Fort Monroe: Birthplace of the Civil War-era Freedom Movement

Fort Monroe, Virginia 23651

On Tuesday, November 1, President Obama named Fort Monroe a National Monument. Please join us in thanking him for his extraordinary act to secure Fort Monroe's rightful place among the giants of American history. Act Now »

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Aerial view of Fort Monroe.

Credit: Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park


Serving as a key defensive site at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay for 400 years, Fort Monroe is one of the least known and most important places in America. It was the landing site of the first enslaved people brought to North America, and functioned as an assembly, training, and embarkation point for U.S. forces in the Seminole Wars, suppression of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Black Hawk War, Mexican War, and Civil War. Fort Monroe protected important military and civilian resources located inland during World War I and World War II. Since then, it has served as a major headquarters for training soldiers for war.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Fort Monroe became the birthplace of the Civil War-era freedom movement when three brave enslaved men escaped the Confederate Army and fled in a small boat to relative safety at Fort Monroe. There, the Union commander seized these men as “contraband” of war, an unusual legal maneuver that provided refuge for the three men, and in turn, heralded the beginning of the end of slavery in America. Over the course of the Civil War, more than 500,000 African American women, children, and men would liberate themselves, following in the footsteps of those first three freedom seekers at Fort Monroe, leading to one of the war’s most extraordinary—and overlooked— chapters. Preservation of Fort Monroe is critical to our Civil War heritage.

Challenge: The Future of Fort Monroe Remains Uncertain

On September 15, 2011 the U.S. Army will vacate Ft. Monroe following the recommendation of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, and the lands and buildings will revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Governor of Virginia is willing to donate key property at Fort Monroe to allow the National Park Service to help manage this treasured national historic resource in partnership with the  Commonwealth. However, it may be years before a National Park designation would be enacted by Congress. To survive, it is imperative that the buildings and lands at Fort Monroe remain in productive use.

National Trust Recommendation: Establish Ft. Monroe as a National Monument

Fort Monroe: YesFort Monroe should be preserved and interpreted to benefit the American public through a joint working partnership of the National Park Service and the Commonwealth of Virginia. This constructive partnership is supported by Virginia’s Hampton Roads Congressional Delegation, Governor Robert McDonnell, Hampton’s Mayor Molly Ward, the Fort Monroe Authority, as well as the nation’s historic preservation and conservation communities.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes that establishment of a National Monument through the Antiquities Act would be a win-win for the American public and for this nationally important historic place. Establishment of a National Monument now would allow Congress to continue to pursue a National Park designation for Fort Monroe through legislation while the working partnership of the National Park Service and Commonwealth of Virginiawould kick off immediately after the Army leaves Fort Monroe.

Since 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been actively engaged, with its allies, to help preserve historic Fort Monroe:    

  • The National Trust is a “Consulting Party” for the Section 106 review at Fort Monroe pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act.  One result of the Section 106 process is the Fort Monroe Programmatic Agreement which provides significant protection for the National Historic Landmark.  
  • The National Trust served on the Master Plan Steering Committee of the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority which created the Fort Monroe Reuse Plan. The first principle of the Reuse Plan is to “Protect this historic place and keep it vital,” using first-rate stewardship strategies. 
  • The National Trust served as a member of the Historic Preservation Advisory Group, convened by the Fort Monroe Authority, helping to guide creation of the Interpretive Master Plan and Design Standards for Fort Monroe. Importantly, we advised the Fort Monroe Authority about the benefits of creating a unit of the National Park System at Fort Monroe.  
  • The National Trust is a long-time defender of the Antiquities Act and, in March 2011, initiated an advocacy campaign to promote creation of a National Monument at Fort Monroe through the Antiquities Act. We helped promote extensive public participation in meetings with the National Park Service over the summer to make a strong case for a National Monument within the National Park System. 

Outcome: Many Benefits for Fort Monroe, Virginia, and the Nation

National Monument status would give this little known but nationally important historic place the attention and recognition it deserves while increasing heritage tourism in the Hampton Roads area. It would help protect our shared heritage at Fort Monroe while providing important assets for interpretation, public education, and recreation. The first Presidentially proclaimed National Monument in Virginia would bring much-needed national attention to the hidden story of the Civil War-era freedom movement and better educate the public about one of the Civil War’s most inspiring chapters.

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