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Va. fort's future in focus as Army plans pullout
By STEVE SZKOTAK
HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — Fort Monroe — a Union oasis where fugitive slaves flocked during the Civil War — returns to Virginia's control when the Army pulls out in 2011, and historians are trying to protect the future of the "Freedom Fortress." Many slave descendants trace the arrival of slavery in the U.S. in 1619 to Old Point Comfort, the hatchet-shaped peninsula where Fort Monroe sits, and where slavery would be ushered into its final stages nearly 2 1/2 centuries later. "When you look at how immigrants went to Ellis Island, our people couldn't do this," said Gerri L. Hollins, who counts a fugitive slave among her ancestors. "This is our Ellis Island."
Supporters want to see the fort become a national park. A state-appointed authority presented a reuse plan to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Monday that proposes preservation and strict limits on new development.
The panel is determining how best to tell the fort's history, and descendants of slaves who found their freedom there are hopeful their story will be featured.
It was at Fort Monroe that the stage would be set for slavery's demise in May 1861, two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A Union commander declared that three fugitive slaves there were contraband — war spoils — effectively freeing them.
The gesture sent a flood of slaves to Fort Monroe in what some historians say is one of the most powerful events of the Civil War.
"Slaves did not stand around in the fields singing spirituals waiting for the Union Army to save them," said Ervin L. Jordan Jr., a University of Virginia research archivist and Civil War historian. "Slaves knew what freedom was, and they knew how to get it."
The fate of the "Gibraltar of the Chesapeake," the fort's nickname during 35 years as the home of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, is being pieced together by the state-appointed Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority. While the Defense Department will review proposals for Fort Monroe's future, Kaine or his successor will have the final say. Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said the governor expects any plans to honor the history of Fort Monroe, keep it free and open to the public and make it economically sound.
Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park envision an economically sustainable national park similar to the Presidio, the former Army base in San Francisco that is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. They are fearful the state, which has struggled to address growing transportation demands, will be financially unable to sustain the National Historic Landmark.
The six-sided, 63-acre fortress sealed by 1.3 miles of granite is the last active moated fort in the U.S. The property includes 264 government buildings and housing, and a majority of the buildings are deemed historic.
A Park Service study issued in May concluded that while Fort Monroe is a national treasure, the service would need a "strong and sustainable partner" to help manage, maintain and operate it once the military moves on.
H.O. Malone, the retired chief historian at Fort Monroe who lived on the base, now heads Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park. He said the group is not deterred by the conclusions of the Park Service study, which he said has been misinterpreted.
"They haven't said no. First of all, what they said is, 'Yes, Fort Monroe does measure up to be a national park,'" he said.
Malone's group anticipates tourism dollars and limited leasing of base buildings would generate the revenue needed to shore up National Park Service resources.
William A. Armbruster, executive director of the authority studying the base's future, said historical purists should not fear limited development, provided it is consistent with the history of the fort. He said large-scale development is not likely.
"It is a treasure that we want to protect," Armbruster said of the fort. "We want future generations to say, 'Thank God, we got it right.'"
On the Net:
History of Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe
By The Associated Press
Highlights of the history of Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe: