Fort Monroe is the largest stone fort ever built in the United States and the only moat-encircled fort remaining in active duty. Over 400 years ago, in 1607, the English explorer Captain John Smith came ashore near here. After surveying the area in 1608, he pronounced this place a "little isle fit for a castle." In 1609 colonial settlers built a wooden structure large enough to hold fifty men and seven mounted cannons, and called it Fort Algernourne.
The point of land has been a place of strategic importance ever since. It became known as Point Comfort, as Smith and his weary men found the site brought them "great comfort." To this day, the name Old Point Comfort is frequently heard in reference to Fort Monroe and this historic area of Virginia.
The massive fort that exists today, and the smaller forts that preceded it, have guarded and defended Hampton Roads, one of the world's largest natural harbors. The body of water just outside these walls is a natural deep-water harbor and historically it was the key to controlling the Chesapeake Bay and to accessing by water the capital of the colonies, the Commonwealth of Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The fort was constructed as part of a coastal defense strategy developed by the U.S. Army following the War of 1812. During the war, British forces entered Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake unchallenged and proceeded north to attack Washington. Old Point Comfort was identified as one of the strategic locations and work commenced in 1819. President James Madison put Simon Bernard, a French military engineer, in charge of a newly elected board of engineers to oversee the construction of Fort Monroe.
Named for James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, Fort Monroe took 15 years to build. It was begun by employing slave labor, which was gradually replaced by military convicts. The granite for the walls came from rock quarries in Virginia and Maryland, while the other building materials were supplied by local contractors. Upon its completion in 1834, Fort Monroe cost nearly two million dollars and covered 63 acres of land with its walls stretching 1.3 miles around. Depending on the tide, the water in the moat ranges from 3 to 5 feet deep and is fed through a gate from Mill Creek.
At the time construction was completed only the Point Comfort Light existed beyond the moat.
The casemates, or vaulted chambers inside the fort's walls, consist of a series of arches above, below and in the walls that connect the chambers to one another, giving the structure formidable strength. Casemates allowed solders to fire cannons from relative safety. Fort Monroe's outside walls are 10 feet thick. The casemates in these walls have been used for defense, living quarters, a prison, an officers' club and a museum.
Jefferson Davis Cell
Jefferson Davis, the one-time lieutenant in the US Army and later President of the Confederacy, was here on two occasions: once as the secretary of war and once as prisoner.
Following the Civil War, Davis was accused of treason, plotting the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and mistreatment of Union prisoners of war. In May of 1865, he was escorted to a casemate cell within the walls of Fort Monroe, chained in ankle irons for three days and heavily guarded with soldiers.
He remained in the casemate for six months until he was moved to a better-appointed cell inside Carroll Hall. Davis was released from Fort Monroe a year and a half later upon being permitted to post $100,000 bail, paid by prominent northerners Horace Greely, Gerrit Smith, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was never brought to trial.
As a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe. His quarters, built in 1823, continue to be occupied by military personnel and their family. From 1831 to 1834, Lee was responsible for directing large engineering projects during the construction of Fort Monroe. Under Lee, the moat was excavated to its proper depth, and he was responsible for overseeing the pointing and finishing of key walls. In addition, he worked on Fort Calhoun, the man-made island fortification in Hampton Roads later renamed Fort Wool.
Lee was just 24 years old while stationed at Fort Monroe. During that time, he married and his first child, George Washington Custis Lee, was born at Fort Monroe on September 16th, 1832.
Hampton Roads Harbor
Hampton Roads is one of the largest natural harbors in the world. It's a deep-water port and is the northern-most harbor in the US that stays ice-free year-round. It is located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, a very important body of water with direct access to our nation's capitol. It is almost exactly in the middle of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
Fort Monroe has a companion fortification in the Hampton Roads harbor. Fort Wool, located on what is actually a man-made island, was built to help defend the harbor from enemy ships. While Fort Monroe had huge guns along its walls, they weren't very accurate at long range. In the early 1800's a cannon could fire about a mile - the exact distance to Fort Wool. Construction of Fort Wool would allow crossfire. Between these two intimidating fortifications, no enemy ship would want to cross this path.
Battle of the Ironclads
The day was March 9, 1862 and warships filled the harbor here in Hampton Roads. Two new vessels were center stage; one belonging to the Union, one to the Confederacy. They sat low in the water - barely breaking the surface as they steamed along. They were the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. The Virginia was formerly christened the USS Merrimack-a stout steam frigate that had been raised from the water and captured at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk when the Union Navy evacuated. For the first time, two opposing war ships were outfitted in iron armor. The iron would prevent damage due to cannon and gun fire and would, seemingly, protect the crew. Previous vessels had been made solely of wood. Here, in this water, they faced each other in a dramatic battle that drew observers from both fronts including President Abraham Lincoln himself.
This was the world's first "modern" naval engagement. The thick metal plating protecting their hulls repelled cannonballs. The ships pounded each other for hours. Finally, a lucky shot forced gunpowder into the bridge of the Monitor (the Union ship), injuring the captain. The Monitor backed off, but then came back for revenge. The larger Virginia decided to tend to its damage rather than continue the fight. There was no clear winner. But one thing was clear - naval warfare would never be the same. These two vessels led to the modern naval ships and submarines. The battle in Hampton Roads signaled the need to develop better armament, improved ordnance, and stronger fortifications.
Chapel of the Centurion
The Chapel of the Centurion is one of the oldest wooden churches on any army base in the country. It was consecrated in May of 1858 and is still used as a Christian church today. The Chapel is named for the Centurion Cornelius, the first Roman soldier and gentile converted to Christianity, as depicted in the window above the chapel's altar.
Some of its stained-glass windows are original Louis Comfort Tiffany windows.
Lincoln Gun located on the Parade Ground
The Lincoln Gun is one of the largest smoothbore cannons ever made. This massive, 15-inch Rodman Gun made of solid iron weighs an incredible 49,000 pounds. The cannon could fire a 300-pound projectile more than four miles. It was cast in 1860, and used during the Civil War. It was named in 1862 to honor the president, who had a very strong interest in ordnance. The cannon was the first of its kind, and it was used on the beach to protect Hampton Roads from attacks by the armored CSS Virginia.
This gun was eventually taken out of active use when the fort acquired guns of similar size with rifled barrels - which meant greater accuracy-and the Lincoln Gun was moved to Fort Monroe's parade ground. Fort Monroe's parade ground has existed far longer than the fort itself and is surrounded by trees affectionately known as the Live Oaks. The biggest one was examined by experts, who determined that it was here when Captain John Smith arrived in 1607.
Quarters One - 151 Bernard Road
"Quarters One" was constructed in 1819. It is one of the oldest buildings on post and the oldest house inside the moat. It was the headquarters of Fort Monroe for many years and from 1819 to 1907, it served as the Fort Monroe commander's quarters.
On the morning of May 7, Abraham Lincoln landed at Old Point Comfort and was escorted to Quarters No. 1, where he would stay during his visit. After breakfast the presidential party inspected the USS Monitor, crossed the channel to Fort Calhoun, rode over to the burnt-out town of Hampton, reviewed the troops at Camp Hamilton and held a long conference back at Quarters 1. The next day was spent in strategy sessions and scouting expeditions. It was decided that an invasion force should land at Ocean View and move south to capture Norfolk. The attack began on May 9 and ended a day later with the formal surrender of Norfolk.
Another significant event that involved Quarters One took place on a quiet night in 1861. On May 23, 1861, three slaves belonging to Colonel Charles Mallory of Hampton escaped to Fort Monroe. The next morning, Fort Monroe's commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, met with them at Quarters One and learned that they were going to be used to build Confederate fortifications. Mallory's emissary, Major John B. Cary, demanded that the runaways be returned in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act. On May 27, Butler met with Major Cary and asserted that because Virginia now claimed to be a foreign country, this law no longer applied; the three slaves were "contraband of war" and would not be returned to bondage.
