Fort George, made of brick, replaced Algernon in the 1730s. “No ship could pass it without running great risks,” Royal Virginia Governor William Gooch wrote in 1736. But 13 years later, a hurricane devastated the structure.
After the British burned Hampton during the War of 1812, using the island and its lighthouse as a temporary base, Congress allocated money for a substantial fort. An aide to Napoleon, Gen. Simon Bernard, designed what is the largest moated fort in North America, a star-shaped masonry structure with 10-foot-thick walls enclosing 63 acres and, by the 1830s, bristling with more than 400 cannon. In time, it became known as the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.”
Now, the paint is peeling on the exterior of Quarters No. 1, an elegant 1819 building—the oldest on the post—but the interior retains its grandeur. The Marquis de Lafayette entertained his Virginia friends in the parlor during his triumphant return in 1824. Robert E. Lee, a precocious Army officer, reported for duty at the fort in 1831 to oversee its completion.
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. “It was a keystone in the Lincoln administration’s strategy to wage war in Virginia and the Carolinas,” says J. Michael Cobb, curator at the Hampton History Museum. “If Fort Monroe had fallen to Southern forces when Virginia seceded from the Union, the war would have no doubt lasted significantly longer.”
The latest in experimental guns, balloons and other military technologies were tried there. In early 1865, soldiers watched from the ramparts as Lincoln and senior Confederate officials failed to reach a peace agreement during a shipborne conference. It was from Fort Monroe a few months later that the news was telegraphed to Washington that Richmond was finally in Northern hands.
But the fort was also hailed, both before and after the Civil War, as one of the nation’s most prominent resorts, Quarstein says. Presidents Andrew Jackson and John Tyler summered there. And at the adjacent Hygeia Hotel, Edgar Allan Poe gave his last public recitation in 1849 and Booker T. Washington later worked while he studied at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural School. So the Fort Monroe Authority’s redevelopment plan doesn’t mark a complete departure from the past.
Armbruster sees a future in which birders, Civil War enthusiasts and those drawn to the water will come to visit and even live at the fort. With nearly 250 buildings and some 300 housing units, there is plenty of room. As we finished our tour, he pointed at one long, stately building. “Those were Lee’s quarters,” he said in the casual way only a Virginian could muster. “And they are still occupied.”