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Travel Guide to Exploring Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia

Learn about exploring the largest stone fort in America.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

Located on these road trip routes:

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Freedom’s Fortress. Gibraltar of the Chesapeake. America’s largest stone fortress. Fort Monroe is famous for a lot of reasons. And now, visitors can walk the halls once traveled by presidents and poets.

Fort Monroe National Monument was established in 2011. The National Park Service maintains the grounds – areas like the seawall trail and beaches – while the Fort Monroe Authority manages the visitor center and museum. The government entities keep the historic fort well-maintained and entertaining for visitors.

Find out what you can do with a day trip visit to Fort Monroe National Monument, the stories behind the monikers, and some interesting people connected to this site on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

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National Park Service app displayed on three smartphones

National Park Service App

The official National Park Service app is an all-in-one tool for planning a national park adventure and finding your way around the park. The app has information about every national park site across the country, essentially putting all the online information at your fingertips.

The free app features interactive maps, self-guided tours, amenities like restrooms, and lists of things to do. The powerful app has an offline mode – with a single tap, you can save the park for offline use to access all the information later. You’ll also have access to important information like alerts, contacts, fees, and operating hours.

Download the free app on iOS and Android.

Fort Monroe National Monument Map

How to use this map: Click the icon in the top-left corner to open the Map Legend, then click on any of the legend items to display more information. If you have a Google account, click the (very faint) star at the end of the map’s name to save this map to your account, then access the map from your smartphone during your trip.

Zoom out to see the lodging options.

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Large stone walls of Fort Monroe overlook a water filled moat.
Large stone walls of Fort Monroe overlook a water filled moat.

The History of Fort Monroe

Shortly after Captain John Smith and the Virginia Company landed in the New World, this small point was scouted for a fortification to protect the young colony. In 1609, Fort Algernourne was completed. It was a wooden fort with 7 mounted canons manned by 50 colonists.

During the War of 1812, British forces entered the Chesapeake Bay unchallenged and burned the nation’s capital. After the war, Congress appropriated nearly a million dollars to develop the Third System of Forts. A commission appointed by President James Monroe identified potential sites around the country’s coast for new forts.

Work began in 1819 on the fort named after the president at the time. Overseen by Simon Bernard, the fort was ironically built using slave labor. When completed in 1834, the perimeter wall was 1.3 miles long and 10 feet thick, making it the largest stone fortification ever built in America.

Fort Monroe remained in federal control throughout the Civil War. On May 27, 1861, three escaped enslaved people – Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory – arrived at the fort seeking their freedom. Major General Benjamin Butler made the controversial and pivotal decision of declaring the men “contraband.” Since Virginia considered the men property, but the state had seceded from the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied. And seized property was a spoil of war.

The decision led to the fort’s everlasting nickname – Freedom’s Fortress.

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Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center

The Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center was built in 1909 as the Coast Artillery Library. The building stands outside the mote surrounding the fort. It’s an excellent place to begin exploring the free national park site.

The 16,000-square-foot building features exhibits about the fort’s long history. Archives are available upon request for studying parts of the fort’s history.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Mannequin of Edgar Allan Poe in the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe.
Exhibits in the Fort Monroe Casemate Museum.

Casemate Museum

The Casemate Museum is a fascinating opportunity to explore inside the fort’s walls – an area called the casemate. Historically, the casemates served as living quarters, operational facilities, and artillery emplacements. But there are a few hidden parts of history that are incredible to explore.

The Casemate Museum includes the Jefferson Davis Cell. Over a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, the Confederate president was arrested in Georgia. He was transported to Fort Monroe and confined to a damp cell for nearly six months. He was eventually moved to better accommodations in the fort at Carroll Hall, but he was never brought to trial.

Another illustrious resident was the poet Edgar Allan Poe. Under the alias “Edgar A. Perry,” he served in the United States Army for two years. He was briefly stationed at Fort Monroe before abruptly resigning to attend West Point. An exhibit in the Casemate Museum expands on his military career – and charges of dereliction of duty for spending this time writing poems.

