Chesapeake Insider

Robert Kelly


Robert Kelly is a graduate of Old Dominion University (ODU), where he received his bachelor of history in 2009. While studying at ODU, Robert focused on Civil War, Virginia, and Maritime History.  Currently, Robert is pursuing a master’s degree in American History from Norwich University.  

Robert served as the Research and Preservation Assistant for the Fort Monroe Authority from 2011 – 2014 and was named the Casemate Museum Historian in 2014.  He is the author of many articles including “General Lafayette’s Visit to Fort Monroe in 1824 as Guest of the Nation” was published in The Gazette of the American Friends of Lafayette in February 2015; and “The Civil War at Freedom’s Fortress,” appearing on the front page of theGuide to Virginia’s Civil War Battlefields and Sites in January 2016. 

Robert and his wife reside on post within historic Fort Monroe in 1875 Officers’ Quarters. Robert serves as the vice president of the Historical & Archeological Society of Fort Monroe and is a life member of the American Friends of Lafayette.  In his spare time Robert enjoys spending time on the water, exploring the Chesapeake Bay, its rivers, and marshes in his 23-foot center console boat.  

Did you grow up near the Chesapeake Bay? Was there any place special that your family liked to visit?

I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland and spent the first 17 years of my life in North Potomac, Maryland.  Most often weekend trips would involve excursions to local historical and natural sites including Harper’s Ferry, Annapolis, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and Washington, DC.  With parents originally from the Tidewater of Virginia,  summers and most holidays were spent visiting Yorktown, Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and Fort Monroe.  A particular trip that I remember fondly occurred when I was 16 years old and my father and I visited Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, MD.  While driving and hiking around the refuge I saw my first bald eagle in the wild!  The beauty of that experience inspired me to become more interested in birds and bird watching, a hobby I still enjoy to this day.

Did you enjoy history in high school? How did you pursue a career as a historian, and at the Casemate Museum?

Ever since I can remember I have enjoyed history, in particular American history.  Growing up near Gettysburg, Antietam, Washington, DC, and often visiting the important places around Hampton Roads, Virginia, I was never far away from historic sites and museums.  Visiting the actual places where important events happened brought history to life and inspired me to study it in college at Old Dominion University (ODU).  While attending ODU I registered for every American and Virginia history class I could.  I regularly found myself engaged in detailed research projects that took me not only to historical sites across the country, but to the National Archives, Library of Congress, and Library of Virginia.  It was during my college years that I remembered some advice from a longtime family friend: “Robert, don’t just study history, become a historian!”

Fort Monroe with its expansive parade ground, natural beauty, masonry walls, and impressive moat is a place I have been exploring my entire life.  My grandmother worked at the fort following World War II and no matter how many times I visited as a child, the thrill never got old.  When an internship position was advertised in 2010 with the Fort Monroe Authority, I jumped at the opportunity to work somewhere I truly loved.  Following a year of perseverance, I was finally interviewed and offered the internship, reporting to the Fort Monroe Historic Preservation Officer.  Six months later I was promoted to Preservation Assistant, and in 2014 I became the Casemate Museum Historian.  I recently celebrated my sixth year working at the fort and hope to be here for many more years to come!

I had the good fortune of listening to one of your lectures about Fort Monroe located at Old Point Comfort. Your enthusiasm for the place and its connection to our nation's history and natural environment was contagious! Please tell our readers a bit about why Fort Monroe is a special place.

The rich history of Old Point Comfort transcends well over 400 years and incorporates some of the most inspiring stories of adventure, sacrifice, and heroism.  Every aspect of the fort’s history has direct connections to its location along the waterways of the Chesapeake Bay.  Native people utilized the site’s natural resources long before colonists entered the Chesapeake Bay in 1607.  The site was originally fortified in 1609 to protect the Jamestown Colony and in 1619, the first Africans brought to the English North American colonies arrived as captives along the shores of Old Point Comfort.  By 1819, construction had commenced on what would become Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort in the United States.  Also known as the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake,” the fort’s purpose was to protect the Chesapeake Bay from foreign invaders.

