By Alexander Brooks, Archives Intern at Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe National Monument
I had the pleasure of working as a public history intern at the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe National Monument. Originally identified by our own Christopher Newport in 1607, the area surrounding Fort Monroe was a key coastal fort for the United States for nearly two centuries. Completed in 1834, the fort played a key role in numerous events in American history and remains the nation’s largest stone fort. In 2011, the Army turned over control of the Fort to the National Park Service and Fort Monroe Authority, and in the same year, President Barack Obama declared Fort Monroe a National Monument.
The part of the fort I worked in was the Casemate Museum, which was founded in 1951, mainly to showcase the Casemate (fortified chamber) that imprisoned Confederate President Jefferson Davis after the Civil War. Over the years, the museum has expanded and now seeks to tell the entire history of Fort Monroe. My main internship project was labeling the museum’s photographic collection. Before the Army deactivated the museum, they digitized 82 boxes of photos. However, these boxes were not labeled and whenever needed, superfluous time was wasted in searching for the desired photo or subject. My role was to design and create a finding aid to ease the search process for the collection.
While all ostensibly relating to Fort Monroe, the photo collection encompassed a broad range of subjects, though most relating to the military or past wars. For example, I found interesting photos of forts across the United States, even as far away as Panama and the Philippines. However, the majority of the photos in the collection do portray events occurring at Fort Monroe. Whether they portray landmarks at the Fort, or events occurring inside its borders, these photos tell an exciting story of a true National Monument. EXPLORE HISTORY with me as I take you on a virtual tour examining various photos I encountered, and how they relate to the history of Fort Monroe and the United States!
Brief Overview of Fort Monroe
Fort Monroe is located near the Phoebus section of Hampton, off Exit 268 on Interstate 64. Its position at the end of the peninsula made it a vital coastal defense. After the War of 1812, when the British invaded the peninsula and quickly marched up Virginia to burn Washington D.C., the necessity of improved coastal defenses was magnified. Construction on the fort began in 1819 and it was completed in 1834. It was designed by French Napoleonic General of Engineers, Simon Bernard. Named in honor of the U.S. President, James Monroe, it was the largest stone fort in the United States, and remained an important coastal defense for over a century. After World War II, the Fort’s importance decreased slightly, yet it soon became important in 1973 as the headquarters of the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). While the Army left in 2011, there are still vestiges of the activity conducted at Fort Monroe in years past.
Quarters 1 was constructed in 1819, making it one of the oldest buildings on post and the oldest house inside the moat. Quarters 1 is a key building and landmark at Fort Monroe because it was the headquarters for many years and from 1819 to 1907, it served as the commander’s quarters. Here General Benjamin Butler met with three escaped slaves during the American Civil War and declared them contraband of war, setting into motion the emancipation of slaves. The building also served as the quarters used by Abraham Lincoln while planning the attack on Norfolk. More recently, the building was the headquarters of Fort Monroe Authority from 2011 to 2015.
Chapel of the Centurion
One of Fort Monroe’s most well-known landmarks is the Chapel of the Centurion, built in 1858. The impetus for this chapel actually emerged after a great tragedy. Lieutenant Julian McAllister, who miraculously survived an explosion caused by pyrotechnic mixing on June 22, 1855, funded the most its construction through its completion on May 3, 1858. He viewed the chapel as recognition of the Divine mercy shown to him.
While the inspiration for the chapel was rooted in tragedy, disaster eventually struck the building itself. When approached by the post chaplain about coming to the chapel, Sergeant Thomas E. Austin told him, “If I went to Church the Chapel would burn up.” Ironically, at Austin’s funeral at the Chapel on April 24, 1933, a fire indeed began. While men extinguished the fire quickly without any fatalities, it damaged the roof– but not the famed stained glass windows. Eminent visitors to the chapel included Woodrow Wilson, who worshiped here on multiple occasions as President, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose son John Eisenhower was married here on June 10, 1947.
The Casemate Club was once the preeminent social gathering place on Fort Monroe. It was formed to fill a need for recreation and leisure for the soldiers. A mess hall was established at Fort Monroe in 1852 in Carroll Hall. By end of the Civil War, the building was not satisfactory, and presence of the imprisoned Jefferson Davis certainly did not help matters. The Old Point Billiard Club was formed in 1869, but burned down during a Christmas Eve party in 1870. In 1871, a mess hall and club were combined into one establishment, the Casemate Club.
The Casemate Club soon began to have a unique and special culture as soldiers hung paintings and other mementos to commemorative service in various wars. Well-known figures, such as presidents, sent autographed photos to the Club. Notably, the Club was an all-male establishment, a distinction that changed after World War I. However, despite its prestige and history, the Club’s shortcomings soon became apparent as its upkeep was becoming too high and it was decided that such a gathering place was better served being somewhere other than a cold, damp casemate. When the Club closed down in 1959, the main social gathering place became the Beach Club.
The photo from 1972 shows the disrepair the space soon fell into shortly after the Club ceased to exist. On my first day, I actually got to go inside where the Club used to be, and its condition was similar to this photo. It truly felt like something from an Indiana Jones or National Treasure movie! It was astounding to think that the Fort’s main social destination was in this area that now felt like an ancient ruin.
