quarters now serves as the National Park Services headquarters.

Finally, Fort Monroe was also the location that Confederate president Jefferson Davis was incarcerated for two years after his capture in May 1865. First held in a casemate cell,  Davis was later moved to a building on the grounds of the fort.

On our brief tour we were able to visit one of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century concrete batteries (Battery DeRussy) north of Fort Monroe, as well as the Chapel of the Centurion, which was constructed in the late 1850s. We did not have time to visit the Casemate Museum, so I suppose I will have to make a return trip when I can spend some more time learning greater details of this fascinating historic site.

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