Historic Fort Monroe and its neighboring community
of Phoebus, Va., face a wave of change as the Army
closes the base there. Locals want to be sure the fort's
enduring story doesn't get lost in the backwash. [September 2007]
By Paul Clancy
As I'm sailing across Hampton Roads in a late June breeze, Fort Monroe rises into view, and now, as always, I'm taken by the sight of it. Whether coming down the Chesapeake, crossing from Cape Charles or Norfolk or approaching from the Atlantic, it seems at first a miniature village set down in the water, anchored somehow to a fragile spit of land. From any direction, though, it clearly commands the mouth of the Bay.
The history of this 400-year-old Gibraltar of the Chesapeake rolls over me like a 21-gun salute. There's Old Point Comfort Light on the spot where English settlers temporarily landed in 1607, and John Smith declared it "an isle fit for a castle." Somewhere on the grounds are the footings of the first outpost that guarded the approach to Jamestown. And somewhere on the grounds, perhaps, the ghosts of footprints of the first Africans brought to this country in servitude.
There's the historic Chamberlin Hotel and, right beside it, Generals' Row, elegant mansions lined up smartly on the waterfront. And then, as I glide past tall trees stretching for sunlight, there's a section of the old stone fortress, with gun ports that once menaced ships entering Hampton Roads, an American flag at the corner of the wall rippling in the breeze.
In bouncing through the boisterous waves and current that are an everyday presence on Hampton Roads, I'm reminded of the three escaped slaves who commandeered a skiff on the night of May 23, 1861—just a month after Virginia seceded—and clambered ashore to seek whatever independence and protection this Union bastion had to offer. It is the incident that forever earned Fort Monroe the name Freedom's Fortress.
The often-overlooked history of the fort is very much front and center these days. In just four years, in a base-closure timetable set by the defense department, the Army will evacuate Fort Monroe. But long before that, as early as next year, decisions will be made that will set it on an almost irrevocable course. Already the stage is set for a new battle at this old fort—whether everything but the old stone fortress will become the site of high-end residential development or turned into a public-private national park along the lines of the Presidio in San Francisco.
Like other cruising sailors, my plan is to drop the hook in the deep anchorage next to the fort. But I also want to take advantage of newly relaxed security rules that let you dinghy to Old Point Comfort Marina (still exclusive to military personnel's recreational boats), tie up and go ashore. It's an odd waterway, hard by the trestle bridge on Interstate 64 that is part of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. The anchorage leads to Mill Creek, the quiet body of water that wraps around behind the fort and flanks the neighboring community of Phoebus, Va. Inextricably linked to Fort Monroe by history and geographic proximity, Phoebus, too, is facing a crossroads as the fort's future is decided. I've come here to explore both places and look, if I can, into the crystal ball of their shared futures.
After a couple of tries, my Danforth holds, and I sit in the cockpit with the long-lingering light of the longest day of the year over my shoulder. I'm reading a fascinating book that I borrowed from the Phoebus branch of the Hampton library,Freedom's First Generation, Black Hampton, Virginia 1861–1890, by Robert F. Engs. It is a dissertation, written in 1979, about the three fugitive slaves who came to be known as "the contrabands." It's one of the least-known but most compelling stories about slavery in America.
The power of the contrabands' story really hits me the next morning as I row over to Old Point Comfort Marina and tie up at the dinghy dock. From there it's a few minutes' walk to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the moat to the fort. Here is a daunting bastion, the largest stone fort ever built in America, bristling with gun ports and girded by cold, silent walls.
It's the same view of the fort that Sheppard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend had as they crossed the bridge on that May night in 1861 and asked, likely with only faint hope, for the U.S. Army's protection. At that time Fort Monroe was crawling with soldiers who had definitely not come here to liberate slaves. It was still the official policy of the United States, even though war with the South had begun, to return fugitive slaves to those who claimed to be their owners. President Lincoln did not want to further antagonize the South by changing this policy, at least not yet. But, to the fugitives' good fortune, the fort had recently changed commanders. Now in charge was the ambitious and strong-willed General Benjamin F. Butler, newly transferred from Baltimore. When he interviewed the escapees the next day, he learned that they had been working on Confederate fortifications at Sewell's Point and were about to be sent to perform similar labor down south. That was all he needed to know. When a Confederate officer, a friend of the slaves' owner, came to the fort under a flag of truce and demanded that they be returned, Butler refused, calling the fugitives "contrabands of war." He put the men to work at the fort, paid them and offered them protection.
News of the event traveled fast. Within days, a handful of escaped slaves made their way to the fort. Then dozens and then hundreds arrived. In the end, an estimated 10,000 slaves, perhaps many more, took refuge at Fort Monroe. Eventually, they left the fort to move into charred and abandoned Hampton and rebuilt it, giving streets names like Union, Lincoln and Grant. They also moved into a section just outside Phoebus, calling it "Slabtown" because of the rough-hewn lumber used in making their houses.
President Lincoln could have countermanded the decision to shelter the contrabands but chose not to. In so doing, he opened the door slightly, not to emancipation—not yet, at least—but to sheltering runaways because of their value to the Union. Soon the pattern was being repeated in other Union-controlled places in the South. Congress got into the act the following summer, tossing out the fugitive slave laws. Finally, on January 1, 1863, the president issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. The significance of the contraband story is not that a white general—and Congress and the president—deigned to grant them their freedom, but that they took the initiative themselves.
"They seized their freedom themselves, really, and then appealed to the United States to recognize it," says Dr. H.O. Malone, former chief historian for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, one of the outfits that will soon be leaving the fort. He and I stroll through the grounds inside the moated section of the fort and sit under a live oak beside the parade ground. "It's a crucial point," he tells me. "You know, slavery is something that's done to you, and no one emancipated them. They seized their freedom. . . . I think that's really tremendous."
Malone is now president of Citizens for Fort Monroe National Park, a group that hastily organized when it became clear what the city of Hampton wanted to do with much of the fort after the Army leaves—namely, turn it over to high-end residential development. The citizens group would rather follow the model of San Francisco's Presidio, a former Army base where much of the historic area is owned by the National Park Service. The rest is owned by a public trust that profitably leases itsbuildings. Like the Presidio, Fort Monroe is a National Historic Landmark, but history here goes much deeper.
The beginning of the fort starts with the dawn of English-speaking America. The Jamestown fellows, who stopped here before continuing up the James River, called it Cape Comfort at first because the nearby channel put them in "good comfort." Even though they ultimately chose an island upriver a day's journey away, it was clear they needed a fort to guard the approaches to their settlement. So in 1609 they established Fort Algernourne at this location. It was a goodly site, abounding in seafood and wild strawberries. No "starving time" for the 50 or so stationed there.
It continued as an outpost, port a nd customs stop, and also had the distinction, if you can call it that, of being the place where, in 1619, a Dutch warship carrying 20 or so Africans stolen from a Portuguese ship landed. These Africans and the ones who followed were treated at first as indentured servants, but Virginia laws soon made clear that their servitude would last for life. In 1705, slavery for all blacks "who were not Christians in their native Country" became official.
After the sacking of Hampton and the burning of Washington during the War of 1812, it became clear that the country needed substantial coastal defenses. Work was begun on Fort Monroe, named for President James Monroe, in 1819. French military engineer Simon Bernard designed it in the shape of a hexagon, with bastions jutting out at each corner and a wide moat embracing the whole fort. It was finished in 1834. Together with another battery built on a riprap island now called Fort Wool, the fort controlled the entrance to Hampton Roads—protecting Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth and Richmond.
The fort is best known for its 19th-century history. It is here that Edgar Allan Poe, who out of financial desperation had enlisted in the Army, languished in unnoticed misery. Years later, in September 1849, just before his down-and-out demise in Baltimore, he returned to the nearby Hygeia Hotel to recite poetry. It is here also that Lieutenant of Engineers Robert E. Lee lived while assisting in the fort's final construction (his home on the base still stands); here that Black Hawk, the great Sauk Indian warrior, was briefly held prisoner; here that Lincoln stood at the ramparts and anxiously watched the invasion of Norfolk; here that the briefly shackled Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner after the war. You can tour the fort's sprawling Casemate Museum and see the room where Davis was held.
And it's here where the story of the contrabands unfolded. Gerri Hollins, a descendant of Hampton's contraband slaves, wants to make sure their story is told. "They resurrected the downtown area [of Hampton] from the ashes," she had told me a few days earlier as we sat in the house in Hampton that she is renovating. "They made a moral, spiritual, economically viable community for former slaves. And when the southerners came back . . . downtown, the [former] slaves reached out to help them get back on their feet. A hundred and forty-six years later, there's nothing here in the city of Hampton, there's nothing at Fort Monroe that speaks to this, nothing."
