Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads, VA is a place with a storied history that dates back to the beginning of America. It was on these grounds that the first enslaved African-Americans came to the English colonies in 1619. This site was also known as “Freedom’s Fortress” during the Civil War, as thousands of contraband slaves who made it to its walls were given their freedom by Union Gen. Benjamin Butler. 155 years ago this month, it served as the prison for the former Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. The fort continued to be used by the military for over 140 years before being decommissioned in 2011. Today, the fort’s lovely grounds and buildings are open to visitors, including the Casemate Museum where Davis’ jail cell was located. It makes for a fun day trip, even in the midst of the pandemic closures (be sure to adhere to local, state, and federal travel restrictions).
Fort Monroe is located in Hampton, VA, about 1 ½ hours east of Richmond. Its location on a peninsula at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay makes it a perfect place for a defensive site, and the first fort was built here by the earliest English colonists in 1609. A decade later, this site, then known as Point Comfort, became the place where the first enslaved African-Americans were brought to the English colonies. You can visit Point Comfort today, located just outside of the national monument grounds.
During the Civil War, the fort remained in Union hands even while Virginia became part of the Confederate States, and President Lincoln visited here in 1862 and 1865 to strategize with his generals. As “Freedom’s Fortress” during the war, thousands of enslaved people endured hard travels to make it here to freedom.
It is quite ironic that after the war, Davis was imprisoned here.
As you make your way onto the actual fort grounds, you will go over a moat and through a single lane entrance at the main gate, which is where the contraband slaves first would have entered as well.
The fort has acres of walking trails, parade grounds, and beaches to explore. Be mindful that some of the buildings are now private residences so please respect those boundaries. To help plan your visit, download a map of the fort here.
Our son loved wandering the ramparts of the fort’s walls (but be sure to hold tight to little ones’ hands!).
Once the pandemic restrictions have lifted, I highly encourage you to take your children to the Casemate Museum, where you can see artifacts from the fort’s long history.
There are over 24 rooms to see in the museum, all housed in the neat brick casemate style.
The museum brings to life this long history, beginning with the colonists.
Your children can also learn about how the area was pivotal in the War of 1812 and how it spurred the construction of the fort by President James Monroe, hence its name.
The construction of the fort, with the unique arches inside, is fun for kids to learn more about, especially with these funny mannequins! It is the largest stone fort in America!
We were amazed to learn that Edgar Allan Poe was stationed here.
The biggest part of the museum is dedicated to Civil War history, with information displayed about Lincoln’s visits and Butler’s Contraband Decision.
You can view Davis’ sparse cell and the American flag that hung just outside of the cell.
The fort remained a military base for over 140 years after the Civil War, with these casemate rooms serving as individual homes for the soldiers. My son was fascinated by these displays of what life would have been like here.
It even included some places like a bar for the soldiers’ social lives!
Once back outside, don’t miss the cool pile of cannonballs where your kids can safely pose.
Across the street, you can see a historic marker that discusses another famous resident of Fort Monroe, Robert E. Lee. He was stationed here with his family in the 1830s.
Before your visit, be sure to download the Junior Ranger booklet for your child to complete! Before your visit, you can also watch this great PBS show, The Future of America’s Past, about the fort’s history and listen to my favorite history podcast, How We Got Here, episode 4, May 11 – 17, discuss Davis’ time at Fort Monroe.
It is nice to drive or walk along the outer perimeter of the peninsula and imagine what it must have been like there in 1619, 1861 and 1865. So much history in one small place! It makes a great day trip and since most of its sites are outside, you can even visit during the coronavirus shutdown (be sure to check before you go and adhere to all federal, state and local restrictions). Pack a picnic and visit with your family!
Helpful hints (be sure to verify current closures due to the coronavirus pandemic):
- Cost: free
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time:
- Casemate Museum: 30 minutes
- Grounds: 30 minutes – 1 hour
- Gift shop located onsite in Casemate Museum
- Transportation: Fort Monroe is accessible by car only
- Dining options nearby: We ate at a great cafe/coffee shop, right at the main gate, Firehouse Coffee 1881. It can provide sandwiches for a picnic lunch on the grounds of the fort and also has plenty of outdoor seating. Here is a list of other options.
- Hotel options: See the guide by the Hampton Roads Visitor Bureau. Nearby Williamsburg is a good option as well.
- Nearby attractions include: Hampton History Museum, Virginia Air and Space Center (one of our favorite museums!), and Virginia War Museum
Books to Read:
See my booklist for Civil War books on Bookshop.org, an Amazon alternative that supports independent bookstores. This link is an affiliate link where I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Other relevant books not listed in the booklist are:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: