Fort Monroe’s Lasting Place in History

Famous for accepting escaped slaves during the Civil War, the Virginia base also has a history that heralds back to Jamestown

During the Civil War, Fort Monroe served as the key staging ground for Northern campaigns against Norfolk, the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the Southern capital of Richmond. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

As a white child in southern Virginia, I thought his first name was “Beast” because everyone called him that. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler was our nemesis—the Union commander of Fort Monroe, at the entrance to southeastern Virginia’s vast natural harbor; the churl who ordered the women of New Orleans to yield the sidewalk whenever Yankee soldiers approached; the officer who returned to oversee the occupation of Norfolk. But I was never told how Butler and Fort Monroe figured in one of the pivotal moments of the Civil War.

When he arrived on May 22, 1861, Virginians—that is, those white men who qualified—were voting to secede from the Union. That night, three slaves slipped away from the nearby town of Hampton and sought asylum at the immense granite fort on the Chesapeake Bay. They told Butler that they were being sent to build Confederate defenses and did not want to be parted from their families. He allowed them to stay.

Two days later, their owner, a Virginia colonel, demanded their return. Butler’s answer changed American history: the self-taught Massachusetts lawyer said that since Virginia had voted to secede, the Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied, and the slaves were contraband of war. Once word of Fort Monroe’s willingness to harbor escaped slaves spread, thousands flocked to the safety of its guns.

“It has been so overlooked, but this was the first step toward making the Civil War a conflict about freedom,” says John Quarstein, Hampton’s historian. Soon, the escaped slaves were calling the forbidding stone structure “Freedom’s Fortress.” Butler found them work, established camps and provided food, clothing and wages. Some former slaves were taught to read and some joined the U.S. Navy.

At first, President Abraham Lincoln balked at the idea, but on August 6, 1861, Congress approved an act allowing the confiscation of slaves used for military purposes against the United States. The next day, Confederate Col. John Magruder—who had read a New York Tribune report that Butler was planning to turn Hampton into a refuge for former slaves—had his troops burn the town to the ground.

Butler by then had been sent on to other theaters of the war—he suspected Lincoln relieved him of his Fort Monroe command because of his response to the Virginia colonel—but the fort remained a Union stronghold deep in enemy territory throughout the Civil War. Afterward, the fort’s dank casemate served as a prison for Confederate President Jefferson Davis while freed slaves such as Harriet Tubman enjoyed the liberty of the military base. The fort served a strategic purpose until after World War II, when it became a post for writers of Army manuals.

And now the Army is preparing to abandon the fort in September 2011.

That move has been planned since 2005, as part of a Pentagon belt-tightening exercise. The state-chartered Fort Monroe Authority will take over, turning the historic site into a residential community and tourist destination. “We intend to keep it a vibrant and active community,” Bill Armbruster, the authority’s director, told me when I paid a call at Quarters No. 1, just inside the fort’s high walls.

A pounding storm had just passed, and wind whipped across the island as Armbruster, a former civilian Army executive, took me for a tour in the fading light. The fort sits on a spit of land totaling 570 acres, connected to the mainland by a short bridge and bordered on one side by swamp and on the other by the Chesapeake Bay.

Captain John Smith had seen the strategic potential of the site four centuries ago. “A little isle fit for a castle” is how he described the arrowhead-shaped piece of land pointing to the entrance of Hampton Roads, southeastern Virginia’s harbor. By 1609, the colonists had built a plank fort there and equipped it with seven pieces of artillery. It was there, at Fort Algernon, that a Dutch ship offloaded African slaves in exchange for supplies in 1619—the first recorded arrival of Africans in English North America.

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