The nation's largest fortification in stone, Fort Monroe is a sublime marriage of engineering form and function, strategically sited where Hampton Roads meets Chesapeake Bay. The powerful massing of its walls reflected against the still waters of its perimeter moat testify to the clarity of vision, unencumbered by Romantic notions of ornament that prevailed in architectural circles in the early republic. Although it is no longer integral to the nation's defense, Fort Monroe remains the headquarters of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command as well as an effective reminder of a site rich in military history.
Before landing at Jamestown in 1607, the first colonists stopped at the spit of land on the north shore of Hampton Roads, naming it Point Comfort in reference to their safe passage. The following year Captain John Smith surveyed the site for its defensive potential, finding it to be satisfactory. Fort Algernourne, an earthwork, was constructed in 1609, stockaded by 1611, and replaced in 1632. Fort George, the third on the site, was constructed of brick in 1728 but leveled by a hurricane twenty-one years later. Only a small battery stood on the site until the War of 1812, when it was briefly occupied by British troops, allowing for enemy incursions westward into the rivers beyond Hampton Roads and northward up the Chesapeake Bay as far as Washington and Baltimore. Alarmed by this breach of the nation's defenses, President James Madison ordered the construction of a series of forts along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In charge of the U.S. Army Board of Engineers undertaking the project was Brigadier General Simon Bernard, a French engineer who had previously served as aide-de-camp to Emperor Napoleon I.
Two forts were constructed flanking Hampton Roads. For the new fort at Point Comfort, named for President James Monroe, Bernard devised an irregular, seven-sided polygon, with two broad fronts facing Hampton Roads and polygonal bastions at each of the corners. A moat surrounds the entire fort so that it is accessible only via bridges that lead to narrow gates. The exterior walls are largely unornamented, save for the main sally port, executed in a severe Doric order reminiscent of the works of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Behind the segmental-arched embrasures in the walls are dozens of casemates—vaulted interior chambers—that are among the era's most sophisticated examples of masonry construction. Inverted arches beneath the floors distribute the heavy weight of the vaults evenly throughout the sandy soil. Most of the casemates were designed to house guns on swiveling carriages, but others were used as living quarters. Fort Wool (formerly Fort Calhoun), a much smaller, kidney-shaped fortification on the south side of Hampton Roads, was designed by the Board of Engineers to rest on the Rip Raps, a shoal enlarged with stones dumped into the channel to form an artificial island.
As an active defense post, Fort Monroe saw its most significant activity in the mid-nineteenth century. It is known principally as the backdrop for the Civil War's most famous naval engagement, the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the former USS Merrimac, clad in iron and rechristened the CSS Virginia, confronted the USS Monitor, a newly built ship that was also clad in iron. The battle ended in a draw, but it effectively altered the course of modern naval warfare. Throughout the war, the fort remained under Union control, and hundreds of slaves sought refuge behind its thick walls. Following the armistice, former Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned here for several months. His erstwhile cell forms the centerpiece of the Casemate Museum, which also includes informative exhibits on the fort's history, personnel, and artillery. Within the fort is the Protestant Chapel
On its exterior, the fort is surrounded by numerous historic buildings, of which the 1802 lighthouse is especially notable. Facing Hampton Roads is the imposing Georgian Revival Chamberlin Hotel (1926–1928, Marcellus Wright with Warren and Wetmore), a brick replacement for an earlier wooden hostelry (1890–1896, Smithmeyer and Pelz; 1893–1896, John Fraser), destroyed by fire in 1920. Fort Wool, across Hampton Roads, is accessible via an excursion boat from downtown Hampton.