Military History

Old Point Comfort was the site of fortifications going back to the Jamestown period. In 1608, Captain John Smith concluded that Point was “fit for a Castle” to protect the approaches to Jamestown, and the following year the colonists built “Algernourne Fort,” a wooden stockade. It was succeeded in 1632 by a nameless “old fort at Point Comfort,” destroyed in 1667 by a hurricane; and then in 1728 by the imposing Fort George, which suffered severe hurricane damage in 1749. During Washington’s siege of the British forces at Yorktown in 1781, the French navy set up a battery on the ruins of Fort George.

As a result of the War of 1812, in which the British captured and pillaged Hampton and Washington, D.C., the United States upgraded its coastal defense system begun during the presidency of Washington. The biggest of these new coastal fortifications was Fort Monroe, named for President James Monroe. It occupied 63 acres and was surrounded by an eight-foot deep moat. Built between 1819 and 1834 (with some of the work supervised by Lieutenant Robert E. Lee), it became known as the “Gibraltar of Chesapeake Bay.” Its powerful artillery, in combination with that of Fort Calhoun (later called Fort Wool) on the man-made island a mile distant, secured the main shipping channel into the region, while the two forts offered protection to an American fleet preventing naval incursions into the Chesapeake Bay.

During the Civil War, the Union used Fort Monroe to control the Southern seaboard and to launch attacks against the Confederates. These land operations included the battle of Big Bethel in 1861; the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, in which Major General George McClellan laid siege to Richmond before falling back to Harrison’s Landing after the Seven Days Battles; the successful capture of Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard by Major General Wool; and the siege of Suffolk. In 1862, the battle off Sewell’s Point between the ironclad warships the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (the Merrimack) marked an end to the era of wooden fighting ships. Fort Monroe and Fort Wool’s control of Hampton Roads gave General Grant the naval support he needed for his successful siege of Petersburg and the capture of Richmond, the Confederate capital. It was also in the waters off Fort Monroe that the only high-level peace conference between North and South occurred, the River Queen conference between Lincoln and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in February 1865. And later Confederate President Jefferson Davis was incarcerated there for two years.

By the 1880s, the muzzle-loading guns in the fortress had become obsolete. “New construction advocated by Secretary of War William Endicott featured detached batteries made of reinforced concrete and armed with powerful breech-loading guns” (Fort Monroe: A Walking Tour, by Charles H. Cureton and Dennis Mroczkowski). Thus Fort Monroe, along with Fort Wool, continued to guard the entrance to Hampton Roads, and in World War II the post became “the headquarters of the most powerful single harbor defense command in the world” (Emanuel Raymond Lewis, Forward, Defender of the Chesapeake).

Weapons development, however, made coastal artillery an inadequate defense against sea and air attack; and after WW II, Fort Monroe’s batteries were stripped of their guns. But the training and teaching functions of the post survived its technological obsolescence. The first U.S. Army professional school outside of the U.S. Military Academy
was established at Fort Monroe in 1824, the Artillery School of Practice. In the1880s Secretary of War Elihu Root, influenced by the works of Fort Monroe’s Supervisor of Theoretical Instruction, Major General Emory Upton, initiated a reform of the Army that created a General Staff, among other changes. In doing so, he also “broadened the fort’s role by the establishment of a comprehensive Army-wide school system” (Fort Monroe: A Walking Tour).

In the 1950s Fort Monroe’s nearness to the U.S. Atlantic Command at Norfolk and the Air Force’s Air Combat Command at Langley AFB made it an excellent location for the Continental Army Command (CONARC). Then in the 1970s a major reorganization of the Department of the Army led to the phasing out of CONARC and its replacement by the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). General William DuPuy, the first commanding general of TRADOC, 1973-76, “used his experiences in the Second World War and the Vietnam War to reform the Army’s war-fighting doctrine following the withdrawal from Vietnam” (Fort Monroe: A Walking Tour). Over the last half-century, Fort Monroe has served the nation as the Army’s creative center, revolutionizing training, organization, and future planning.

Notable People Associated with Fort Monroe’s Military History

* Edgar Allan Poe served the last part of his brief Army enlistment (1827-29) at Fort Monroe. In 1849, a month before his death, he recited “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” on the porch of the Hygeia, the first hotel to be built on the post.

* President Andrew Jackson visited Fort Monroe and the “Rip Raps,” the artificial island where Fort Calhoun was under construction, several times in 1829-1835. He witnessed target firing at the Artillery School and reviewed the troops. He enjoyed vacationing at the Rip Raps, which was essentially the first summer white house or “Camp David.”

