400 Years of History
For at least 400 years, the point of land known as Old Point Comfort that now includes Fort Monroe has served as the key defensive site at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Beginning with Native American’s use years before the settling of Jamestown to its most recent mission as the US Army’s Headquarters for Training and Doctrine Command until 2011, Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe has influenced all aspects of our nation’s history.
In 1607, the English colonists who later founded Jamestown discovered the point of land that is known today as Old Point Comfort. On April 29, 1607, English colonist George Percy wrote, “rowed over to a point of land where we found a channel and sounded six, eight, ten or twelve fathoms, which put us in good comfort. Therefore we named that point of land Cape Comfort.” The following year while trading with the Kecoughtan Indians, John Smith studied Cape Comfort and considered this “little Ile (sic) fit for a castle.” Likely taking Smith’s advice, Cape Comfort was fortified the following year in 1609 with Fort Algernon.
While exploring the Chesapeake Bay region, the Colonists named many rivers, towns and geographic locations. New Point Comfort, in present day Matthews County, Virginia was named and Cape Comfort became Old Point Comfort, the name it is known by to this day. During the winter of 1612 Fort Algernon accidently burned and was completely destroyed. Several attempts were made to erect a permanent fortification at Old Point Comfort but they were built inadequately and only maintained when there was an immediate threat to the Colony.
The first Africans that were brought to the North American colonies arrived through Hampton Roads at Old Point Comfort in 1619. Colonist John Rolfe noted in his diary that in August 1619, 20+ Africans arrived at Point Comfort on the ship White Lion. Rolfe did not explicitly state where the Africans originated, but recent scholarship suggests that these Africans may have been from the Portuguese colony of Angola in West Central Africa. The Africans that arrived at Old Point Comfort were sold for food and supplies.
In 1730, Fort George was constructed to be a permanent fortification at Old Point Comfort. The masonry fort was destroyed however, on October 19, 1749 by a powerful hurricane. With the destruction of Fort George, Old Point Comfort was once again unfortified and the entire Chesapeake Bay was vulnerable to attack.
The War of 1812 and the Construction of Fort Monroe
In 1813 during the War of 1812, Old Point Comfort and the 1802 lighthouse became an observation post when it temporarily fell into British hands. As a result of the British invasion and specifically following the burning of Washington, DC Fort Monroe was constructed as part of a coastal defense strategy developed by the U.S. Army. Named for James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, Fort Monroe’s construction began in 1819 and was completed in 1836. As a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee was stationed at Fort Monroe from 1831-1834 and directed the final phase of construction. From Fort Monroe, Lee for a time oversaw construction at future Fort Wool as well. The largest stone fort ever built in America cost nearly two million dollars to construct, covered 63 acres of land, and took over 15 years to complete.
Civil War History
From 1861-1865, most of Virginia became part of the Confederate States of America; however Fort Monroe remained a Union stronghold throughout the war. During that time, the fort became the birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement when 3 enslaved men escaped the Confederate Army at Sewells Point and fled in a small boat to Fort Monroe. Union commander General Benjamin Butler refused to return the slaves calling them “contraband of war.” General Butler’s contraband policies led to the Emancipation Proclamation and earned Fort Monroe the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress” or the “Freedom Fort.”
President Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Monroe and spent 4 nights in Quarters 1 and the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia fought their epic battle off the shores in Hampton Roads well within view of the Fort. Following the war, former Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis was incarcerated at Fort Monroe in Casemate 22, currently part of the Casemate Museum.
Tourism and Social History
Prior to the completion of Fort Monroe, Old Point Comfort was already a thriving tourism destination. Numerous hotels such as the Hygeia and Chamberlin were destinations with tourists arriving by steamship via the Baltimore Wharf (which was removed in 1961). Old Point Comfort was particularly popular to wealthy socialites from the northeast who favored the temperate climate and wide beaches of the Chesapeake Bay. There were many iterations of the Hygeia Hotel that were either demolished or destroyed by fire. After the first Chamberlin Hotel was destroyed by fire, a new hotel was built in the 1928 and still stands as a reminder of Old Point Comfort’s resort history.
PRESIDENTIAL VISITS TO FORT MONROE
- Andrew Jackson – Visited Fort Monroe and Rip Raps numerous times July 9-10, 1829 1831, 1833, 1834
- John Tyler – Stayed at Fort Monroe during his honeymoon July 4-6, 1844
- Abraham Lincoln – Stayed at Q1 and visited Fort Wool May 6-11, 1861
- Rutherford B. Hayes – Speech at Naval Review at Fort Monroe July 4, 1879, November 11, 1880
- James A. Garfield – Met Gen. Getty on way to Soldier’s Home June 5, 1881
- Chester Arthur –
- Theodore Roosevelt – Speech at Hampton Institute and Portsmouth May 30, 1906 Naval Yard, arrived in Hampton at OPC
- William Howard Taft – November 19, 1909
- Woodrow Wilson – February 12, 1916
- Herbert Hoover – Radio address from Commandant’s House May 20, 1930
- Franklin D. Roosevelt – Arrived at OPC and Inspected Fort Monroe July 29, 1940
FUTURE/FORMER PRESIDENTS TO VISIT FORT MONROE
- U.S. Grant – Spent three days with General Butler at FM April 1-3, 1864
- Dwight Eisenhower – To attend son’s wedding prior to Presidency June 10, 1947
- Harry Truman – Several visits to nephew Louis W. Truman 1960-1962