Fort Monroe has a long and somewhat complicated history with hotels, one that can be traced to the beginning of the Fort itself. The first hotel, the Hygeia Hotel, opened in 1822 and was a prime destination in the area with visits from famous dignitaries such as Senator Henry Clay, President Andrew Jackson, President John Tyler, and Edgar Allan Poe, who was briefly stationed with the Army at Fort Monroe. The hotel was demolished in 1862 to clear an area for the Fort’s defense during the Civil War. A Second Hygeia Hotel opened in 1868 and later closed in 1902, and soon demolished. A lesser-known hotel that existed at this time was the Sherwood Inn, which was constructed in 1843 and became a boardinghouse for 20 years after the Civil War. The Inn was sold during World War I to the federal government for use as an officers’ mess and quarters. The building was demolished in 1932.
The most well-known hotel at Fort Monroe is the Chamberlin. The first Chamberlin was built in 1896 and catered to both tourists and officers. However, on March 7, 1920, the building burned to the ground. Like the Hygeia, the Chamberlin would have a successor. The second Chamberlin opened in 1928, with control of the hotel changing a few times over the decades. Unfortunately, after the September 11 attacks in 2001, security became tighter on the Fort, and business at the Chamberlin suffered as a result. In 2003, it closed its doors and was soon acquired for rehabilitation, eventually becoming a retirement home starting in 2008. In July, I had the opportunity to speak at the Chamberlin to the Historical and Archaeological Society of Fort Monroe about my experience as an intern at the Casemate Museum!
A major historical event that I discovered while working here was the history of General Butler and the contrabands. On May 23, 1861, slaves owned by Colonel Charles Mallory of Hampton sought asylum at Fort Monroe. Mallory sought to retrieve his slaves, as was custom under the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been strengthened in the Compromise of 1850. However, General Benjamin Butler declared them “contrabands of war,” and as Virginia had seceded from the Union, the Fugitive Slave Act was thus null and void. It is important to contextualize Butler’s actions. Soon after Lincoln’s inauguration in early March 1861, slaves fled to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida. Consistent with the Fugitive Slave Act, the slaves in both instances had been rebuffed and turned over to local authorities. The post commanders at both forts acted on their own initiative, yet Lincoln’s administration supported it in the hope that reconciliation with the South was possible. Clearly, the beginning of hostilities in April 1861 at Fort Sumter changed the paradigm. Congress approved Butler’s actions in August 1861, to be applied in similar circumstances elsewhere.
As news of this remarkable development spread, hundreds of African-American escaped slaves and their families flooded into the area. Fort Monroe soon received the moniker, “Freedom Fortress.” Hundreds soon grew to thousands, and just four years later, more than 10,000 newly emancipated African-Americans lived in the area surrounding Fort Monroe. While Benjamin Butler was by no means a perfect man, it bears noting that his actions were not a one-time act. His efforts to help blacks extended after the war to his activities in Congress. He authored the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that gave President Ulysses Grant federal authority to prosecute and hinder the KKK in the South and also co-authored the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was the last civil rights bill until 1957.
The contraband decision and subsequent mass migration to the area around Fort Monroe is a major event in both local history and black history as a whole; yet it is one that I, regrettably, had not heard of until I began working at Fort Monroe. Nevertheless, the Casemate Museum does seek to further develop the significance of this historic event through events such as the Contraband Commemoration Ceremony in May that honors the contrabands on the anniversary of their actions. I had the opportunity to help with this event at the beginning of my internship; it was a very moving ceremony, featuring other local groups such as the Contraband Historical Society.
Perhaps the most well-known event in Fort Monroe’s history is the imprisonment of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis was one-time lieutenant in the US Army, and was noted for his service in the Mexican War. He also was a Representative, Senator, and Secretary of War during the decade preceding the American Civil War and later elected as President of the Confederacy in 1861. After the Union victory, Davis was accused of treason, plotting the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and mistreatment of Union prisoners of war. On May 19, 1865, he was escorted to a casemate cell within the walls of Fort Monroe, where he was 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 cell inside Carroll Hall. Davis was released from Fort Monroe a year and a half later upon being permitted to post $100,000 bail, which was paid by prominent northerners Horace Greely, Gerrit Smith, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was never brought to trial. Davis was released from all liability by the presidential amnesty issued by President Johnson on December 25, 1868.
Much like the contraband decision, it is important to provide historical context to Davis’ imprisonment. Most Confederates were not given the same punishment as Davis. Much like Germany after World War II, it was impossible to imprison and punish every participating member of the previous regime and still rebuild the economy and society of the defeated region. As a result of Davis’ unique treatment, there is some danger in presenting him as a tragic hero who bore the burdens of his Southern brethren. Nonetheless, the story of Fort Monroe cannot be told without Davis’ imprisonment.
The Casemate Museum
The Casemate Museum was founded in 1951, and as the name might suggest, was created primarily to display the Jefferson Davis Casemate. Truth be told, Confederate undertones are rampant throughout early photos of the museum and its treatment of Davis as the “tragic hero.” Yet Casemate Museum has expanded immensely since its inception and today does an excellent job illustrating the entire history of Fort Monroe, from the first European contact with the region to the fort’s construction to its aforementioned role in the Civil War and the two World Wars. It also showcases what regular life was like at Fort Monroe over the generations.
The story of Fort Monroe features countless individuals that have either visited or somehow participated in the story of the Fort, such as Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Booker T. Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Edgar Allan Poe, Woodrow Wilson, Harriet Tubman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, and Black Hawk. What other fort can claim such a distinction? While presenting history is a fluid process with many challenges (ensuring diversity, securing funding, creating a welcome experience for guests, to name a few), the Casemate Museums seeks to inform future generations of Americans about Fort Monroe’s important place in history, and its own special local history. I was honored to participate in an internship here!
We would like to thank Robert Kelly and Darcy Nelson of Fort Monroe Authority and Casemate Museum for providing great opportunities like these to work with the public.