Amid the onset of the American Civil War, three brave enslaved men, risked everything, to seek refuge at Fort Monroe.  Classified as contraband property of war, and not returned to their owners, their courage inspired others to seek their own freedom.  Before the Civil War concluded, over 10,000 black men, women, and children journeyed to what became known as Freedom’s Fortress.  In 2011 the fort was deactivated as an active army post and the significance of the site’s history was immortalized by President Obama’s creation of the Fort Monroe National Monument using his authority under Antiquities Act of 1906.  In his proclamation, the President concluded that, “Old Point Comfort marks both the beginning and end of slavery in our Nation.”

Today, visitors to the fort experience the Casemate Museum collection, countless historic structures, miles of public beaches, and preserved viewsheds that offer breathtaking views of the Chesapeake Bay.  These views inspire visitors to imagine how the property may have looked prior to English colonization or to contemplate the journey of the first contrabands, as they courageously trekked across the treacherous waters of Hampton Roads in 1861.  Additionally, visitors may see wildlife including brown pelican, osprey, and bald eagle; and explore landscapes that evoke the adventurous spirit of Captain John Smith, who was one of the first Europeans to explore Old Point Comfort. 

Now jointly managed by the National Park Service, and the Fort Monroe Authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the site continues to be preserved, and receive national recognition.  The history that President Obama poignantly acknowledged as worthy of national designation is interpreted daily at the Casemate Museum, and through guided, and self-guided walking tours of the site.  With public beaches, a marina, and accessible kayak launch, Fort Monroe is strategically situated along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

Where is your favorite place to visit in the Chesapeake?

It is very difficult to choose just one place that is my favorite!  Living at Fort Monroe and spending many weekends exploring the Bay in my 23-foot center console boat, I have a renewed appreciation for how centrally located the fort is.  Within an hour by water (on a fair weather day cruising at 25 knots) you can visit Yorktown, Jamestown, Smithfield, Suffolk, Virginia Beach, or Norfolk.  Regardless of where the destination is, I regularly encounter all kinds of interesting wildlife including dolphins, brown pelicans, bald eagle, osprey, and terns.  Additionally, this past winter I was lucky enough to be boating right off shore of Fort Monroe when two juvenile Humpback Whales surfaced less than 200 yards from the bow of my boat.  What an experience!  

All in all, the James, York, Elizabeth, Lafayette, Lynnhaven, Pagan, and Nansemond Rivers are each equally beautiful and exciting to navigate by boat.  A particularly memorable excursion from this past year included a trip with my wife and father from Fort Monroe to Werowocomoco.  We explored the shallow creeks and marshes adjacent to Werowocomoco, encountering several great blue heron and a bald eagle.  The undisturbed beauty and solitude of the location is truly remarkable! 

Fort Monroe National Monument

Fort Monroe National Monument was a military installation in Hampton, Virginia on the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Within its 565 acres are 170 historic buildings and nearly 200 acres of natural resources on the Chesapeake Bay.

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park offers a variety of experiences for visitors. Whether you enjoy recreation or historical inquiry, a quiet stroll by the river or a guided program with a ranger, there are opportunities for everyone.

Annapolis City Dock

The heart of Maryland's historic capitol city, where boating has been fundamental from the 1700's to today. Today, visitors can watch sailboat races in the harbor and understand why Annapolis is America's Sailing Capital.

Yorktown Battlefield and National Cemetery

Revolutionary War battlefield overlooking the port city of Yorktown where Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington ending the War.

Jamestown Settlement

Jamestown Settlement is a historical site and museum at the site of the first successful English settlement on the mainland of North America. Expansive exhibits trace Jamestown's beginnings in England and the first century of the Virginia colony.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.

Gettysburg National Military Park

The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee's second and most ambitious invasion of the North.

Antietam National Battlefield & Cemetery

Antietam National Battlefield commemorates the American Civil War Battle of Antietam that occurred on September 17, 1862 and includes a visitor center, a national military cemetery and a field hospital museum.

Jody Couser

Jody is the senior vice president of communications with the Chesapeake Conservancy. She has a public relations background and served as spokeswoman for Anne Arundel County, MD. 

May 1, 2017

Main image: Robert Kelly is the Casemate Museum Historian. Robert and his wife reside on post within historic Fort Monroe in 1875 Officers’ Quarters. Robert serves as the vice president of the Historical & Archeological Society of Fort Monroe and is a life member of the American Friends of Lafayette.
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