July 05, 2020

Museum Review - Fort Monroe

Reader Mike Kozlowski has been kind enough to write up a review of Fort Monroe, erected to guard the entrance to Hampton Roads, Virginia.1

TYPE: Coastal Defense Fortification
LOCATION: Hampton, VA
RATING: 4.9/5, beautifully preserved and maintained
PRICE: Free

From the day it was first garrisoned in 1823, Fort Monroe (originally Fortress Monroe, with construction overseen by one Lieutenant Robert E. Lee) has been known as ‘the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake’ - the centerpiece of one of the most complex sets of coastal fortifications ever built. The largest moated structure on the planet, it was the greatest of the Third System forts and has survived remarkably unchanged to the present. An active US Army post until 2011, it was immediately designated a National Historic Landmark by President Obama and has been maintained as such since.

Access is easy enough, from I-64 Exit 268 to South Mallory Street, then north on Mallory to East Mercury Boulevard and hang a right.2 You’ll pass Hampton National Cemetery and then pass through Phoebus, a town almost as old as Hampton and at one time a sanctuary for ‘contrabands’ - escaped slaves who camped out under the protection of Monroe’s garrisons. East Mercury becomes a causeway that takes you to the fort proper. One of the first things you’ll see will be the massive bulk of the old Chamberlain Hotel, now high-end apartments with one of the best views of Hampton Roads you’re going to get. Next to the Chamberlain is Continental Park, a exceptionally well kept park that is a great place for a picnic lunch or just to enjoy the view.

Looking at artifacts outside the Fort first, you’ll immediately notice that several of the old batteries - Irwin, Parrott, DeRussey, Anderson, Ruggles, and the experimental Northeast Battery - are still essentially intact, though in varying states of disrepair. Officially, they are all, repeat ALL off limits - they were decommissioned during or immediately after WWII (Northeast was shut down in 1908), and no effort whatsoever was put into keeping them accessible. They are still very much in one piece, however, save for their seaward earth glacis’ having been removed in the 1950s, and as long as one doesn’t try to climb up on them, you can still get some remarkable pictures. The only one that access is available for is Irwin, which has two more-or-less preserved M1902 76mm anti-torpedo boat guns mounted. (Parrott has a single 90mm mounted, but there is no access to it). The partial remains of several other seaside batteries can be clearly seen from the road. Access to any of these is again restricted; you can go right up to them but cannot actually climb/enter. It should also be pointed out that the batteries that were completely demolished - Humphreys, Bomford, Barber, Parapet, Montgomery, and Gatewood - have left enough traces that with a little effort their locations can be found.34

Heading back to the Fort proper, we have to figure out the best way to get you in there - there is auto access to the interior of the Fort, but these are the original gates and they are very narrow, so larger modern SUVs may have a tight squeeze.


I wasn’t kidding about the gates. (From www.thenomadiclife.net)

The first stop inside will be the Casemate Museum, which has been in place for almost fifty years and is a truly unknown gem. Filled with exhibits, photographs, models, and artifacts, it of course mostly covers Monroe’s history but also a good chunk of the Coast Artillery’s as well. Some of the models are finely machined replicas made for the old Coast Artillery School, and are striking in their detail. There is a fascinating exhibit about one Edgar Allen Poe - yes, that one - who served at Monroe and at Fort Moultrie, SC, and made Sergeant Major in just five years. The most impressive part of the museum is a display that shows just how the fortifications would have handled an attempt by an enemy fleet to force Chesapeake Bay. Using lights to indicate courses and lines of fire, it definitely shows a best-case scenario but an impressive one nevertheless. A little farther down from there is the most sobering thing you will see at Monroe - the casemate where Jefferson Davis, the imprisoned former President of the CSA, was held for two years. It is somewhat larger than one might expect, but keeping in mind that Davis was kept in irons for some time, one can easily imagine how small it must have seemed. One cannot actually enter Davis’ casemate but the view from its entry is excellent, and it has been restored to its appearance while he was there. There is a small gift shop at the end of the tour that has always had a good collection of books on Monroe and the Coast Artillery. There are also some wonderful souvenirs of the Oozlefinch, the Coast Artillery’s mascot. (Mine is nearly forty years old, and still holds a place of honor.) The Casemate Museum tour is self guided, and it is a consistently pleasant seventy degrees in there during the summer, so taking your time is advisable. During cooler months, bring a jacket.