Hollins left Hampton for New York during the 1960s in hopes of becoming an opera singer, but she found a career instead as a backup singer for jazz groups while teaching at the Harlem School for the Arts. In 1991 she decided it was time to come home. Among other things, she became president of the Contraband Historical Society, with the hope of telling their story. Besides many other musical creations, she's written a folk opera, Prelude to Freedom,The Contraband Slave Story, performed in 2005 at Thomas Nelson Community College. She also—with help from the Lord, she is sure—conceived and designed a living history museum that would tell the largely forgotten story.
"These are special people, they come from all walks of life, and we're working together to make sure that there's a legacy for the young people, you know, so they can follow an example of real heroes and sheroes back in the days, who made sense of it all," she said.
"Despite their human suffering, they were able to overcome enormous obstacles, to become revered by their descendants. Had it not been for those people, where would we be?"
It isn't the moated fort that's at issue—there's no way that structure won't be saved—but some 570 acres of mostly low-lying land that extends more than two miles along the Bay-front, from the Old Point to Buckroe Beach, are up for grabs. There are dozens of historic buildings and gun batteries. The batteries, operated by the Coast Artillery after the Spanish-American War, featured long-range rifled guns that supplanted the smooth-bore variety.
The place is soaked in beauty as well as history. It commands stunning views of the Roads and the Bay. You can walk around the top of the wall, as I have, and watch regattas, or look out toward the ocean and dream of distant voyages. There are beaches, too, that snuggle up to the Bay, and wide open spaces, a rarity along the southern Bay waterfront. This is the particular passion of Dorothy Rouse-Bottom, former editor of theDaily Press, the Newport News and Hampton newspaper.
"I feel there should be as much emptiness as it's possible to have, as much clear space as possible, to walk up on the ramparts and look at that miraculous conjunction of the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay and the entrance of the James River," she tells me. "Where on earth can you find anything more magnificent than that? There's a spiritual element here, of nature, of the land and the sea. People are hungry for that kind of solitude."
The fate of Fort Monroe rests in the hands of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. That's because the state, not the city of Hampton, has reversionary rights to the land when the Army leaves. So far, the panel that will make the recommendations to the state, the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, has made no commitment to either development or park status. The state has asked the National Park Service for a study, but of course it would take an act of Congress to create a national park here.
There was much skepticism at first about a park that would cost millions in lost revenue to the region and cost millions to maintain. It isn't surprising that city officials want to replace what they fear will be a drastic reduction of tax revenue when the fort leaves. But the possibility of emulating the Presidio model, while drawing thousands of tourists to a place so steeped in history, may be a strong selling point. Citizens for Fort Monroe National Park suggests folding the fort into a "historic quadrangle" with Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. This, after all, is the place where American slavery began to crumble, and where a candle was lit in the cathedral of the human spirit that has never gone out.
I sail away from Fort Monroe with a lightened heart.
Cruiser's Digest: Fort Monroe & Phoebus, Va.
The best part of the trip to Fort Monroe and Phoebus is that you can now get to both of them by water. I did both in late June.
First of all, getting into the anchorage between the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the fort is easy. If coming down the Bay, you simply follow the channel around Old Point Comfort, pass the Chamberlin Hotel and turn into the wide basin at flashing green "1". Approaching from Hampton Roads, the best landmark is the 10-story red brick Chamberlin. There are good depths here, 12 to 15 feet, especially in the wide Phoebus Channel. You'll pass Old Point Comfort Marina to starboard, then turn to port as soon as there's an open spot. I waited until the depth dropped to 8 to 10 feet before setting my anchor. The bottom is sandy, although with a top layer of silt.
The marina serves only active and retired military personnel, federal employees and certain government contractors, but at least this summer they had relaxed security restrictions enough to allow anyone, military or not, to tie up for the day at their dinghy dock. From there you can walk to the fort and the Casemate Museum and hike across the Mellen Street bridge to Phoebus. There are still signs at the marina that say you're forbidden to enter, but at least temporarily the restrictions have been waived. Still, check before going just to make sure the policy hasn't changed. The marina number is 757-788-4308. A restaurant there, Thumpers, is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday in summer months.
Among boaters there is great interest in the fate of the marina once the Army leaves. It is literally minutes from Hampton Roads and no more than a mile from the lower Bay. You can also anchor closer to Phoebus and row under the bridge to a public beach. There are no accommodations here—and no signs, even, that the area is public—but there are ambitious plans for boat ramps and nearby marinas. From here, it's just a couple of minutes' walk to downtown Hampton, to restaurants, a gas station, fast food places, a library and a grocery store. For fuel or service, it's a quick jaunt around the corner into the Hampton River and the various marinas in Hampton.