The first site we took in while staying in Virginia is actually a fairly new National Park as of 2012 - Fort Monroe.Fort Monroe is the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, and it is surrounded by a moat. It was deactivated in 2011, so it is a National Park still “in progress”.
The fort is known as “Freedom’s Fortress” due to a peculiar aspect of the history of slavery. In 1861, just barely a month after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, three fugitive slaves sought refuge at the gates of the fort. The fort was occupied by the Union Army, and the enslaved men thought they might have a chance at freedom if the Union Army could harbor them from their owners.However, under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, runaway slaves had to be returned to their owners, even if they somehow made it across the border into a free state. The three men were taking a huge risk by coming to Fort Monroe.
But Major General Benjamin Butler, the fort commander, used a little trick in order to prevent the slaves from being returned. He reasoned that since Virginia had seceded from the Union, it was no longer part of the United States. Therefore, the Fugitive Slave Act didn’t apply. Furthermore, since the Confederate states considered slaves to be “property” and were using them in their war efforts against the Union, these slaves could be considered “contraband of war”. Just like other siezed goods during wartime, these men would not be returned to their owners.This decision gave rise to hope for many men, women, and children who lived under enslavement. A “Contraband Camp” popped up near Union forces. Thousands of people sought sanctuary behind Union lines due to General Butler’s contraband decision. This decision ultimately led to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865.
General Butler supported education, training, and enlistment of members of the “Contraband Camp”. Mary Peake, who worked for the American Missionary Association, taught former slaves who were camped near Fort Monroe how to read and write. Today, the old oak tree that she started teaching underneath is still on the grounds of Hampton University which still today thrives as a historically black college tracing its beginning to Mary Peake’s efforts.
Interestingly, Hampton is still a historically black city with a population of nearly 50% African Americans - FAR above the national average of 13%. My mother lives in historic downtown Hampton, merely blocks away from Hampton University, so exposure to the unique black culture here has been an eye-opening experience for our family.During our time at Fort Monroe, we walked along the ramparts which encircle the fort, then walked inside the fort seeing General Butler’s quarters (the oldest building on the fort). We also saw the building that Robert E. Lee used to live in (obviously before the Civil War) when he was assigned here. While he lived at Fort Monroe, he married Mary Custis, great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Their first child, Custis Lee, was born here.
We also went inside the Casement Museum. Besides being a museum which shows the varied history of the fort, we also saw the cell, or “casement”, in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner. Outside the museum, we saw a 500-year-old Live Oak tree as well as a huge cannon called a Lincoln Gun named after Abraham Lincoln.This is an interesting place to visit, even though it’s still a “diamond in the rough”. I can imagine that in several more years, after the National Park Service does its magic, this fort will be a major attraction in the area. Right now I don’t think many people know about it besides the local folks, but I think that will change in the years to come.