My, how time flies. A week of mixed weather, high expectations and boat work whisked by us and then it was time for the captain’s day off. It’s a negotiated deal … there are no “outs”. The first mate had already done her homework based on a recommendation we received at a Smithfield pub. While bellying up to the bar for a cold draft last weekend, I chatted up the fellow next to me and he suggested that we should check out Fort Monroe and the Casemate Museum at Old Point Comfort near Hampton, Virginia. Why not?
Fort Monroe, strategically situated on the Chesapeake Bay at the confluence of the Elizabeth, Nasemond and James Rivers was an active army base from 1823-2011. Actually, it’s been a fortified stronghold since 1609 when the first European settlers arrived at Point Comfort and recognized its key location. Surrounded by a moat, this seven-sided star fort is the largest stone fort ever built in the USA and it was designated a national monument in 2011. One time dubbed the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake, it’s a pretty impressive place.
We drove over a narrow causeway across the moat through the skinny portal (10’ wide x 12’3” high x ~ 40’ depth) to gain access to the inner fortress grounds.
We found the Casemate Museum and were immediately invited to join an already-in-progress ranger-conducted tour of the grounds. The first thing we learned was the definition of casemate … a series of interconnected, vaulted chambers within the fort’s walls.
As we walked the centuries old ramparts with views of Chesapeake Bay, the well-informed ranger provided insight into the history of the fort. The famous battle of the Ironclads (the Monitor vs. the Merrimack) could have been seen from these very walls. I always imagine with a bit of amazement those who have stood in this very place we were standing now and what they must have seen and felt.
After the tour, we returned to visit the museum itself. Wandering through the exhibits within the casemates was fascinating. The thick granite walls and arches provided the perfect venue for an appreciation of the fort’s strength and longevity.
Fortress Monroe, as it was originally called, has had many notable visitors and residents throughout the years. Edgar Allan Poe was posted at the fort in 1828-29 (and hated it). A young West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee was stationed here with his new bride from 1831-34. Abraham Lincoln discussed battle strategy here during the early days of the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was imprisoned here in 1865.
We roamed from vault to vault, exhibit to exhibit through history. One exhibit, the Missing Man Table, was especially poignant.
It was hot and steamy but we couldn’t resist a mile long trek along the top of the ramparts. Beyond the remnants of gun emplacements and terrific views of the Chesapeake, a unique aspect of the ramparts is the plethora of pet gravestones (yes, pet gravestones) placed along the walls. From the 1930s through the closing of the fort, military personnel were allowed to bury their family pets and mascots along the ramparts. The park ranger estimated some 400 pets were buried in the area, most with marked stones.
The drive around the island itself is quite pleasant. We checked out the marina, historical markers, the historic old Chamberlin Hotel and the beaches. The Old Point Comfort lighthouse dates from 1802 and was an observation post during the War of 1812. Currently maintained by the US Coast Guard, it is the oldest operating lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay.
And all too quickly, we were on the highway heading back to the Atlantic Yacht Basin. Conveniently, the rain had held off while we explored, then came down in buckets once we were snug and secure once again aboard Nine of Cups. There was only one thing left to do … take a nap.