The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library in Fredericksburg, Va., is home to the largest collection of artifacts and documents related to the fifth president of the United States.
Descendants of Monroe opened the tidy brick structure in 1927 as an homage to their ancestor and to house personal collections that had been handed down through the family for generations. Today, the museum is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and administered by the University of Mary Washington.
The building, which dates back to 1815, is located on the original site where Monroe once practiced law. Visitors learn details about the former president through a series of interpretative exhibits. Helpful docents are available to provide guests with an overview and answer questions before or after the self-guided tour.
Few know that Monroe served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution, was wounded at the Battle of Trenton, and nearly died from his injuries. He later went on to become the first president to occupy the White House after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812.
The onus to refurnish the residence fell on Monroe and his wife. Guests will view some of the furnishings the couple transported to the White House to fill its cavernous rooms. A picture showing the infamous burning hangs on one of the walls. In stark contrast, a nearby piano on display was used to entertain guests during happier times and is still played today during special events.
A series of panels provides guests with details about Monroe’s life and the legislation he spearheaded. Among the many artifacts on display are the china the couple used for entertaining dinner guests, the 1795 desk where the Monroe Doctrine was signed, portraits of the former president during various stages of his life, and jewelry worn by his wife, Elizabeth Monroe.
A bas-relief created by sculptor Karl Bitter dates back to 1904 and served as a template for a bronze sculpture that is now displayed at the Missouri State Capitol. It depicts James Monroe, Robert Livingston, and Francois Barbe-Marbois signing the Louisiana Purchase treaty.
Insider tip: Through the end of March, visitors will be offered a view into life back in Monroe’s day via a collection of political cartoons and memorabilia amassed by the museum’s founding director, Laurence Gouverneur Hoes.
Fort Monroe and Highland
Among the other Virginia connections to James Monroe are two very different locations.
Near Charlottesville is Highland, the home of James and Elizabeth Monroe from 1799 to 1823. A new tour of the home highlights Monroe’s work in his decades-long public service, but also reveals the story of new archaeological evidence about the property. The current home is now thought to date to 1818 and scientists have discovered a foundation of what is believed to be the original 1799 structure.
On Fridays and Saturdays, April through October, you can see a presentation on slavery at Highland, between 10:00am and 2:00pm. (highland.org)
A Monticello Neighborhood Pass includes Highland, Monticello, and historic Michie Tavern, and saves $6 over normal admission prices.
In Hampton, near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, stands Fort Monroe, the largest stone fort ever constructed in America. Following the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington, the Army began constructing coastal defenses and Fort Monroe was built between 1819 and 1836 and named for the fifth president.
While it is no longer an active military base, Fort Monroe’s free Casemate Museum presents the military history of the location from Fort Algernourne in 1609 through the recent deactivation.
While most of Virginia was part of the Confederacy, Fort Monroe remained in Union hands and you can learn about Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Contraband of War decision that offered refuge to escaped slaves and set a precedent for the remainder of the war. You can see the room where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held following the Civil War, and learn about the history of the Army Artillery Corps.