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1619 African Landing Memorial

A recent – and controversial – development at Fort Monroe National Monument is the establishment of the 1619 African Landing Memorial. Current research indicates the first enslaved African Americans sold in the Colonies happened at this point.

After raiding a Portuguese ship in the Caribbean, the White Lion traveled to Fort Algernourne and traded “20 and odd” Africans for goods. It’s the earliest documented trade of enslaved people in North America.

A two lane road passes through the narrow Main Gate into the interior of Fort Monroe.
A two lane road passes through the narrow Main Gate into the interior of Fort Monroe.

Main Gate

There are two immeasurably fascinating aspects of Fort Monroe National Monument. First, it’s still surrounded by a 5-foot-deep watery mote. Second, visitors can drive vehicles into the 63-acre interior of the fort.

The Main Gate was the first portion of the fort to be completed in 1820. But the gate isn’t exactly up to current codes – it has a 12’3” clearance but only one lane wide. A traffic light controls traffic in and out.

It’s a fascinating experience driving a modern vehicle inside a nearly 200-year-old fort.

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Old Point Comfort Lighthouse overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.
Old Point Comfort Lighthouse overlooking the Chesapeake Bay.

Flagstaff Bastion

The Flagstaff Bastion offers the best view anywhere inside Fort Monroe National Monument. One of the seven bastions around the fort, this one features a towering flagpole beside the platforms that once supported mounted artillery.

The Flagstaff Bastion is accessible with a long ramp. The angle is slightly steep.

At the top, visitors are treated to a stunning view of the Chesapeake Bay. To the left is the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse. To the right is the waterfront Continental Park. And straight ahead is the Hampton Road Tunnel – a section of Interstate 643 that dips beneath the water’s surface.

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Old Point Comfort Lighthouse

When Captain John Smith and his weary settlers finally landed in 1607, they called it Point Comfort.

The Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was one of the first maritime lighthouses built by the United States. Completed in 1802 and lit in 1803, it’s also one of the few remaining lighthouses on the Chesapeake Bay.

Ironically, the British used it as a lookout tower during the War of 1812.

The lighthouse is not open to the public because it is still active.

Building #1 – Old Quarters

Completed in 1819, Building #1 is the oldest building in Fort Monroe. For nearly the first century, it served as the commander’s quarters. When Major General Benjamin Butler issued the pivotal “contraband decision” in 1861, these were his living quarters.

President Abraham Lincoln used the quarters when he visited Fort Monroe in 1862. During his brief stay, the president visited Hampton, inspected the USS Monitor, and coordinated a campaign to capture Norfolk.

Building #17 – Lee’s Quarters

Completed in 1823 as an officer’s quarters, Building #17’s most famous tenant was Lieutenant Robert E. Lee. He was stained at Fort Monroe from 1831 until 1834, overseeing the final construction of the fort, including the mote.

During leave in 1831, Lee married Mary Custis, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington from her first marriage. The married couple lived in the quarters. In 1832, Custis Lee was born in the house.

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Chapel of the Centurion

Religious services at Fort Monroe began regularly in 1825 during the fort’s construction. In 1858, the Chapel of the Centurion was dedicated. It was named after the Roman centurion Cornelius, who is widely considered to be the first person to convert to Christianity.

The chapel was the oldest wooden structure for continuous religious services on an Army base until Fort Monroe was decommissioned in 2011. Today, the chapel continues weekly services and can be rented for weddings and events. The building was restored in the 1980s and features exquisite architecture.

Saint Mary Star of the Sea

In 1860, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond agreed with the United States to build a parish church at Fort Monroe. Unlike the Chapel of the Centurion, which was owned by the Army, the building for Saint Mary Star of the Sea would be owned and funded by parishioners.

The first church was completed in 1860. During the Civil War, the Archdiocese of Baltimore maintained the small one-story building. In 1873, the first full-time pastor arrived and supervised the construction of the church’s rectory.

The current church was completed and dedicated in 1903. Regular services are still held at the church, the ninth-oldest parish in the Diocese of Richmond.

