Fort Monroe is a military installation located in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the Peninsula overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. It was the only federal military installation in the Upper South to remain under United States control throughout the American Civil War (1861–1865).
The village of Hampton, Virginia, near Fort Monroe, was burned by Confederate forces under Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder in operations against Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Union forces. Magruder said he had learned that Butler had intended to use the town for what he called “runaway slaves” and what Butler called “contraband.”
Butler claimed that the few town residents remaining were given 15 minutes to leave and that it was a “wanton act.”
Early in the war, the fort became an outpost of freedom within the Confederacy when Union commanders used it to house refugee slaves. The fort also headquartered the Union Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and several significant military campaigns and combined operations were launched from the installation. Most notably, it served as the staging area for Union major general George B. McClellan’s ill-fated Peninsula Campaign of 1862.
Designed by the French military engineer Brigadier General Simon Bernard, Fort Monroe (sometimes called Fortress Monroe) was conceived as an element of the Third System of coastal defenses outlined by Congress in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Construction on the massive stone and brick walls of the moated, hexagonal fort began in 1819 and continued for the next twenty-five years. It was garrisoned in 1823 and became a prime training and assembly point for artillerymen before the Civil War, including future Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston.
When Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession was approved by the Virginia Convention on April 17, 1861, Union forces attempted to secure all Union installations within the state. The fort did not share the fate of the smoldering Gosport Navy Yard in neighboring Norfolk, which fell into Confederate hands. Instead, Union reinforcements strengthened the garrison at Fort Monroe, and by the end of May 1861, nearly 4,500 officers and men under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler were assigned to its defense.
On May 23, 1861, Butler ordered troops from the fort to disrupt local citizens voting on the ratification of the state secession ordinance. In the ensuing encounter, three slaves escaped to the Union lines. Butler, cognizant that the Confederates were using slaves to construct nearby fortifications, determined that Virginia’s secession nullified his obligation to return the slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He declared the three fugitives “contraband of war” and assigned them to support the Union army at Fort Monroe.
Butler received the approbation of Congress with the passage of the First Confiscation Act on August 6, 1861, which announced that any enslaved person used for a military purpose against the United States could be confiscated. The result was a surge of African American refugees seeking out what they called “Freedom’s Fortress.” Eventually, the Union army established a policy of providing wages, food, and clothing to former slaves in contraband camps throughout the Confederacy. Thus, Fort Monroe was in many ways a staging ground for emancipation.