Earlier this month, President Obama used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia a National Monument. The significance of President Obama’s Proclamation cannot be overstated; it is the first time he has used this authority and Fort Monroe is a unique and historically important military base worth federal protection.
The Proclamation will ensure preservation of the majority of the buildings within the 570-acre National Historic Landmark District as well as significant landscapes and viewsheds. But only 324 acres, or 57 percent of the 570 acres, was designated a National Monument, leaving the rest of the property to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ideally the entire 570-acre property would best be served as protected parkland.
We’ve written before about the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads area and how a new, historic park would have a significant positive impact for the entire region. The opportunity to gain priceless acres of waterfront parkland is especially noteworthy. The National Monument designation includes federal ownership of the parade ground, some buildings, and the beaches, with easements surrounding the entire fortress and moat.
The site has the momentous distinction of being the spot upon which, in 1619, the first Africans destined for the British continental North American colonies landed—the vanguard of an estimated 10–12 million Africans forcibly brought to the colonies and, later, the United States.
Fort Monroe was begun in 1819 and completed in 1834. With a seven-sided shape, walls of stone, ramparts over a mile in circumference, completely surrounded by a water-filled moat, and bristling with huge artillery guns, Fort Monroe was given the nickname “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.” It is the largest fort ever built in the United States.
During the American Civil War, Fort Monroe was one of only a very few strongholds in the South that never fell to the Confederates. Among notable military events that occurred at Fort Monroe was Major General Benjamin Butler’s decision to declare that any slave escaping to Fort Monroe would not be returned but would be kept as “contraband of war.” As word of the novel legal decision spread, thousands of slaves found their way to Fort Monroe, which soon became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.” By the end of the war, thousands of “contraband” were living around the fort. The spot of the first landing of slaves became, after more than 200 years, the spot of their first emancipation.
Fort Monroe continued as an active military base through World Wars I and II. In 1960, the entire post, both inside and outside the moat, was designated a national historic landmark because of its rich military and cultural significance. In 2005, under the Base Realignment and Closure Act, Fort Monroe was ruled surplus by the army and deactivated on September 15, 2011. Although it is no longer an active Army base, the land is still owned by the Army and therefore under federal control. Much of the rest of the base is scheduled to revert to state ownership in January, under control of the Fort Monroe Authority.
Used by 14 presidents since 1906, the Antiquities Act has protected some of the most unique natural and historic features in America, including other urban national properties like the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The main difference between a National Monument and a National Park is the way it obtains its status. The President has the authority to declare a National Monument while Congress declares a National Park. Regardless of designation, it will operate like any other unit within the National Park system. There are currently 21 national park units located in Virginia; Fort Monroe will be the 22nd and the 396th nationwide.
For more information on the deficit of parkland in the Hampton Roads region, read our 2008 report Bracing for Change.