Fort Monroe during the Civil War


Fort Monroe is a military installation located in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the Peninsula overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. It was the only federal military installation in the Upper South to remain under United States control throughout the American Civil War (1861–1865). Early in the war, the fort became an outpost of freedom within the Confederacy when Union commanders used it to house refugee slaves. The fort also headquartered the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and several significant military campaigns and combined operations were launched from the installation. Most notably, it served as the staging area for Union major general George B. McClellan‘s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign of 1862. After the war, the fort served as a destination for another brand of fugitive. Following his capture in May 1865 until his bail bond was accepted two years later, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe.

Designed by the French military engineer Brigadier General Simon Bernard, Fort Monroe (sometimes called Fortress Monroe) was conceived as an element of the Third System of coastal defenses outlined by Congress in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Construction on the massive stone and brick walls of the moated, hexagonal fort began in 1819 and continued for the next twenty-five years. It was garrisoned in 1823 and became a prime training and assembly point for artillerymen before the Civil War, including future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.

When Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession was approved by the Virginia Convention on April 17, 1861, Union forces attempted to secure all Union installations within the state. The fort did not share the fate of the smoldering Gosport Navy Yard in neighboring Norfolk, which fell into Confederate hands. Instead, Union reinforcements strengthened the garrison at Fort Monroe, and by the end of May 1861, nearly 4,500 officers and men under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler were assigned to its defense.

On May 23, 1861, Butler ordered troops from the fort to disrupt local citizens voting on the ratification of the state secession ordinance. In the ensuing encounter, three enslaved people escaped to the Union lines. Butler, cognizant that the Confederates were using enslaved laborers to construct nearby fortifications, determined that Virginia’s secession nullified his obligation to return the enslaved individuals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He declared the three fugitives “contraband of war” and assigned them to support the Union army at Fort Monroe.

Butler received the approbation of Congress with the passage of the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861, which announced that any enslaved person used for a military purpose against the United States could be confiscated. The result was a surge of African American refugees seeking out what they called “Freedom’s Fortress.” Eventually, the Union army established a policy of providing wages, food, and clothing to formerly enslaved people in contraband camps throughout the Confederacy. Thus, Fort Monroe was in many ways a staging ground for emancipation.

The fort was also a staging ground for several military campaigns and combined operations. In March 1862, seeking to avoid an overland route to the Confederate capital of Richmond, McClellan loaded his Army of the Potomac onto steamers in Washington bound for Fort Monroe. Using the fort as a base, the army then crept up the narrow peninsula between the York and James rivers, aiming to enter Richmond through its “back door.” The failure of the Peninsula Campaign to achieve any definitive outcome convinced a distressed U.S. president Abraham Lincoln to review McClellan’s operations from Fort Monroe. While there on May 9, 1862, Lincoln received the news that Union troops led by the fort’s new commander, Major General John Ellis Wool, had wrested nearby Norfolk from Confederate control. The Confederate naval war for the James River was effectively over.

Butler returned to Fort Monroe in 1864, when the new Union general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, devised his series of spring offensive operations against the Confederacy. Butler commanded the newly formed Army of the James, headquartered at Fort Monroe. The two corps under his command, including some twenty-five regiments of United States Colored Troops, were assigned to push against Richmond and Petersburg. Although Butler displayed no tactical brilliance in the ensuing engagements, his presence south of Richmond forced Lee to dispatch troops from the Army of Northern Virginia to meet the threat.

The shield of Hampton Roads commanded national attention once more during the Civil War era. Nine days after his capture near Irwinville, Georgia, on May 10, 1865, fugitive Confederate president Jefferson Davis was incarcerated in a provisional cell in Fort Monroe’s Casemate No. 2. Public demand for more accommodating conditions prompted his relocation in October to Carroll Hall, an officer’s barracks on the premises. After two years of imprisonment, a bail bond in the amount of $100,000, underwritten by the likes of Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and even Gerrit Smith, a former radical abolitionist, secured Davis’s release.

The former president had never been a popular hero like Robert E. Lee or Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and he had many fierce enemies. E. A. Pollard, editor of the Richmond Examiner, famously charged that the war had been “lost by the perfidy of Jefferson Davis.” Davis’s stay at Fort Monroe, however, perceived as being unnecessarily harsh, forever changed that image and gradually he became a martyr to the Lost Cause who (in the words of a Confederate general, quoted in the Hartford Courant in 1886) “had borne our burdens with grace, and it is but fitting … that the Southern people whom he represented, should pay a tribute to his devotion and sacrifice.”

