From atop the old stone walls of Fort Monroe, centuries of history spill at your feet.

One side opens to the Chesapeake Bay, and the sturdy whitewashed tower of the oldest operating lighthouse in the region. Jamestown colonists landed here in 1607, soon followed by the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans to the American colonies.

A man-made moat surrounds the base of the fort, where brown pelicans circle for fish washed in with the tide. Cannon stations line the ramparts and fill the cavities of the wall underfoot.

The fort walls cradle a serene collection of historic buildings with deep porches and densely shaded walks, where the future Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee worked as a young man. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held at this fort as a Union prisoner, Harriet Tubman nursed escaped slaves in the fort's hospital, and Edgar Allen Poe spent a few months here as a soldier.

"One of the greatest gifts of this park is the sense of place," said Kirsten Talken-Spaulding, superintendent of the Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, VA. "You can't create this. You can't manufacture it."

Fort Monroe is one of the newest members of the National Park System, proclaimed a national monument by President Obama just after the fort was decommissioned by the U.S. Army in September 2011.

"The Army has always alluded to the multiple layers and lives of Fort Monroe, but we now have the opportunity to really tell the broader American story," Talken-Spaulding said.

Many people in the Hampton area have a love for Fort Monroe that spans generations, but word of this gem is just beginning to spread through the broader Chesapeake region.

Fort Monroe stands on a spit of land where the James River empties into the Chesapeake, and the Bay in turn greets the Atlantic Ocean — a spectacular setting where tugboats and cargo ships parade along the eastern side of the peninsula and birds flutter along the marshes that hug its interior shore.

While best known for its military presence, Fort Monroe has also been a recreational site since the U.S. Army allowed the first hotel to be built just outside the fort walls in 1822. Now, as the military presence recedes, the National Park Service and its state and local partners want more people to enjoy this unique setting.

Attendants at the causeway gate wave visitors through with a smile. A lifeguard keeps watch on the sandy beach, where children chase waves and parents relax in the sun. Laughter rises from the small gathering on the fishing pier while other visitors stroll or bicycle the long paved pathway by the seawall.

"People often think of the great national parks as being out West, with great history, great settings and great recreation," Talken-Spaulding said. "But people can experience that breadth here, on less than 500 acres."

The best place to get the lay of the land is at the Casemate Museum.

Operated by the Fort Monroe Authority, the museum is housed within the brick-lined cavities of fort walls that once served as firing stations for cannon.

The museum is laced with arches overhead as well as buried underfoot. This engineering trick distributed the massive weight of the fort to prevent it from sinking into the soft sandy soil on which it was built.

Talken-Spaulding points out that no one ever conquered this geology, though, when it came to obtaining water.

"No one could ever get fresh water from a well on this peninsula," she said, even after one well was sunk to a depth of 900 feet. Instead, they relied on cisterns and water brought in from the mainland.

One of the cisterns noted on an 1834 map still stands at the entrance to the Casemate Museum.

Inside, visitors follow the rich history of the site, beginning with the American Indians who witnessed the arrival of the Jamestown colonists in 1607. Among the colonists was the famous Chesapeake explorer, Capt. John Smith, who mistook the skinny, pipe-shaped peninsula for an island and declared it "fit for a castle."

The exhausted colonists dubbed the site Point Comfort, and the name has stuck for centuries.

The colonists quickly realized that Point Comfort — with a natural shipping channel and deep anchorage at the mouth of the Bay — was more than just a comfort in this "new" world. It was also a place of strategic importance. They erected a wooden fort here in 1609, which later fell to fire and neglect.

After the War of 1812, the United States made its first substantial commitment to national defense, including a system of forts along its coast. Work began on Fort Monroe in 1819, using massive stone walls to form seven connected points or bastions. The enclosed area covers 63 acres.

Fort Monroe was intended to watch for European enemies but ironically saw the most action when the nation was at war with itself. Despite the fort's southern location, it was held by the Union throughout the Civil War.

Nicknamed the Gibraltar of the Chesapeake, it maintained a tense existence within the Confederate state of Virginia but was never in danger of falling.

Early in the war, three men escaped slavery in Hampton and came to Fort Monroe for protection. When their owner demanded their return, the fort's commander decided that the enslaved men should be considered contraband of war and would not be returned to bondage.

This triggered a wave of refugees, who found safety, education and even military training within Fort Monroe, which became known as "Freedom's Fortress."

At the war's end, Jefferson Davis was held in a cell that is now a part of the Casemate Museum.

Visitors can step inside and consider the despair and declining health Davis suffered during his two years of captivity inside this room, along with a close look at the padlock from his door and the U.S. flag that was said to hang in his cell during his imprisonment.

Davis' finely carved smoking pipe is also on display — with the pipe bowl clutched in what appears to be the talons of an eagle.

The U.S. Army remained in residence at Fort Monroe for 180 years. As a military base, the old fort became the hub of a community that sprawled beyond its walls to house approximately 5,000 people when the base was deactivated last fall.

The National Park Service is working with state and local partners to gather public input on plans for the future, which will bring more options for water access, interpretive programs and visitor amenities.

While a few residents remain, most have moved on, leaving Fort Monroe both surprisingly empty and strikingly beautiful.

A grassy expanse at the heart of the fort, known as the parade grounds, is a silent place that seems to be holding its breath until the next act begins. Southern live oaks line much of its edge, with thick craggy trunks and muscular branches that slope low to the ground.