Fort Monroe Could Be the Crowned Jewel of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

Of all the sites in Virginia that could be used to interpret the Civil War from multiple perspectives Fort Monroe is right there at the top of my list.  Tim Kaine toured the facility yesterdayand briefly commented on the site's significance, but stopped short of taking a position on its future status once the military leaves in 2011 – the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The National Park Service has surveyed the ground, but has not pushed for the site to fall under its jurisdiction.  Personally, I would love to see the NPS take control since I am confident that they would do a first-rate job of interpreting the site.

In addition to the obvious focus on its military significance, Fort Monroe was also a destination for fugitive slaves early in the war, which makes it central to telling the story of emancipation.  Finally, the incarceration of Jefferson Davis makes it an ideal place to tell the complex story of Reconstruction.  While I would like to see all of these themes explored, I am especially interested in using the site to interpret how black Southerners forced the issue of emancipation on Lincoln and the North, and in doing so, helped to redefine the very idea of freedom in America.  I've said it before, but I find it bizarre that we don't emphasize emancipation and freedom in our civil war, given the rhetoric that as Americans we hold so dear.    Such a focus would also help us to bridge barriers between our popular perceptions of the war and the black community.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2008 @ 16:40

    I don’t think we really disagree Bob. It was indeed complex, but I believe that Fortress Monroe is a wonderful opportunity to discuss the impact that fugitive slaves had on the Union army on the Peninsula as well as on the Lincoln administration and the rest of the North.

    By the way, I agree that Manning’s book is well worth reading, but I tend to think she exaggerates the extent that Union soldiers pushed for the end of slavery in 1861 and early 1862. Perhaps it was true of western armies, but probably not in the Army of the Potomac.


  • Bob Pollock Aug 21, 2008 @ 13:33

    I would not want to take anything away from black Southerners efforts to free themselves from bondage, but don’t you think “black Southerners forced the issue of emancipation on Lincoln and the North, and in doing so, helped to redefine the very idea of freedom in America,” is a bit of an overstatement? The war was about slavery from the very beginning, even if the cause of Union was the rallying cry. Even if they were a minority, Northern abolitionists had a profound impact. Lincoln was always anti-slavery, even if he was not an abolitionist, and as Chandra Manning makes clear, Northern soldiers early on recognized that slavery needed to be abolished because it was slavery that drove secession. Without doubt, black Southerners helped bring about the end of slavery, and admittedly they have not been given the recognition they deserve, but it was a complex combination of factors that led to emancipation.

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