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Freedom shrine at highway's end
BY STEVE FORD - Editorial Page Editor News Observer
A drive along U.S. 258 toward Virginia is a good way to take the measure of rural and small town Eastern North Carolina - the serenity of croplands and forests, the proud farmsteads interspersed with tumbledown shacks, the Main Streets of places such as Scotland Neck and Rich Square where dignity sometimes must contend with despair.
Choosing the business route through old Murfreesboro enlivens the trip, and crossing the Roanoke River amidst its bottomlands, impenetrable were it not for the ribbon of pavement, yields a glimpse of the primeval.
Here, though, is another source of fascination with this highway: Follow it up through the pork capital of Smithfield, Va., across the James River at the fabled Newport News shipyard and to its northern terminus, and you have arrived at one of America's most historic spots. U.S. 258 leads to the very entrance of Fort Monroe, where the Civil War's 150th anniversary commemorations that began this year have special resonance.
The fort's location is supremely strategic, at least by the standards of times gone by. In its hey-day huge artillery pieces guarded the mouth of the James where it empties into Chesapeake Bay and thus helped protect the immense natural harbor known as Hampton Roads.
But going back further, indeed to the earliest days of the Virginia colony, Old Point Comfort, as the site was known, was a key landing point for settlers. Some of the first African-Americans to be held in slavery were brought ashore there. And when the U.S. Army in 1819 began building the star-shaped fort, African-Americans not surprisingly supplied much of the labor.
It would be the fort's Civil War role that elevated it to the nation's topmost tier of historic sites. More on that in a moment. But after continuous service that has made it the oldest American fort still in operation, the Pentagon as part of its base consolidation efforts will close up shop there in mid-September. That has triggered a major dispute as to the fate of the 570-acre property adjacent to the city of Hampton.
The original fort structure itself, surrounded by a moat, surely will survive in some form. But how much sway will private developers gain? Some local leaders see a golden opportunity to augment the tax base, yet too much of the wrong kind of development would detract from the site's historic character.
This may be a case where the government's left and right hands actually are in some kind of sync. The National Park Service is trying to scope out a way that Fort Monroe, or key portions of it, could be incorporated into the park system.
Upstream from Old Point Comfort, the peninsula between the James and York Rivers already offers a nearby feast for heritage tourists, with the Yorktown battlefield, Williamsburg and Jamestown. Fort Monroe would be a perfect venue for highlighting not only the peninsula's intense Civil War action but also the importance of freedom for the South's enslaved blacks as a goal that inspired the Union effort.
It was to Fort Monroe that three enslaved men escaped across Hampton Roads by rowboat on May 24, 1861. A Confederate officer under flag of truce sought their return, but Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, in command, refused.
If in Confederate eyes the black men were property, Butler argued, then they could and would be confiscated by the federal government as "contraband of war." As renowned Civil War historian James M. McPherson writes in a recent article for The New York Review of Books, "This novel description of escaped slaves was like a shot heard round the world."
The word quickly spread that slaves would be granted asylum within Union lines as the Lincoln administration OK'd Butler's policy. Thousands of "contrabands" made their way to freedom, including many who camped in the shadow of Fort Monroe. Northern anti-slavery sentiment was reinforced and rewarded, strengthening a sense of purpose for the Union cause in the struggle then unfolding.
With two months to go before the Army leaves Fort Monroe to posterity, some hard decisions are in order. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who oversees the National Park Service, signaled suitably high-level attention when he visited three weeks ago. A national historic park could be created, which would require congressional action, or President Obama could use his authority to declare the fort a national monument. There's welcome support for the park approach among Virginia lawmakers.
If Fort Monroe receives the kind of protection and profile it deserves, it could help illuminate chapters of our national history that still stir debate. Oh, and to bring out the goose bumps, visitors will want to peer into the cell where Jefferson Davis spent two hard years following his capture as the Southern cause collapsed.
Surely some of those visitors would pass through North Carolina - maybe even spend a little money here. And it's just as certain that nobody along U.S. 258, say, would object.