Friday, February 29, 2008

Hold the Fort!

One of the more interesting pieces of legislation and related political activity in the United States is the Congressionally mandated Base Re-Alignment and Closure, more commonly referred to for obvious reasons as BRAC. BRAC is probably unique on this planet as it is the process by which the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Armed Services compare their real estate holdings against current and projected needs. Property determined to be surplus to those needs is then released by DoD for the use of other federal, state, or local government agencies or put up for sale. The concept dates back to the 1960s and you can find its history on Wikipedia and on the Global Security.Org website. The latest BRAC round began in 2005 and the Commission’s own website presents its full report. As you may imagine, however, this can be a process fraught with pressure from every direction as industry, business, community, political interests, as well as the different levels of government compete for a particular piece of real estate.

But I also want you to visit The Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park because the 2005 BRAC report states that the military will leave Fort Monroe on the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, Virginia in 2011. CFMNP is pushing for Fort Monroe to then become a National Park, supported by the Civil War Preservation Trust and other preservation organizations, and me (for what that’s worth) and I hope will be supported by you. It this proposed park is to become reality, it will need strong public support and time for the National Park Service to plan and budget for its preservation and presentation to the public.

Construction of Fort Monroe was begun in 1819 in the vicinity of the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse (built in 1802 and still there today). It was planned as a first class fortification for the defense of Hampton Roads and the James River (leading ultimately to Richmond). The fort was part of what is called the Third System of forts intended to strengthen the young nation’s Atlantic coast defenses after the demonstrated ease with which British forces invaded American territory during the War of 1812. It was named for the fifth president, James Monroe (1817-1825) and designed by the French military engineer Simon Bernard, who bore the American brevet rank of a brigadier-general based upon the recommendation of the Marquis de Lafayette and his own prior service at that rank to Emperor Napoleon I.

Called Fortress Monroe until officially changed to Fort Monroe in 1832, the new masonry, granite, and earth fort was located on the point of Old Point Comfort and linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and a single bridge. The fort was given a perimeter circuit of 2,394 yards and encompassed 63 acres. Its placement and its design as a regularly bastioned work with seven fronts or faces, was expected to make it impossible to take by siege, which it never was.

Although Bernard designed and began the construction of Fort Monroe, it was not actually completed until 1847, long after his return to France in 1831. At that time it already hosted the U.S. Army’s first service school – the Artillery School of Practice since 1824, and in the first half of the 20th Century it would host that school’s successor, the Coast Artillery School, making Fort Monroe the center for harbor defense training and for related research and development programs. Monroe would later serve as Headquarters, U.S. Continental Command (CONARC). Today’s Fort Monroe covers 570 acres (including the fort) and hosts the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), as well as Army Accessions Command, Headquarters Cadet Command, and other Army, Navy, and defense organizations.

Although Fort Monroe never saw battle, its story is deeply entwined with our nation’s history. Robert E. Lee was stationed there from 1831-1834. The Fort’s Casemate Museum also includes the cell in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held after his capture at the end of the Civil War. During that war, the Union garrison at Fort Monroe rendered it an important base of support for operations along the Confederacy’s Atlantic coast and against its capitol city of Richmond in 1862 and again in 1864-1865. Southern slaves also recognized this Northern outpost as an outlet to freedom and made active use of its existence throughout the war.

If you are interested in the subject of forts and fortifications in general, whether in the United States, Europe, or anywhere in the world, you may also want to visit the website of The Fortress Study Group and join this active international group of scholars, historians, and enthusiasts.