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Fort Monroe, Virginia (also known as Fortress Monroe) is a military installation located at Old Point Comfort on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula at the mouth of Hampton Roads on the Chesapeake Bay in eastern Virginia in the United States.
In 1634, the area became part of Elizabeth River Shire, and was included in Elizabeth City County when it was formed in 1643. The area including Fort Monroe became part of the independent city of Hampton when Elizabeth City County and the Town of Phoebus agreed to consolidate with Hampton in 1952.
Fort Monroe was completed in 1834, and is named in honor of U.S. President James Monroe. Completely surrounded by a moat, the six-sided stone fort is the only one of its kind left in the United States.
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In 1609, Captain John Smith and the colonists of the Virginia Company who established the Jamestown Settlement on the James River in 1607 recognized the strategic importance of the site for purposes of coastal defense and built Fort Algernourne at the location of the present Fort Monroe. Throughout the Colonial period, fortifications were manned at the location from time to time.
Early 19th century
Following the War of 1812, the United States again came to realize the importance of protecting Hampton Roads and the inland waters from attack by sea, and construction was begun in 1819 on what would become the largest stone fort ever built in the United States. The fort features a moat completely surrounding the inner structures. As a young 1st Lieutenant and engineer, Robert E. Lee was stationed there from 1831 to 1834, and played a major role in the final construction of both Fort Monroe and its opposite, Fort Calhoun, later renamed Fort Wool, a man-made island across the navigational channel from Old Point Comfort in the middle of the mouth of Hampton Roads.
When construction was completed in 1834, Fort Monroe was referred to as the "Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay." The fort accomplished this mission by mounting an impressive complement of the most powerful artillery of the time, 32-pounder guns with a range of over one mile. In conjunction with Fort Calhoun (later Fort Wool), this was just enough range to cover the main shipping channel into the area.
American Civil War
Fort Monroe played an important role in the American Civil War. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Four months later, on April 12, 1861, troops of that state opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor. Five days later, Virginia became the eighth Southern state to withdraw from the Union, and join the newly formed Confederacy.
President Abraham Lincoln had Fort Monroe quickly reinforced so that it would not fall to Confederate forces. It was held by Union forces throughout the Civil War and several sea and land expeditions were launched from there by Union forces.
A few weeks after the Battle of Fort Sumter in 1861, US General-in-Chief Winfield Scott proposed to President Lincoln a plan to bring the states back into the Union: cut the Confederacy off from the rest of the world instead of attacking its army in Virginia. His plan was to blockade the Confederacy's coastline and control the Mississippi River valley with gunboats. In cooperation with the Navy, troops from Fort Monroe extended Union control along the coasts of the Carolinas as Lincoln ordered a blockade of the southern seaboard from the South Carolina line to the Rio Grande River on April 19, and on April 27 extended it to include the North Carolina and Virginia coasts.
On April 20 the Union Navy burned and evacuated the Norfolk Navy Yard, destroying nine ships in the process, leaving only Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort as the last bastion of the United States in Tidewater Virginia. Occupation of Norfolk gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard and thousands of heavy guns, but they held it for only one year. CS Brigadier General Walter Gwynn, who commanded the Confederate defenses around Norfolk, erected batteries at Sewell's Point, both to protect Norfolk and to control Hampton Roads.
The Union dispatched a fleet to Hampton Roads to enforce the blockade, and in 1861 on May 18 and May 19, federal gunboats based at Fort Monroe exchanged fire with the Confederate batteries at Sewell's Point. The little-known Battle of Sewell's Point resulted in little damage to either side. Several land operations against Confederate forces also were mounted from the fort, notably the Battle of Big Bethel in June 1861.
Fort Monroe is also the place at which, on May 27, 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler made his famous contraband decision, by which escaping slaves reaching Union lines would not be returned to bondage. The order resulted in waves of enslaved people fleeing to Union lines around Fort Monroe, which was Butler's headquarters in Virginia.
In March 1862, the naval Battle of Hampton Roads took place off Sewell's Point between the first ironclad warships, CSS Virginia and USS Monitor. While the outcome was inconclusive, the battle marked a change in naval warfare and the end to wooden fighting ships.
