SEE RESIDENTIAL HOUSING AVAILABLE NOW
Monday is the last Fourth of July at Army's Fort Monroe
By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 247-4783
9:51 p.m. EDT, July 3, 2011
When Andrew Jackson made the island now known as Fort Wool into his summer White House, there was no question where he'd spend the Fourth of July.
Steaming across the channel to Fort Monroe, the hero of the War of 1812 reviewed the troops after a 24-gun salute honoring the states of the Union. Then he joined the excited crowd from the Hygeia Hotel and across Hampton Roads to listen to the Army band and watch a fireworks display that one observer described as "certainly magnificent and of the first order."
So widely admired were the patriotic observances at Old Point Comfort that over the years they also attracted such figures as Southern firebrand Edmund Ruffin, who noted the fireworks and crowds in his diary just two years before firing the first shot at Fort Sumter.
Thousands of Union troops joined the celebration only a few months after that attack, adding giant bonfires to a fiery display designed to be seen by rebel forces watching from the Peninsula and Norfolk.
President Rutherford B. Hayes came here, too, drawn by the brilliance of the fireworks and the patriotic setting. But his 1879 visit was just another milestone in a long Army tradition that will come to an end today with the Sept. 15 closing of the historic post.
"The Fourth of July has always been special here for a lot of reasons," says community operations officer Don Van Patten, who has overseen Fort Monroe's Fourth for 33 years.
"But this will be the last one for the Army and that tugs at the heart for a lot of people."
Started in 1819, Fortress Monroe rose from Old Point Comfort as much a symbol of national will and pride as a coastal fortification.
Less than a decade earlier, British forces had passed by undaunted during the War of 1812, inflicting such notorious embarrassments as the "Rape of Hampton" and burning the White House in Washington, D.C.
So engineers designed such a powerful deterrent that even before it was completed as America's largest stone fort in 1834 people called it the "Gibraltar of the Chesapeake."
"Can you imagine what it must have been like when Andrew Jackson came here for the Fourth in 1831?" asks Hampton History Museum Michael Cobb.
"He was a deity almost the hero of the War of 1812 and the second war of independence and the fort was this massive stone declaration of America's determination to defend that independence. You can't get more patriotic."
Fort Monroe's stature only grew in the Civil War, when the strategic post which was the only Federal fort in the Upper South to remain in Union hands became a crucial anchor of the North's war effort.
Within weeks, thousands of Union soldiers assembled here in what had become enemy territory and that made the Fourth of July even more important.
"Has there ever been a spectacle like this before on American soil?" asked Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, addressing his men in 1861.
"A broad and unanimous army of patriotic soldiers arrayed in arms against those very men who should be with us against brothers who are standing in open rebellion to their native country, its noble laws and its glorious institutions.
"Here we are, upon the anniversary of our country's natal day (and) as far as I know, this is the only spot upon Virginia's soil where the booming of cannon is heard today and where the anniversary is respected."
So seriously did Butler's men take his words that the 5th New York Infantry fired off more than an hour of fireworks at their camp in what is now Phoebus. Immense bonfires rose from the head of each company street, around which the Zouaves danced, sang and yelled like "red devils."
"It was right in your face," Cobb says. "They wanted to underscore their defiance of the traitors that surrounded them and show their determination to preserve the Union."
Such displays continued throughout the war then resumed in a tamer yet no less patriotic way when the conflict was over. By 1876, thousands of spectators were flocking to the fort from around Hampton Roads and the Peninsula as well as points more distant.
Part of the reason was the historic backdrop. But part also was the fort's long relationship with the fashionable resort hotels that grew up just outside the walls on Old Point Comfort.
Drawn by the spectacle of the fireworks and the cannon salutes and by the music of the Army bands large numbers of civilians made the Fourth at the fort a summer favorite.
"Fort Monroe is unique in that it was not only a military post but also a tourist destination and events like the Fourth of July were a big part of that," Casemate Museum Director Paul Morando says.
"This was a small post an intimate post that made the public feel welcome. And with the history here, it was a great backdrop."
In modern times, the pop music concerts and fireworks have attracted as many as 20,000 people to the post, with countless others watching from boats and the shores of nearby Buckroe and Phoebus.
Thousands more have flocked to the post band's summer concert programs, which also will end in August after 77 seasons at the old bandstand in Continental Park alone.
"This is one of the best commands for a band officer because the setting, the loyalty of our audience and the history of Fort Monroe," says TRADOC Band commander Capt. Scott McKenzie, citing a tradition that reaches back to 1824.
"But this will be our farewell season."