Fort Monroe’s ‘amazing story’

Former Army base played key role in the nation’s history

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Print this page by Elizabeth Cooper

As the National Park Service and the Fort Monroe Authority begin to craft the future of the former military installation, city and community leaders want to make sure that its past is not relegated to history.

The stone garrison’s site on Old Point Comfort has played a unique role in many of the events affecting the nation from the time of the Jamestown settlement to its decommissioning as an Army post in September. “Fort Monroe’s story is largely untold,” says Hampton Mayor Molly Ward. “It’s an amazing story.”

Parts of its story verge on irony. The first African slaves in the British colonies arrived at Old Point Comfort in 1619, followed by the birth of the first black child in America.

More than 240 years later, when the fort was under Union control at the dawn of the Civil War, Major General Benjamin Butler declared that escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband” and given sanctuary. Ten thousand slaves eventually fled to Fort Monroe.  The contraband decision helped pave the way for President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. 

“It was the beginning of the end of slavery,” Ward says. Former slaves remained in Hampton, renaming downtown streets Lincoln and Union.

Ward notes that city hall now sits on Lincoln Street. “Find another Confederate stronghold in the South with its city hall on Lincoln Street.” 

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