PORTSMOUTH, Va (Reuters) - President Barack Obama created the first national monument of his presidency on Tuesday, signing a proclamation to preserve a former Army fort that was a safe haven for slaves during the Civil War.
Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia was the third-oldest Army post in continuous service until the Department of Defense recommended its closure in 2005.
The Army this year handed over Fort Monroe to the state and an authority charged with deciding the site’s future.
“Fort Monroe has played a part in some of the darkest and some of the most heroic moments in American history,” Obama said in announcing the designation.
In 1861, three escaped slaves were given safe haven at the fort that managed to stay under Union control despite being in a Confederate state. They were declared by Union Major General Benjamin Butler as “contrabands of war” and were not returned to their owner.
The Fort Monroe Authority says 10,000 slaves fled there and were given protection, helping to prompt President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in the states rebelling against the federal government.
Descendants of the contraband slaves lobbied the federal government for the national monument.
The Antiquities Act, which Obama used to designate the national monument, was first used by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 to designate Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
It has been used by 14 presidents since 1906 to protect unique natural and historic features, the White House said. Critics often view it as an overreach of executive power.
Fort Monroe was also where, in 1619, Dutch traders first brought enslaved Africans to what would become the United States. Fort Monroe would be Virginia’s 22nd national monument and the 396th nationwide.
Editing by Greg McCune and John O'Callaghan