Interior of the Casemate Museum (from www.tripadvisor.com)

Exiting the Casemate Museum, turn to your right and head up to Flagstaff Bastion, where the Fort’s flagpole is situated and from where salutes were fired on Independence Day and when foreign warships entered Hampton Roads. I myself was present there when two Soviet warships entered in 1989 and received a full artillery salute - a moment best described as the Twilight Zone by way of Tom Clancy. At this point, I strongly urge any visitors to take the time to walk the length of the ramparts - the view is, of course stunning and one can actually see quite clearly the layout of the fort at its height,as well as possible to get good pics of the upper layers of Batteries Irwin and Parrott across the street. There are also two special details that can only be seen on the ramparts -first, soldiers’ grafitti scratched into the masonry - some clearly going as far back as the Civil War - can still be seen. It is never much, usually just initials and a date, but it provides a tangible link to the men who stood on those ramparts for almost 180 years. Second, there is something that can be called sad and delightfully creepy - a pet cemetery that runs along the outer wall of the rampart. Supposedly started around 1916, it became an unofficially accepted tradition for Monroe and some Langley Field/AFB families until the Fort closed in 2011. The sites are maintained by the US Park Service, and range from simple stones with a name and date scratched into them up to fairly elaborate markers. No further burials are permitted now, and any resemblance to best selling horror novels is purely coincidental. There are several other points of interest inside the Fort itself - several ACW era cannon are on display, and the Chapel of the Centurion is a wonderful artifact in its own right. Keep in mind that much of the old base housing has been turned into apartments and homes, so be aware that you can possibly wind up in someone’s backyard while doing your exploring. Roads, especially inside the Fort, are narrow and require extra caution.

The Fort is open 365 days a year from 0500 to midnight, while the Casemate Museum is open seven days a week from 1000 -1630. There is no entry fee to either the Fort proper or the Museum. It is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Years’ Day. Strongly recommend that you allow at least 3-4 hours to visit and explore the entire site, including the Museum. I give Fort Monroe a 4.9 out of a possible 5 - it may not be the best curated fort on the East Coast but its sheer size and importance alone put it to the forefront, the Casemate Museum is a joy to behold, and the only thing that could make it even better would be if the money could be found to rebuild one of the big batteries and allow tours on/inside them. Even without that, however, Monroe is worth a trip all on its own.


1 If you're interested in writing a review of a museum near you, let me know at battleshipbean at gmail.

2 Traffic on I-64 at either rush hour is a legendary horror show. Plan accordingly.

3 Locations for all Monroe’s batteries, complete with GPS coordinates, can be found at FortWiki.

4 As a point of interest, while I was stationed at Langley AFB in the 80s, local legend said there were a disturbing number of UXOs in and around the various batteries, which is still cited as one reason that they’ve not been torn down nor has any real new construction gone up there. The US Army says that all is well, so I will leave it at this: ACW ammo and weapons have been found in casemates as late as the 80s, and unusual things are still found in the waters of Hampton Roads. Should you decide to go off the beaten path, tread carefully.

Comments

  1. July 05, 2020Bobbert said...

    "The Fort is open 365 days a year from..."

    you mean 361 days : )

  2. July 05, 2020Johan Larson said...

    A legendary "hoprror" show?

  3. July 05, 2020bean said...

    I suspect the reserved days are for the Casemate Museum, not the fort as a whole.

    As for the typo, I use enough words that spellcheck doesn't have that I'm sort of immune to it at this point. There's one word in this comment that's flagged, and I know it's right.

  4. July 05, 2020Doctorpat said...

    I still find it weird that a famous naval battle is named after some roads.

  5. July 06, 2020bean said...

    It isn't. Hampton Roads is a body of water, specifically a roadstead (a sheltered place for ships to anchor without much risk from wind, current or tide). Roads is a slightly archaic term for a roadstead.

