Only 30-miles from Colonial Williamsburg, we decided to take a day trip to Fort Monroe, North America’s largest stone fort. Standing guard over the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, this historical fortress is one of the nation’s newest National Monuments, dedicated in 2011.
Recognized for its significant role as a beacon of hope to freedom seekers, Fort Monroe earned its nickname Freedom’s Fortress during the Civil War.
We spent a half-day exploring the fort’s museums and historical sites. We were not only impressed by its beautiful coastal location but seeing the scale of the fort in person left a lasting impression.
Putting “Fort Monroe National Monument” into Google maps led us to the wrong side of the barrier island. We recommend using “Fort Monroe Visitor Center” instead. We felt the visitor center was a little hard to find, and the fort is so large it was confusing where to start.
Once at the visitor center, you will want to do at least three things.
- Learn about Freedom’s Fortress
- Book a free self-guided tour of the Casemate Museum
- Grab a Fort Monroe walking tour guide brochure
Learn About Freedom’s Fortress
Through the centuries, Fort Monroe played many roles, but arguably none as important as its role in the Civil War. While strategically defending the great Chesapeake Bay, the stronghold became a sanctuary for enslaved freedom seekers.
Less than a month from when the first shots of the Civil War rang out at Fort Sumter, three enslaved men escaped and sought refuge with the Union Army at Fort Monroe.
The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act required the men to be returned. However, trained as a lawyer, Fort Monroe’s commander, Major General Benjamin Butler, felt the law no longer applied in Virginia, since they seceded from the USA.
In addition, as the Confederacy saw enslaved people as property and utilized them in the war efforts, Butler deduced the Union Army could take them in as “contraband of war.”
This decision influenced thousands of enslaved to seek refuge with the Union Army and earned Fort Monroe the nickname Freedom’s Fortress.
Before leaving the Visitor Center, head to the roof balcony for a view over Fort Monroe’s moat.
Next, precede to the Casemate Museum within the fort’s stone walls. Free parking is available inside the fort or use the footbridge behind the Fort Monroe Visitor Center to cross the moat.
Tour the Casemate Museum
Around a dozen vaulted stone chambers serve as the Casemate Museum. Each room chronicles Fort Monroe’s past, from its humble wooden beginnings to eventual use as the US Army Training and Doctrine Command headquarters. Even if you’re not into museums, the casemate chambers are worth seeing.
A few highlights of the Casemate Museum:
- Weapons of War, including a 32-Pounder cannon gun and a British siege mortar
- Jefferson Davis’ jail cell from his incarceration during the Civil War
- Display of letters written by Edgar Allan Poe during his military stay at Fort Monroe
- Gun battery plotting room
- Replica military apartments
Entry is free, but you’ll need a timed ticket from the visitor center.
Stroll the Ramparts of Fort Monroe
Armed with the walking tour brochure from the visitor center, enjoy a 90-minute stroll of the grounds. Start atop the ramparts for impressive views. Then follow the numbered tour to historical buildings and features around the fort.
Grab a photo of Old Point Lighthouse
Number 11 on the walking tour is likely the most photographed artifact at Fort Monroe. Built in 1802, Old Point Comfort Lighthouse is the oldest remaining structure on the grounds.
During the War of 1812, the lighthouse served as a British watchtower. Today, the US Coast Guard uses the beacon for coastal navigation.
Where to Eat
All that walking made us hungry. Though there were a few spots on the island, we stopped into nearby Hampton where we had more choices.
We got lucky with a beautiful spring day and found the restaurants on Queen Street doing outdoor dining. Judging by the place that had the most diners, Brown Chicken Brown Cow got our business and what an excellent choice.
We both ordered burgers. I opted for the ooey gooey mac and cheese, while Jeremy went for the waffle fries.
Where to Stay for Fort Monroe
- Hampton is the closest town to Fort Monroe. They have all the standard chain hotels, but if you’re looking for something with character, check out Magnolia House Inn bed and breakfast. It’s also walking distance to the Virginia Air and Space Science Center.
- We stayed in Colonial Williamsburg, less than an hour away. We felt the Patriots Inn was good value. The location was superb, and the large one bedroom included a full kitchen.
Books on Fort Monroe
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Fort Monroe before your visit, we found the following books of interest.
- Fort Monroe: Images of America – We love this series of books as they are always loaded with historical photos impossible to find elsewhere. This book specifically has over 140 years of images curated by former Casemate Museum staff, Paul Morando and David Johnson. The details make it a great reference guide.
- Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America – The museum at Fort Monroe only touches on how the fort became known as Freedom’s Fortress. This book dives into the story of escapee George Scott and how he partnered with Major General Butler to alter the course of the Civil War, eventually helping to end slavery. Inspiring, humbling, and surprisingly moving considering it’s a book appropriate for children, we thoroughly recommend it.