March 1819
As President James Madison devises a network of coastal defenses, construction begins in earnest on the stone-and-brick Fort Monroe, the shield of Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. Work continues for nearly twenty-five years.
Although construction of Fort Monroe is still in progress, the installation is garrisoned with U.S. troops.
Brigadier General Abraham Eustis establishes the Artillery School of Practice at Fort Monroe. It becomes a prime training and assembly point for troops to be engaged in the Seminole, Black Hawk, and Mexican wars.
Construction on Fort Monroe is completed. The massive walls of the moated, hexagonal fort can hold two hundred heavy ordnance rifles.
April 1861
Following the approval of Virginia's Ordinance of Secession on April 17, heavily fortified Fort Monroe stays in Union hands. It is the only prewar federal military installation in the state retained by the Union army.
May 18, 1861
Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Union Department of Virginia, takes command of Fort Monroe. By the end of May, nearly 4,500 officers and men are assigned to the fort.
May 23, 1861
Union general Benjamin F. Butler dispatches troops from Fort Monroe to disrupt voters during the statewide referendum on Virginia's Secession Ordinance. Three slaves from nearby Sewell's Point flee to Union lines.
May 27, 1861
Union general Benjamin F. Butler, the commander at Fort Monroe, announces that he will not return fugitive slaves to bondage. Fort Monroe becomes known as "Freedom's Fortress," and a steady stream of "contraband" offered wages, food, and shelter, begins work for the Union army.
June 10, 1861
Union troops from Fort Monroe under the command of Brigadier General Ebenezer Pierce participate in one of the first land engagements of the Civil War at Big Bethel. They are defeated by Confederates led by colonels Daniel Harvey Hill and John Bankhead Magruder.
August 6, 1861
With the First Confiscation Act, the U.S. Congress sustains Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler's "contraband of war" decision. It declares that any slave used for military purposes against the United States can be confiscated.
August 17, 1861
Union general John E. Wool, an experienced regular officer, is given command of Fort Monroe. Benjamin F. Butler is assigned to command the volunteer regiments not garrisoned in the fort.
March 1862
Steamers arrive from Washington, D.C., and deliver the elements of Union general George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac to Fort Monroe; the installation becomes the staging area for his ill-fated Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
March 8, 1862
At the Battle of Hampton Roads, the ironclad CSS Virginia experiences combat for the first time at the mouth of the James River at Hampton Roads, where it meets several wooden warships of the Union's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, sinking one and damaging several others.
March 9, 1862
The CSS Virginia engages with the Union's ironclad, the USS Monitor, at the mouth of the James River. The battle lasts for more than four hours. While neither ship gains a decisive advantage, it is a strategic victory for the Union because the Virginia is unable to destroy any more of the Union's wooden fleet.
May 9, 1862
Union forces under John E. Wool defeat Confederates under Benjamin Huger and wrest Norfolk from Confederate control. Mayor William W. Lamb surrenders the city and, effectively, the James River. President Abraham Lincoln visits Fort Monroe, urging firm action by the Union army and navy.
June 2, 1862
When the aging Union general John E. Wool is reassigned, command of Fort Monroe and the Department of Virginia is given to John A. Dix, one of Abraham Lincoln's politically appointed generals.
April 11, 1863
Commanding two divisions of infantry, Confederate general James Longstreet lays siege to Suffolk, hoping to reclaim the town and threaten Norfolk. His troops are resisted by Union forces under the command of Major General John J. Peck.
May 4, 1863
Confederate troops under James Longstreet, which have laid siege to Suffolk since April 11, retreat north to join the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia.
July 15, 1863
Union general John G. Foster takes command of Fort Monroe, and the Union Departments of Virginia and North Carolina are united.
April 28, 1864
Military attention refocuses on Fort Monroe when the Union Army of the James, with Benjamin F. Butler as commander, is formed. It will use Fort Monroe as a launching pad for moving against its twin objectives of Richmond and Petersburg in the war's final year.
February 3, 1865
Aboard the River Queen, anchored near Fort Monroe, President Abraham Lincoln and secretary of state William Seward meet with Confederate representatives to discuss the possibility of peace. The only agreement the parties reach in the Hampton Roads Peace Conference is to continue the war.
April 17, 1865
Samuel Arnold, one of the conspirators in the original plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln, is arrested at Fort Monroe. When the scheme failed, Arnold left Washington and obtained employment with a sutler at Fort Monroe. He is sentenced to prison on the Dry Tortugas and pardoned in 1869.
May 19, 1865
Nine days after his capture by the 4th Michigan Cavalry near Irwinville, Georgia, Confederate president Jefferson Davis reaches Fort Monroe aboard the steamer William Clyde. Awaiting indictment and trial for treason and maltreatment of Union prisoners, he is imprisoned in Casemate No. 2.
May 10, 1866
Former Confederate president Jefferson Davis is indicted for treason in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Virginia.
May 13, 1867
A bail bond of $100,000 for Jefferson Davis is posted and accepted; among those signing the bond are Cornelius Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley, and Gerrit Smith, the radical abolitionist who helped to fund John Brown in 1859. Davis is released and the indictments for treason are dismissed.
  • Collins, Donald E. The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
  • Gerteis, Louis. From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy toward Southern Blacks 1861–1865. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973.
  • Quarstein, John V., and Dennis Mroczkowski. Fort Monroe: The Key to the South. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2000.
  • Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992.
  • Weinert, Richard P., and Robert Arthur. Defender of the Chesapeake: The Story of Fort Monroe. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Company, 1989.
APA Citation:
Jordan, Brian. Fort Monroe during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/fort-monroe-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Jordan, Brian. "Fort Monroe during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 29 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 23
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