The history of the Fort Monroe site spans nearly four centuries, dating back to the birth of America with the first settlers in 1609, to being a haven for slaves during the Civil War, to serving as a bastion of defense for the Chesapeake Bay during World War II. Fort Monroe is considered to be a site of African American cultural significance as a result of the historical events that took place here during the Civil War.
The Battle of Sewell's Point and notably the Battle of Big Bethel both took place near Fort Monroe, which played a critical role in the battles. However, on May 27, 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler made the famous "Fort Monroe Doctrine," determining that escaping slaves who reached Union lines would be considered contraband and not be returned to bondage. Even though Virginia had seceded from the Union in 1861, Fort Monroe stayed in Union hands for the entirety of the Civil War and served as a haven for slaves escaping to freedom. In 1864, the Union Army of the James under Major General Benjamin Butler was formed at Fort Monroe, which included two colored regiments: the 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry and the 1st Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry. These regiments served gallantly in the Siege of Petersburg in 1864.