HISTORY OF FORT MONROE
Fort Monroe was built between 1819 and 1834, but the history of fortifications on the site goes back much further. As early as 1608, Captain John Smith recognized the importance of building a fort at Point Comfort, as the English colonists called this land. In 1609 they built Fort Algernourne here, with the mission of protecting the approaches to the colony at Jamestown. Throughout the colonial period, there were other fortifications at this site, but none lasted very long.
When the United States entered the War of 1812 against Great Britain, the young nation soon found that its old systems of defense were inadequate to protect its coasts and port cities. The capture and burning of Washington, D.C. in 1814 was a hard lesson. But from that experience grew a new system of coastal defenses, of which the first and largest was Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe’s original mission was to protect the entrance to Hampton Roads and the several port cities that had access to its waters. The fort accomplished this mission by mounting an impressive complement of the most powerful artillery of the time, 32-pounder guns with a range of over one mile. This was just enough range to cover the main shipping channel into the area. In 1824, the fort received another important mission when it was chosen as the site for the Army’s new Artillery School of Practice.
During the Civil War, Fort Monroe was quickly reinforced so that it would not fall to Confederate forces. In cooperation with the Navy, troops from Fort Monroe extended Union control along the coasts of the Carolinas. Several land operations against Confederate forces also were mounted from the fort, notably the battle of Big Bethel in June 1861, Major General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and the siege of Suffolk in 1863. In 1864 the Army of the James was formed at Fort Monroe. Fort Monroe is also the place at which Major General Benjamin Butler made his famous “contraband” decision, by which escaping slaves reaching Union lines would not be returned to bondage.
Over time the armament at the fort was improved, taking advantage of new technologies. In addition, the fort controlled several subinstallations around Hampton Roads, making the area one of the most heavily defended in the United States. By World War II Fort Monroe served as headquarters for an impressive array of coast artillery guns ranging from 3-inch rapid fire guns to 16-inch guns capable of firing a 2,000 pound projectile 25 miles. In addition, the Army controlled submarine barriers and underwater mine fields. But this vast array of armaments was all made obsolete by the development of the long-range bomber and the aircraft carrier.
After the operational armament was removed, Fort Monroe received a mission that it still maintains to this day. Since World War II the major headquarters that have been stationed here have all been responsible for training soldiers for war. Since 1973 Fort Monroe has been home to the Training And Doctrine Command, which combines the training of soldiers with the development of operational doctrine and the development and procurement of new weapons systems. Fort Monroe continues to have an important effect on the history of our nation and the Army.