* Black Hawk, taken prisoner in the Black Hawk War of 1832, was briefly kept at the fort–along with Whirling Thunder and the Prophet–before being returned to Illinois. Of his stay there, the chief said, “The war chief (Colonel Eustis) met us on our arrival, and shook hands, and appeared glad to see me. He treated me with great friendship, and talked to me frequently.” (Previously, Second Lieutenant Jefferson Davis had escorted the captives to St Louis.)

* Robert E. Lee served at Fort Monroe from 1831-1834, overseeing work on the fort and, for two months, doing the same at the Rip Raps. He was a Second Lieutenant at the time, and his bride, who accompanied him to his post, gave birth to their first son there. His residence still stands at Fort Monroe.

* President Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Monroe in 1862, primarily to prod into action General McClellan’s forces, stationed at Yorktown. He watched from Fort Wool as several union ships shelled the Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point, and he ordered the successful attack on Norfolk and the Navy Yard. Old Quarters 1, where he stayed, is often called the “Lincoln House” and still stands at Fort Monroe.

* Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was captured in Georgia after the fall of Richmond and confined at Fort Monroe for two years. He spent a short time in a casemate and was then relocated to other quarters for health reasons.
Other historical facts:
* The hotels associated with Fort Monroe operated on federal property, as the private homes and businesses now do at San Francisco’s retired Army post, the Presidio.
* Virginia ceded two acres of land to the federal government for a lighthouse in 1801.
* In March 1821, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act authorizing the state to convey by deed to the federal government “the lands and shoals of Old Port Comfort and the Rip-Raps,” ultimately named Fort Wool. The transfer involved 250 acres. The deed also said that if the U.S. government should abandon this property, it would “revert to and revest in the said Commonwealth.” For some reason, the deed went unexecuted until 1838.
* The original Hygeia Hotel was built around 1822 for the convenience of the workmen on the fort. In 1821, Col. Gratitot granted permission to William Armistead “superintending engineer “to build the hotel, and then the approval of the Secretary of War was obtained.
* On March 3, 1887, the building of a second hotel, near the Hygeia, was approved by a joint resolution of Congress.
Text contributed by Scott Butler.
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First aerial reconnaissance of Civil War in free balloon from Fort Monroe

Jared Keller is an associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire

In response to yesterday’s post on the first fixed-wing aircraft carrier, a reader reminded us that the USS Birmingham was not the first ship to serve as a temporary floating host to airborne military units. The deployment of gas-filled balloons from a makeshift vessel in the Potomac river by the Union Army during the Civil War was one of the first successful marriages of airborne and maritime forces in military history.

Beginning in 1861, the Union Army had an active balloon corps. The Union Army Balloon Corp, led by presidential appointee Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, consisted of seven vessels, the largest at 32,000 cubic feet, used primarily for reconnaissance and surveilling Confederate troops. Most of these units were launched from ground bases; seaborne balloons had only been utilized once before, in 1849, when an Austrian vessel, Vulcano, launched a failed attempt to bomb Venice with manned hot air balloons.

The Union did not utilize a maritime vessel as a staging area until August of 1961. Lowe, with the assistance of fellow aeronaut John LaMountain, directed the construction of the first real aircraft carrier.

While it looks like little more than a manmade atoll in the middle of the Potomac, the Custis paved the way for the integrated operation of air and sea units. According to the Smithsonian’s U.S. Centennial Flight Commission, she towed one of Lowe’s balloons for 13 miles (21 kilometers) at an altitude of 1,000 feet (305 meters) while Lowe made continuous observations on Confederate troop movements. Other barges were converted to assist with the other military balloons: Apart from the Custis, LaMountain frequently used the deck of the small vessel Fanny to launch an observation balloon 2,000 feet (610 meters) over the James River in Virginia. The Smithsonian notes that word of the Americans’ achievements even reached An interesting side note on American military balloons in general: While Lowe was initially proposing the use of balloons to the Union army, LaMountain was also attempting to provide balloon services for the Union. He wrote to Secretary Cameron in 1861. According to the Smithsonian, the commander of the Union Forces at Fort Monroe, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, asked LaMountain for a demonstration. LaMountain made two successful ascents at Fort Monroe in July 1861 in his balloon Atlantic. The New York Times reported that LaMountain had been able to observe Confederate encampments, making the first aerial reconnaissance of the Civil War and also was the first to gather intelligence by free balloon flight rather than from a tethered balloon. With Lowe and LaMountain’s aeronautical achievements, the history of American innovation in aviation precedes the Wright Brothers by at least a generation.

Top: A reconnaissance balloon is launched from the coal barge George Washington Parke Curtis, during the American Civil War. Credit: 2001 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution (SI Neg. No. 76-17385).

Bottom: John Wise, John La Mountain, and Thaddeus Lowe fight a storm in the Atlantic. Credit: 2001 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution (Videodisc No. 2B-30739).