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 generalsand .
When Virginia’swas approved by the 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 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 slaves escaped to the Union lines. Butler, cognizant that the Confederates were using slaves to construct nearby fortifications, determined that Virginia’s secession nullified his obligation to return the slaves 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 Americanseeking out what they called “Freedom’s Fortress.” Eventually, the Union army established a policy of providing wages, food, and clothing to former slaves 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, McClellan loaded his 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, devised his series of spring offensive operations against the Confederacy. Butler commanded the newly formed , headquartered at Fort Monroe. The two under his command, including some twenty-five regiments of United States Colored Troops, were assigned to push against Richmond and . Although Butler displayed no tactical brilliance in the ensuing engagements, his presence south of Richmond forced Lee to dispatch troops from the 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, 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 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.”