The Black Roots of Memorial Day

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


Yet on the night of May 23, 1861, none of that history mattered. For Baker, Mallory and Townsend, the decision was personal—so, too, the risks. It had been a month since the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and there had already been a small skirmish between the guns at Fort Monroe and Sewell’s Point. Meanwhile, in the euphoria of those early days, the people of Virginia were distracted celebrating their so-called independence from the North. Up in Washington, President Lincoln had made clear in his first inaugural address two months earlier that he would refrain from interfering with slavery where it already existed. Still, the three men rowed on toward their best chance for avoiding slavery deeper in the South. Baker, Mallory and Townsend—to me, they are the Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego of the Civil War.

After the escaped slaves arrived at Fort Monroe, Butler learned that two of them had wives and families in nearby Hampton and that he was to be their judge and jury. Here was his problem: Before the Civil War, runaway slaves were called fugitive slaves, and according to federal law, Union officers were required to return them without question. But things were different now, weren’t they? Even though President Lincoln denied it, the Confederates insisted they were citizens of a new foreign country, independent of U.S. law. Butler, looking for every advantage against the feisty rebels, decided to hoist them on their own logic.  

‘Contraband of War’

The next morning, Butler rode out to meet Confederate Major John B. Cary, acting as an agent for Col. Mallory, the slaves’ owner. Under a flag of truce, Cary insisted that Baker, Mallory and Townsend be returned—no harm, no foul, so to speak. Improvising, Butler gave Cary his terms: If Mallory swore his allegiance to the Union, Butler would give his “property” back. Not surprisingly, the offer was refused. In the face of such defiance, Butler declared Baker, Mallory and Townsend “contraband of war,” no different than other armaments lost from one foreign country to another in the heat of battle.  

There was a certain logic to it: Why should Butler be compelled to return to the Confederates the arms or the armament makers that would help them kill Union troops? With that, Foner writes, “Butler had introduced a new word into the political lexicon.” Although being named “contrabands” was far from a guarantee of freedom, it wasn’t exactly slavery either. Baker, Mallory and Townsend had, with their escape, opened up the middle ground and, with it, the possibility for momentum. 

It is important to see slaves like Baker, Mallory and Townsend as pivotal in their own emancipation rather than passive recipients bowing in the marble friezes of history. At once, they had both hurt the Confederate cause and given Butler the opportunity to bolster the Union’s. But the logic was not bulletproof, Foner cautions. Right away, he says, “Butler’s legal reasoning broke down further as escaping slaves who had not labored for the Confederate military, including women and children, joined male fugitives.” In fact, just five days after Butler, Mallory and Townsend had arrived, 47 more runaway slaves knocked on the door of Freedom’s Fort, including a 3-month-old baby.  

“They came despite rebel rumors that the Yankees would eat them, sell them into slavery in Cuba, process them into fertilizer, or make them pull carts like oxen,” Eric Wills writes for Preservation magazine. So much for the apologists of slavery claiming that the slaves of the South were happy toiling as another man’s chattel! The Civil War’s first major battle in the East had yet to be fought at Bull Run, but already the slaves of Virginia were winning another kind of battle—for their own labor in the waging of civil war. As Wills relates: “ ‘They have obtained in the camps, and wherever they have been,’ wrote a Union provost marshal in Louisiana, ‘a spirit of independence—a feeling that they are no longer slaves.’ ” No one handed them that feeling; they grasped it for themselves before any official ruling in Washington was decreed.  

But what to do with the African Americans now that they were contraband? Send them to colonies in Africa or Central America? Sell them back to owners to pay for war debts? Put them to work? Keep only the able-bodied and discard the sick and old? Or maybe just keep the slaves owned by those active in the rebellion and reject those belonging to masters still loyal to the Union? As the parlor debate advanced, the slaves of the South kept advancing the issue, crossing rivers one at a time, wherever and whenever they saw bluecoats.  

“Everybody felt that Slavery, and its relations to the contest, would prove to be one of the most embarrassing features of the struggle, unless it was managed with rare prudence,” the New York Daily Tribune wrote on May 29, 1861. The Tribune was far from an abolitionist press. In fact, it regarded the “runaway negroes in Virginia” as no different from “runaway horses.” Both had the potential to defeat Union troops, which was why, to the paper’s editors, Butler had done only what was necessary to gain a military advantage while leaving the door open to exploiting the “contraband” (“commodities”) as laborers, “trophies” or “sable minstrels” who would sing for bored Union troops. After all, they were still property, the paper argued, so that if the runaways “should become troublesome,” Butler could “point them to the north star, and tell them to march!” or, if forced to abandon them in a retreat, “spike them, as property, so that they would be good for nothing to the foe.”

The only difference, of course, the paper qualified, was that after the war, the slaves, unlike horses and canons, would need to “be compelled to take care of themselves like other people.” Effortlessly, the editor, like Gen. Butler, glided over the contradiction between personhood and property at the heart of the piece. The battle was engaged, and still the slaves rowed on.