  6. July 06, 2020quanticle said...

    Does that usage of the word "roads" have anything to do with the name of Rhode Island? Or is that just a coincidence?

  7. July 06, 2020AlphaGamma said...

    @quanticle- It's a coincidence. The name of Rhode Island comes either from the Greek island of Rhodes, or from the Dutch Roodt Eylant (Rood Eiland in modern spelling) meaning "Red Island".

    The use of "Roads" to mean a harbour is related IIRC to the French Rade, as in La Grande Rade de Cherbourg which has some impressive coastal defences itself- they were originally built for Napoleon's planned invasion of England, but remained militarily important until 1944.

  8. July 06, 2020bean said...

    And of course the link is in French. I went looking for information on French coastal defenses for some of my earlier posts, and I couldn't find anything about forts actually built by the French themselves. This is properly annoying, but I don't really have the time to fix it, particularly as I'm entirely monolingual. If anyone wants to contribute information about their country's coastal defenses, I'd be happy to have it.

  9. July 06, 2020AlphaGamma said...

    Sorry, should have warned that it was in French. I'm not French or an expert on France, and don't really know where to start looking for information- but I can definitely give you a summary of what the link has to say about the Cherbourg Harbour defences if you'd be interested.

  10. July 06, 2020bean said...

    Frustration isn't directed at you. It's at the lack of English-language interest in other country's coastal defenses. Based on the dates, those are chronologically covered by parts already written, so if there's any good bits, let me know and I'll edit them in.

  11. July 06, 2020Johan Larson said...

    Google Translate does a decent job with that French-language site.

  12. July 06, 2020AlphaGamma said...

    The most interesting parts of the Cherbourg article, I think, are where it talks about the later changes in response to the 'torpedo-shell crisis' (I'm not sure if this is a term used much in English sources, it refers to forts suddenly being rendered obsolete by innovations in shells in the 1880s). The forts that were still in use at that point were covered in layers of concrete to protect them from the new 'torpedo-shells'- the exception is the oldest, Fort du Homet in the inner harbour, which had been disarmed in 1875 because new bastions in the Arsenal were better positioned to defend it. The article doesn't really go into any detail about the armament of the forts before these renovations.

    What I hadn't realised is how long it took to build the Grande Rade, which is the largest artificial harbour in the world. It was ordered by Louis XVI in 1779, but wasn't finished until 1853- though the central fortress of the harbour wall was commissioned in 1804.

  13. July 06, 2020Chuck said...

    Nice seeing some Hampton Roads content. Fun* bit of local lore: When the fort was closed during base realignment, there was some talk of whether or not it would be preserved seeing as how it occupies a relatively desirable piece of real estate. Preservationists won out with the assistance of the historical artifacts themselves, namely the tens of thousands of pieces of ammunition ever so helpfully dumped into the moat for reasons unknown. There is probably a (reckless and illegal) lesson to be had here for future preservationists.

    *fun not guaranteed

  14. July 06, 2020bean said...

    @AlphaGamma

    Thanks. That is very interesting. I've edited a bit into Coastal Defenses Part 5 mentioning that. I suspect that this was the gunnery advances in the middle of the century, which took quite a while to work themselves out.

  15. July 07, 2020John Schilling said...

    There's a bit on the "Torpedo-Shell Crisis" here. Some of the details in the article are wrong, in particular the alleged improvements in shell design "From the early 1870s to the mid-1880s"; steel shell bodies and high explosive charges didn't come into play until the late 1880s at the earliest, I think, and everything else had been demonstrated during the American Civil War.

    But it looks like the French didn't bother to pay attention to the American Civil War, spent the 1870s building a bunch of polygonal forts much like Fort Pulaski, and only in 1886 tested one of those forts against the sort of rifled shell guns that had so quickly reduced Fort Pulaski a generation earlier.

  16. July 07, 2020bean said...

    Neat finds. Thank you. I'll go in and add a bit more on what France was doing to Coastal Defenses Part 5.

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