Poets and pets: The story of Fort Monroe

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Photo Courtesy of the Hampton CVB
Photo Courtesy of the Hampton CVB

Have you ever fallen hard for someone — or something? You know, so hard you just can’t get it out of your mind?

That happened for me at St. Chappelle in Paris. Stepping into that grand cathedral with its tall stained glass windows that have seen centuries of history, standing on floors where kings have walked. I was overwhelmed.

I never dreamed I’d have an experience like that in the United States. Our history dates back only a few hundred years… No place has seen the history that Paris has seen.

And then….

I visited Fort Monroe. And I found a new historical love. One that relates to MY history. One that tells the story of MY country.

Dear reader, before you go on promise me that you’ll read this article as if I’m introducing you to a new friend. Soak in her story. Let your imagination run free… and maybe, you’ll see the Fort Monroe that captivates me.

Historians and Civil War buffs can tell you the military details of Fort Monroe. I don’t love her for that. Architects can tell you all sorts of neat things about her construction, the slate, iron bars, stone walls and moat, but that’s not why I love her. Though, that moat thing is really cool, especially since Fort Monroe is considered one of the 10 most amazing moats in the world! No…. For me, the draw of Fort Monroe is her story… the tale of poets and pets who called this place home.

Let your imagination join you on the rest of this journey, won’t you?

It’s 1827. A young man named Edgar falls into deep debt and drops out of college. He enlists in the U.S. Army under a pseudonym to hide from bill collectors and is assigned to Fort Monroe, in the Chesapeake Bay.

Fort Monroe Moat

He arrives at the Fort, surrounded by a wide moat and crosses the bridge to gain entry. He walks through a narrow tunnel under the wide Casemate and emerges to see neat rows of 2 and 3 story buildings. The wide, grassy parade ground is there, its edges marked by carefully planted trees.

Fort Monroe Entrance Tunnel

Homes of Fort Monroe

Edgar follows the perimeter road that runs along the inside of the wall, taking in every detail. Perhaps the order of a military base intrigues him. More likely, it rubs him raw, no doubt influencing his future career as a writer and poet.

Interior Wall of the Casemate at Fort Monroe #ftoab

Visitors to the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe today can learn more about this young Edgar Allan Perry (better known as Poe), a real life guy with with real life problems and a vivid, creepy imagination!

It’s now 1831 and a brilliant, young lieutenant by the name of Robert E. Lee is assigned to Fort Monroe to oversee the final phase of its construction (it only took 25 years). Lee’s home, called Quarters 17, is now a private residence. But when he lived here, he had his first child (well, his wife did the hard part). He made military plans. He trained troops… just a normal, everyday life with some military brilliance thrown in.

Robert E. Lee's home at Fort Monroe Photo Courtesy of the Hampton CVB
Robert E. Lee’s home at Fort Monroe
Photo Courtesy of the Hampton CVB

As I stood facing Lee’s home, I wondered if he and Poe ever met — Poe got himself kicked out of the Army in 1828. Did Lee visit during that time? Can you imagine, the rebellious, young Poe crossing paths with the disciplined Lee? Oooooh…. (Interesting side note, just one month after Poe left military service, he published a book Poems and dedicated it to his fellow cadets at Fort Monroe.)

I wonder about Lee’s wife and family. Did they watch maneuvers on the parade grounds? Did she take their baby on walks in a pram? Did Robert E. Lee, the dad not the military man, hang a wooden swing from a tree in the yard?

The next 30 years were relatively quiet at Fort Monroe, military business as usual.

Fort Monroe in the Civil War

Virginia seceded from the Union in 1860, but Fort Monroe remained a Union Army installation, a pivotal point in the history of our nation. (Though I don’t remember ever being taught this in school!) It was surrounded by water on all sides and, beyond that, by Confederate camps. What good could come of a Union fort completely surrounded by the “enemy” — even if the enemy is a brother?

Photograph: Ira Block/Getty Images
Photograph: Ira Block/Getty Images

As it turns out, Fort Monroe’s greatest claim to fame comes from being there — in that place at that time.

During the Civil War, Major General Benjamin Butler, not considered a great general and assigned to Fort Monroe to keep him out of battle, made the greatest decision of his life. When escaped slaves ran to Fort Monroe for protection, Butler could return them to their owners or declare that all slaves — called contraband, referring to their legal status as property — would be protected within the fort. He chose to protect them, saving thousands and earning Fort Monroe the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.” These freed slaves and their children were taught to read and write. Hampton University, located nearby, can trace its roots back to these efforts.

Casemate Museum
Photo Courtesy of Hampton CVB

Imagine those slaves, running for freedom INTO an armed fort. The first brave escapees didn’t know if they’d be rescued or sent back. YEt, they willingly risked their lives. Can you even sense their relief at Maj. Gen. Butler’s decision? Or how they felt to be taught to read and write?

I simply cannot comprehend their emotions as they settled in to bed their first night safely behind those walls. One Fort, an oasis in the dark. One leader, not a great military strategist but a man of compassion. One people, rescued and renewed.

At one point in the war, Confederate Gen. Lee (yes, the same Lee who oversaw construction of Fort Monroe) chose not to attack it. The irony! He knew Fort Monroe inside out and determined it a battle he could not win. Just think, if he hadn’t known the Fort so well and tried to attack. How would the course of history be changed?

After the war, Fort Monroe served as Jefferson Davis’ prison cell, held on charges of treason.  From his small cell with barred windows he could glimpse the free world beyond. Isolated, he had ample time to wonder if he would become the symbol of the fallen Confederacy, killed for acts of treason.

Jefferson Davis Cell at Fort Monroe Photo Courtesy of Hampton CVB
Jefferson Davis Cell at Fort Monroe
Photo Courtesy of Hampton CVB

His wife eventually moved to Fort Monroe to be closer to her husband. Did she walk the streets with her head held high? Was she shunned? Did she observe maneuvers on the parade grounds? Did she climb the stairs to the top of the wall to take in the views of the river and countryside beyond?

Fort Monroe today

Fort Monroe was deactivated in 2011 and named a National Monument. But it’s so much more…. Before returning to Raleigh, I had to go back one more time. I climbed to the terreplein, and walked the perimeter. The grass is manicured and evidence of gun stations remains. I watched as a Naval ship set off to sea.

Fort Monroe view from the Terreplain #ftoab

But I had a reason to be there: To see the “Pet Cemetery.” In a tradition dating back (at least) to 1936, military families who called Fort Monroe home buried their pets up there. These gravestones reveal a sense of the “normal” family life of the people who made this place home. My mind filled with images of little kids, knees bare, running through the streets below chasing after their dogs. I could hear mothers calling kids home to dinner. In that moment, I realized that Fort Monroe is just a regular little town tucked behind a wide wall where people loved. Played. Mourned.

Fort Monroe Pet Cemetery #ftoab

I sat among the graves and soaked it in as the sun set behind me. This — this is American history. It’s our story, and I just can’t let it go.

Dear reader, can you see the Fort Monroe that captivates me?

Useful sites to plan your visit to Fort Monroe

Fort Monroe is part of the US National Park Service. Admission is free. To learn more, click here. 

For a simple walking tour, click here

Plan your visit to Fort Monroe visit the Hampton CVB website. Great staff, I might add!

The Hampton CVB hosted my visit to Hampton, VA. Admission to Fort Monroe and the Casemate Museum is free to all.