One of the most exciting events held during the conference was the field trip on Friday. Out of the many options, I chose “Ft. Monroe Interpretative Work in Progress.” Ft. Monroe is a brand new unit of the National Park Service, as in of November 1, 2011 new. The whole point of the field trip was to take a behind the scenes look at setting up a new NPS site.
I will freely admit that I did not have the best reasons for picking this trip. While I was somewhat curious at how you create a new monument, my real reason was to check another part of the NPS off my life list (33% of all NPS sites complete!). I just wasn’t that interested in the fort itself. I was “oh my not another system three fort.” For those of you who are not history buffs or live anywhere other than the East Coast, system three forts are a group of 42 massive stone forts that were built all up and down the eastern seaboard after the war of 1812 to protect key areas. The NPS already has quite a few of them protected with Ft. Warren, Ft. Hancock, Ft. Wadsworth, Ft. Sumter, Ft. Pulaski, Ft. Jefferson, Ft. Massachusetts, Ft. McRee, Ft. Point lying within NPS units. These forts are all built from the same general plan so, if you’ve seen one you've seen them all. So why do we need another one?
Well, it turns out there are some very good reasons for Ft. Monroe to join the system. Perhaps the most important is that it was the first (and largest) of the system three forts. It’s not just another cookie cutter fort, it created the mold from which all other system three forts were made.
It also was quite distinguished in the Civil War. It always remained in Union hands. Think about it, this is a fort in Virginia and it NEVER fell to the Confederates. In fact, the forts defenses were so good they didn't even try to take the fort. Because it was a Union stronghold deep within the confederacy this led to the Peninsula Campaign, a botched attempt early in the war to seize Richmond, the Confederate capitol. This is also where a Union General Benjamin F. Butler declared slaves, who came into the possession of Union troops, to be “contraband of war.” While this in no way declared that slaves were human and had rights, it did lead to massive slave runaways and was a stepping stone in the abolition of slavery.
One of the truisms in working with the parks is that most people don’t really know or care who owns and runs the park as long as they can keep doing what they have been doing; Army, NPS, Ft. Monroe Authority, doesn't matter. When change comes though, people get mad. Nothing drove this home for the NPS more than the issue of Ft. Monroe’s flag. The army, by law, is required to take down the American flag when they decommission a base. This is what they did when they left the fort, and the NPS arrived just in time to get the masses of complaints over there not being a flag. The poor NPS staffers, all two of them, spent several frustrating weeks with negotiating with the army and the powers that be just to get the flag back.
I have no doubt that someday Ft. Monroe will be a great member of the NPS. I am just grateful that I am not one of the ones that have to set it up. Fight on Ft. Monroe staff!!!!