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A U.S. Coast Guard sailing vessel travels along the Chesapeake  Bay.

Outlook Beach

Interestingly, Fort Monroe became a resort beach town in the 1880s. The Chamberlain Hotel and Hygeia Hotel were renowned for their restorative baths. Visitors traveled from around the world to stay at the waterfront hotels at the doorstep of the U.S. Army fort.

Outlook Beach is the only beach open to the public for swimming today. During the summer, the City of Hampton keeps lifeguards on duty at the beach.

Fort Monroe Seawall Trail

The 2-mile Fort Monroe Seawall Trail (bookmark on AllTrails)is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and enjoy stunning views of the Chesapeake Bay. A concrete trail begins near the marina, passes in front of The Chamberlin and Continental Park, and continues to Battery Irwin. From there, the trail follows a paved road no longer open to vehicles to the Paradise Ocean Club.

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How to Get to Fort Monroe

There are a few ways to get to Fort Monroe at Old Point Comfort. Which way you take depends on how badly the traffic is congested on Interstate 64.

The shortest route is to take Exit 268, turn onto South Mallory Street, and then turn right onto East Mellen Street. Pass through the old part of Hampton across the Mugler Memorial Bridge to a traffic light. Continue straight to Ingalls Road.

Another way is to take Exit 263 – this route bypasses congested traffic on the interstate. Take U.S. Highway 258 to Mercury Boulevard, cross the bridge, and turn left onto Ingalls Road at the traffic light.

Where to Stay

There are lots of great places to stay near Fort Monroe National Monument. Virginia Beach is less than an hour away. You could also head across the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and find a vacation rental home.

But if you want to stay nearby, I recommend a few great hotels.

The Landing at Hampton Marina is a luxurious waterfront hotel with everything you need for a comfortable getaway. Get something to eat at the two on-site restaurants, swim in the rooftop pool, and enjoy the spectacular view from bay windows in the guest rooms. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Holiday Inn Express is at Exit 263, an easy twenty-minute drive from the national monument. The hotel features an indoor swimming pool and comfortable guest rooms. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Hyatt Place also features an indoor swimming pool with larger guest rooms with sleeper sofas that would be perfect for larger families. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Best Western is the budget-friendly option with comfortable guest rooms and an outdoor swimming pool. Book now with Booking.com or Expedia.com

Frequently Asked Questions

When was Fort Monroe built?

Fort Monroe was built from 1819 to 1834.

Who is Fort Monroe named after?

Fort Monroe is named after President James Monroe. He was the president at the time construction began on the fort.

Why was Fort Monroe built?

Fort Monroe was built after the British effortlessly entered the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812. It was part of the Third System of Forts, a series of coastal fortifications to prevent enemy troops from ever landing on American soil again.

What is the largest stone fort in the United States?

Fort Monroe is the largest stone fortification in the United States. The fort’s walls are 1.3 miles long and 10 feet thick.

Can you go inside Fort Monroe?

Visitors can explore Fort Monroe on foot and by car! The fort’s interior is so large that paved roads connect various buildings and entrances.

What is Fort Monroe famous for?

Fort Monroe is most famous for an incident on May 27, 1861. Three escaped enslaved people – Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Sheppard Mallory – arrived at the fort seeking their freedom. Major General Benjamin Butler made the controversial and pivotal decision of declaring the men “contraband.” Since Virginia considered the men property, but the state had seceded from the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act no longer applied. And seized property was a spoil of war.

When did Fort Monroe close?

Fort Monroe was decommissioned in 2011.

When was Fort Monroe National Monument established?

Fort Monroe National Monument was established in 2011 by an Executive Order signed by President Barack Obama.

Can you drive inside Fort Monroe?

One of the most interesting aspects of Fort Monroe is that visitors can drive their cars through the Main Gate, built in 1820, inside the fort.

When was the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse built?

Old Point Comfort Lighthouse was built in 1802 and lit in 1803. It was one of the first lighthouses completed by the new United States.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
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