Later that spring, the continuing presence of the Union Navy based at Fort Monroe enabled Federal water transports from Washington DC to land unmolested to support Major General George B. McClellans Peninsula Campaign. Formed at Fort Monroe, McClellan's troops moved up the Virginia Peninsula during the spring of 1862, reaching within a few miles of the gates of Richmond about 80 miles to the west by June 1. For the next 30 days, they laid siege to Richmond. Then, during the Seven Days Battles, McClellan decided to fall back to the James River well below Richmond, ending the campaign. Fortunately for McClellan, during this time, Union troops regained control of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, and the James River below Drewry's Bluff (a strategic point about 8 miles south of Richmond).
In 1864, the Union Army of the James under Major General U.S. Grant was formed at Fort Monroe, and the Siege of Petersburg during 1864 and 1865 was supported on the James River from a base at City Point (now Hopewell, Virginia). Maintaining the control of Hampton Roads at Fort Monroe and Fort Wool was crucial to the naval support Grant required for the successful Union campaign to take Petersburg, which was the key to the fall of the Confederate capitol at Richmond. As Petersburg fell, Richmond was evacuated in 1865 on the night of April 2-April 3. That night, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet escaped Richmond, taking the Richmond and Danville Railroad to moving first to Danville and then North Carolina. However, the cause was lost, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered what was left of the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House the following week.
After the last Confederate cabinet meeting was held on April 26, 1865 at Charlotte, North Carolina, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured at Irwinville, Georgia and placed under arrest. He was confined in an unheated, open casemate at Fort Monroe for two years. Some historians have speculated that his treatment in captivity was intended to be fatal. In poor health, Davis was released in May, 1867 on bail which was posted by prominent citizens of both northern and southern states, including Horace Greeley and Cornelius Vanderbilt who had become convinced he was being treated unfairly. The federal government proceeded no further in its prosecution due to the constitutional concerns of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.
Over time the armament at Fort Monroe was improved, taking advantage of new technologies. In addition, the fort controlled several sub installations around Hampton Roads, making the area one of the most heavily defended in the United States.
The Jamestown Exposition held in 1907 at Hampton Roads, featured an extensive naval review, including the Great White Fleet. Beginning in 1917, the former exposition site at Sewell's Point became a major base of the United States Navy. Currently, Norfolk Navy Base is the base supporting naval forces operating in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Indian Ocean. It is the world's largest Naval Station; in fact, based on supported military population, it is the largest naval installation in the world.
By World War II, Fort Monroe served as headquarters for an impressive array of coast artillery guns ranging from 3-inch rapid fire guns to 16-inch guns capable of firing a 2,000 pound projectile 25 miles. In addition, the Army controlled submarine barriers and underwater mine fields. But this vast array of armaments was all made obsolete by the development of the long-range bomber and the aircraft carrier after the second World War.
After the operational armament was removed, Fort Monroe received a mission that it still maintains to this day. Since World War II, it has served as the major headquarters for training soldiers for war. In 1973, Fort Monroe became home to the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which combines the training of soldiers with the development of operational doctrine and the development and procurement of new weapons systems.
Fort Monroe today
Fort Monroe supports a daytime population of about 2,096, including 1,105 people in uniform, 1,991 civilian and contract employees, and about 814 family members residing on post.
In addition to continuing to serve as an active military installation, Fort Monroe has become a popular historical site. The Casemate Museum, opened in 1951, depicts the history of Fort Monroe and Old Point Comfort, with special emphasis on the Civil War period. It offers a view of Confederate President Jefferson Davis' prison cell. Also shown are the quarters occupied by 1st Lt. Robert E. Lee in 1831–34, and the quarters where President Abraham Lincoln was a guest in May 1862.
Note: Fort Wool is located adjacent to one of the man-made islands of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and is accessible only by water. The availability of public tours of both Fort Wool and Fort Monroe are subject to Homeland Security Alert conditions.
2005 current events: Base Realignment and Closure
The Department of Defense released a list on 13 May 2005 of military installations recommended for closure and/or realignment--among them is Fort Monroe. The list has been approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and will be submitted to Congress and President Bush, who must then approve it by 23 September.
It is unclear as to what will become of the base after closing, but it will most likely be turned into another of the many historical sites located throughout the greater Hampton Roads area.