Editor’s note: The first in an occasional series exploring the museums and historic sites of the Virginia Peninsula area.
The Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe documents hundreds of years of American history.
The land at Fort Monroe has served as a strategic stronghold at the Chesapeake Bay since the 1600s and the current fort dates back to the 1830s. The Casemate Museum, which sits within the walls of the fort, opened in 1951.
Named after President James Monroe, the government used Fort Monroe as a military base until 2011. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2011 to create Fort Monroe National Monument as a part of the National Park Service. The Casemate Museum was created to tell the story of the fortress, from its beginnings as Fort Algernourne in 1609 through its role as a Union stronghold during the Civil War until its deactivation as a military installation in 2011.
Five pieces you have to see
Jefferson Davis’ cell
Following the Union’s victory in the Civil War, Confederate president Jefferson Davis spent two years imprisoned at the fort. You can visit his cell and see the United States flag that hung in the cell. The cell’s door is also on exhibit.
The museum details the decision of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler to grant asylum to three escaped slaves in 1861. Butler considered the slaves contraband of war. Congress eventually passed legislation backing Butler’s decision. Thousands of slaves eventually sought refuge at the Union stronghold and in Hampton.
Fort Monroe has several witnesses to much of American history on its grounds. A number of live oaks date back hundreds of years, including the roughly 500-year-old Algernoune Oak. You can find the Algernoune Oak on the parade ground northeast of the Casemate Museum. Also look out for the variety of birds that frequent the fort, which sits on the Atlantic Flyway migration route.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse
The oldest lighthouse still in use on the Chesapeake Bay, Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was constructed in 1802. You can visit the lighthouse on Fenwick Road just east of the Chamberlin.
Casemate and fort architecture
Museum director Robin Reed said many people don’t realize the museum is inside the wall of the fort. As you walk through the museum, pay attention to its construction and notice the different uses for the casemates. Fort Monroe is the largest stone fort ever built in the country. Frenchman Simon Bernard, who served as a top engineer for Napoleon before being banished from France, designed the fort. Robert E. Lee later played a role in the construction of Fort Monroe as well as Fort Wool, which sits across the water from Fort Monroe.
A few pieces that you may miss if you don’t look carefully.
If you take a stroll on top of the fort directly to the left of the museum, you’ll find a pet cemetery. Military families created the cemetery, according to Fort Monroe historian Robert Kelly. The cemetery includes some working Army service dogs.
President Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Monroe a few times and stayed in Quarters No. 1, a structure close to the museum. But at least 14 other presidents visited — including 11 while in office. Herbert Hoover gave his radio address from the commandant’s house in 1931.
A location at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay ensured Fort Monroe’s importance through much of American history. The first English settlers traveled past the area on the way to Jamestown and settlers would build Fort Monroe’s forerunner Fort Algernoune on the site. After the British traveled up the Chesapeake Bay to attack Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, the U.S. government authorized the building of Fort Monroe to protect future attacks. With the addition of Fort Wool across the channel, the military could better guard access to the bay.
“We have very much the sense of a community museum … (We also have) a large, national story to tell.” — Museum director Robin Reed.
Short on time?
A suggested route if you don’t have all day at the museum.
The Casemate Museum is small enough to get through in an hour. But if you take a thorough trip through the museum, you may need to sacrifice time walking the walls above the fortress and exploring some of the historic properties inside the fort.
Does the museum work for children? What about specific interests?
The Casemate Museum participates in the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program and has awarded more than 500 Junior Ranger badges, Kelly said.
If the children lose interest, then you can always visit the beach at Fort Monroe or go for walks inside the fort or on the seawall. The Casemate Museum offers a 16-stop, self-guided walking tour that includes spots all over Fort Monroe. The fort also hosts summerlong campfire talks 7 p.m. Fridays at the Colonies RV and Travel Park, Kelly said.
History, Civil War and military buffs should all enjoy the museum. Reed said the museum has seen an increase in interest in the arc of African-American history at the site, which began with the arrival of the first Africans in 1619 to the contraband decision that eventually gave way to the Emancipation Proclamation to the first black president, Barack Obama, designating the fort as a national monument.
Best time to visit: The museum isn’t generally overwhelmed with visitors, so you should be able to enjoy your visit any time. A National Park Service ranger-led walking tour leaves the Casemate Museum 11 a.m. daily.
Hours: Open daily, 10:30 a.m.to 4:30 p.m. May through September. Closed Mondays from October through April.
Admission cost: Free for self-guided tours.
Strategy for visiting: Take the linear tour of the Casemate Museum, but be sure to save time to walk along the fort’s walls. You can get a great view of the water and the Naval Station Norfolk from on top of the wall. Be sure to check out Quarters No. 1 — the building Abraham Lincoln and other presidents and the Marquis de Lafayette stayed in while visiting — the parade ground and head outside the walls to see Old Point Comfort Lighthouse and some of the batteries. If your visit goes through lunch or dinner time, then you can eat at the Chamberlin or the Deadrise. The Chamberlin has a semi-casual dress code and recommends reservations. Fort Monroe also has Oozlefinch Craft Brewery.
The Daily Press brings you a new tour every month. Check out DP Tours at dailypress.com/dptours.