Fort Monroe Defense of Hampton Roads

jrweaver

Corporal
Joined
Dec 9, 2020
Fort Monroe, standing on Old Point Comfort in Hampton, Virginia, controlled Hampton Roads with overpowering firepower. Fort Monroe was the largest Third System fort in terms of area and the second-largest in terms of firepower, designed for 371 cannon! The wartime garrison was predicted to be 2,450 men. This formidable work cooperated with Fort Calhoun, renamed Fort Wool, across the channel.
10-19 Monroe Aerial 2 Color Rev02.jpg


Third System forts generally had primary seacoast fronts - those bearing directly on the channel as a ship was passing - and secondary seacoast fronts - those that could fire on ships as they approached the fort and after passing the fort. The key to the seacoast defense of Fort Monroe was the unique casemated coverface on the primary seacoast front.

While most Third System forts had two tiers of guns in the main fort, Simon Bernard designed Fort Monroe with a casemated coverface providing the lower tier of guns, eliminating the need for first-tier casemates. A second tier of guns on the ramparts of the main fort supported the guns in the coverface. Why would Bernard design the fort this way? Two answers come to mind. First, the coverface is outside the ditch. Since these faces were angled, the coverface was significantly longer than the fort itself, providing more gun positions. The 800-foot-long coverface housed 42 large-bore cannon directly bearing on the channel, with 32 more guns on the ramparts of the fort. Imagine 74 large cannon firing on a passing ship. This firepower was overwhelming.
10-21 Water Battery Sketch.jpg

10-22 Monroe Water Battery.jpg

The casemated coverface was accessed from the fort through a postern, French for back door, opening onto a drawbridge and a fixed bridge. Immediately behind the casemates is a narrow covert way that allowed the running of powder, shot, and shell to the guns.
Section at Postern Bridge.jpg


The long secondary seacoast front had the conventional design of casemates on the first tier and a second tier of guns on the ramparts. This front provided over 150 more cannon bearing on ships leaving the roadstead before they reached the fort. This historic photograph, courtesy of Fort Monroe Authority, shows the secondary seacoast front with large Rodman cannon mounted on the ramparts.
10-26 Monroe rampart gun positions historic Rev02.jpg

This control over Hampton Roads had multiple advantages for the Union during the Civil War. First, it prevented warships and blockade runners from having access to Norfolk, Newport News, Chesapeake, and the key rivers leading to Richmond, Yorktown, Jamestown, and other key locations. Second, it provided a safe haven for ships menaced by the Confederate Navy. If a Union or neutral ship was caught by a Confederate ship, she could shelter under the guns of the fort that would keep the Confederate ship or ships at bay. Third, the secondary seacoast front of the fort exercised some control over ships operating in the roadstead.

While located in a key area in Virginia, Fort Monroe remained in Union hands throughout the war. This was due to the strong seacoast defense described above as well as an equally strong land defense.
 

jrweaver

Corporal
Joined
Dec 9, 2020
The first image shows land all around the fort. Was it like that in 1861?i
Yes, it was. The two routes were via a narrow wooden bridge to the left of the picture and up the isthmus to the right of the picture. I'll talk at length about the land defenses in the next post. I've got a paper coming out in the Journal of Coast Defense about the defenses of Fort Monroe, and I'll summarize that article here.
 

Similar threads

Top