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A fort, a refuge and a prison

Courtesy Casemate Museum

Fort Monroe played an unusual and critical role in the Civil War and has ties to leaders of both sides.

Situated at critical Point Comfort at the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula in Hampton, Va., Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, was constructed between 1819 and 1832, with a young Army engineer, Robert E. Lee, playing a key role in its final touches.

“It was never taken by the Confederacy,” said Claire Samuelson, director of the Casemate Museum, which preserves the fort’s rich history. “It was a stronghold in enemy territory.”

Because of its key location, the six-sided fort, which was surrounded by a moat, was a critical supply center and jumping-off point for several major campaigns.

President Abraham Lincoln visited the fort in May 1862, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner there for two years after the war.

“We have the casemate [cell] where he was actually confined for a few months,” said Samuelson.

After pleas from his wife and doctor, authorities moved Davis from the damp cell to a more comfortable building that no longer stands. The museum has his pipe, religious medallion, and the lock and key for his cell door. Tours of the museum also point out the quarters where Lee lived and the building used by Lincoln on his visit.

However, the fort’s most important role as a refuge for escaped slaves followed an 1861 decision by the fort’s commander, Gen. Benjamin Butler.

“We focus on Butler’s decision in 1861 when three slaves ran away from a Confederate colonel in Hampton. He declared them contraband of war and did not give them back to their owner,” said Samuelson.

The fort became a refuge for thousands of slaves and was known as Freedom’s Fortress.

Samuelson said the museum also discusses the historic battle of the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack. The site of the battle in Hampton Roads can be seen from the top of the fort.

Fort Monroe, which was declared a national monument in November by President Barack Obama, was decommissioned in September. However, the Casemate Museum will remain open.