The Black Roots of Memorial Day

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How three runaway slaves created the momentum toward emancipation.

Slaves Entering Sally Port of Fort Monroe

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 81: What was “Freedom’s Fort, and how does it relate to Memorial Day?

Memorial Day, set aside to honor the brave men and women who sacrificed all while wearing the uniform of our country, is considered by many to be the unofficial start of summer. To me, it also should be commemorated as the unofficial start of emancipation, or at least the beginning of the end of slavery in the early days of the American Civil War. I say this not only because Memorial Day has its roots in the war, as Drew Faust describes in This Republic of Suffering, or because its first solemn celebration at Arlington Cemetery in 1868 anticipated, by a few weeks, final ratification of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing all Americans equal protection under the law.  

No, emancipation’s connection to Memorial Day runs much deeper than that, beginning at a place known as “Freedom’s Fort,” at the mouth of the James River in Virginia, on the night of May 23, 1861, the same day Virginia officially seceded from the Union. That evening, three slaves who had been forced into building battlements for the Confederate Army at Sewell’s Point on the Norfolk coast risked their lives in a daring escape to Fort Monroe, the Union stronghold that beckoned them from across the waters of Hampton Roads. It was a memorable night, one of the most memorable of the war. And the momentum the three slaves created would give far greater meaning to Memorial Day when the fighting, still in its infancy, was over.  

Their names were Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend. Rowing in the dark, they didn’t know whether they would survive the crossing, be shot dead when they landed, be returned to their master, Confederate Col. Charles K. Mallory, or, as punishment, have their families sold in their stead. What they did know was that if they stayed, they would be transferred deeper into Dixie to the Carolinas, where still more battlements would have to be built to defend slavery using their slave labor. A line had to be drawn, and they drew it. 

In seeking refuge with the Union Army, Baker, Mallory and Townsend unofficially ignited the movement of slaves emancipating themselves with their feet—the contraband movement—which would extend the aim of the war from maintaining the Union at all costs to a war for union and the freedom of the slaves. That last aim was the ultimate revenge on the South’s rebel government, formed, as it was, on the bedrock notion that one person had the right to own another person, for life.

On the Union side, the unsuspecting general about to receive the trio of slaves was Benjamin F. Butler, Fort Monroe’s new commander and a slippery Massachusetts Democrat who had supported the pro-slavery candidate against Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election just a year before. What Butler would do was anyone’s guess.  

Still, Baker, Mallory and Townsend rowed on.

Fort Monroe, or ‘Freedom’s Fort’

The fort in the distance was laced with meaning. As Eric Foner writes in his 2011 masterpiece, That Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Fort Monroe “stood near the spot where twenty slaves had been landed from a Dutch ship in 1619, marking the beginning of slavery in England’s North American colonies.” Completed in 1834, the fort was named for James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president and the fourth Virginia slaveholder to occupy the White House. Covering 63 acres with walls stretching over a mile around, Fort Monroe stood watch on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula at Old Point Comfort near Hampton. As with so many of our early landmarks, slaves had helped built it, and one of the former officers stationed there was Robert E. Lee. Yes, Fort Monroe was laced with meaning.