News of this extraordinary development spread, and Fort Monroe quickly earned the nickname "Freedom Fortress." Hundreds of African-American families streamed into the area around Fort Monroe. Hundreds grew to thousands. Just four years later, more than 10,000 newly emancipated African Americans lived in the area surrounding Fort Monroe. Across Mill Creek, adjacent to Camp Hamilton in an area that would become Phoebus, a contraband "Slabtown" was established, and in the ruins of downtown Hampton, the Grand Contraband Camp rose from the ashes.
General Butler's contraband decision propelled slavery to the forefront as a wartime concern. For the U.S. government this was a political and economic opportunity that weakened Southern assets and increased the Union labor force by putting contrabands to work. On August 6, 1861, Congress formally approved Butler's action with "An Act to Confiscate Property Used for Insurrectionary Purposes." It was a first step in the enlistment of thousands of black men in the Union forces and the issuance of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse
In the late 1700s, before the Old Point Comfort lighthouse was built, a soldier was stationed there to keep a lantern burning at night, to warn passing ships of the small but treacherous point of land. The lighthouse was built in 1802, and it has served as a beacon ever since. It is the oldest operating lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay. During the War of 1812, British forces under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn used the lighthouse as an observation post. And in 1862 it watched over the invasion of Norfolk.
The octagonal stone tower stands 54 feet and is still an active aid to navigation maintained by the United States Coast Guard. The glass prism of the lens magnifies the light so it is visible for 18 miles. Two lighthouse keepers and their families shared the house next door to the lighthouse, built in 1875, until the light was automated in 1973.
Battery Parrot / Irwin
By the end of the 19th century, the old smoothbore cannons were becoming obsolete. New weapons made of steel were developed that would change the face of Coast Artillery. Large concrete batteries were also needed to house these guns. Known as the "Endicott period," modern battery structures were under construction all across the United States. From 1891 to 1899 Fort Monroe would see the construction of 12 separate concrete artillery batteries mounted with 10 and 12-inch disappearing guns, 12-inch mortars, and 3 and 6-inch rapid fire barbette guns. Battery Parrot, which held two 6-inch rapid fire guns, and Battery Irwin, which held four 3-inch guns, can be visited along the Fort Monroe waterfront. Rapid fire guns were used to sweep torpedo boats or other fast moving craft from the battle area. In 1907, Fort Monroe became the home of the Coast Artillery Corps where thousands of soldiers learned how to use these weapons.
The Chamberlin was originally one of a line of important hotels to sit on this military post. These were: the first Hygeia Hotel (1822-1862), the Sherwood Inn (1843-1932), the second Hygeia Hotel (1868-1902), the first Chamberlin Hotel (1896-1920) and the second Chamberlin Hotel (1928-2003).
Open to the public in 1822, the first Hygeia Hotel (named after the Greek goddess of health) was a primary destination for tourists and dignitaries alike who visited Point Comfort. These included Congressman Henry Clay, President Andrew Jackson, President John Tyler and Edgar Allan Poe. It was demolished in 1862 to clear an area for the fort's defense. In 1868, Henry Clark began work on the second Hygeia Hotel. However, it was not successful until 1876, when Harrison Phoebus, a prominent local businessman, established the Hygeia as one of the best known hotels in North America.
Initially, the Sherwood Inn was a cottage built in 1843, and after the Civil War it became a boardinghouse for 20 years. During World War I, local businessman H.M. Booker sold the Sherwood Inn to the federal government for use as an officers' mess and quarters.
The first Chamberlin was built in 1896, and catered both to tourists and the officers at Fort Monroe until March 7th, 1920, when the wood-frame building burned to the ground. The second Hotel Chamberlin opened in April of 1928, financed by a group of local businessmen headed by seafood magnate James Darling of Hampton. The Vanderbilt hotel chain was involved and the hotel was known for several years as the Chamberlin-Vanderbilt Hotel. It went into receivership in 1930 and was operated by several holding companies afterward.
In January 1942 the U. S. Navy took it over as bachelor officer quarters and retained control until 1947. In that year the War Department returned the property to civilian control, and it was acquired by Richmond Hotels, Inc. This corporation operated it until about 1979 when a local businessman, Vernon Stuart, purchased the hotel. In 2003 the hotel closed its doors and was then acquired for complete renovation and opened as a retirement home in June 2008.