Slaves Entering Sally Port of Fort Monroe
FRANK LESLIE’S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER, JUNE 8, 1861 (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.  

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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.  

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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.   

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Confiscation 

In the meantime, President Lincoln had a humanitarian crisis on his hands: Runaway slaves were the refugees of the Civil War. Improvising, Lincoln drew the line up to, but not including (for now), emancipation. Butler could have his “fugitive slave” law at Fort Monroe, but more activist generals like John Fremont in Missouri, who tried to emancipate runaway slaves outright, would be slapped down. Lincoln was buying time as the word had spread among the slaves of the South that “Freedom’s Fort” was an actual place and that whatever a contraband was, it wasn’t a slave!  

By the end of July 1861, 850 slaves had escaped to Fort Monroe. “Where are we drifting, I cannot see,” wrote the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child of Massachusetts, “but we are drifting somewhere; and our fate, whatever it may be, is bound up with these … ‘contrabands.’ ” Even if slaves couldn’t vote (they weren’t even citizens), they were voting with their feet. To deal with them, on Aug. 6, 1861, Congress got into the game by passing the first of two Confiscation Acts allowing military commanders to declare “all such property … to be lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.” Who was forcing their hands? The slaves who kept rowing.

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But fleeing the Confederacy was only the first part of the battle for the refugees, to be sure. After all, Congress’ order didn’t require the bluecoats to welcome every ex-slave who came knocking. Given the strange concept of human contrabands, some soldiers exploited the ex-slaves, a few killed them outright and some even profited off illegal trades on the black market back to the enemy. “ ‘The suffering from hunger and cold is so great,’ wrote a Union commander in Tennessee, ‘that those wretched people are dying by  scores …  sometimes 30 per day die and are carried out by wagon loads, without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench,’ ” Wills writes in Preservation magazine. Still, the slaves of the South rowed on, determined to taste even a watered-down version of freedom “until the real thing came along,” to quote the great Fats Waller. Anything, it seemed, was better than helping their Confederate masters beat the Yankees.

‘An Army in Themselves’

Here’s what Donald Yacovone and I wrote in our 2013 book, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross:

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As the war progressed and federal troops moved deeper into the South, increasing numbers of slaves abandoned the plantations and made their way to Union lines, often arriving in family groups composed of several generations. Many of the new refugees ended up in the growing contraband camps hastily erected by the Union army. By the summer of 1862, what had begun as a trickle of refugees had turned into a flood. The thousands of slaves who abandoned the plantations dramatically helped to transform the aim and meaning of the war.

As military success remained elusive, Lincoln’s rhetoric about saving the Union broadened to address the pressing issue of slavery in explicit terms. As a generation of historians has asserted, black initiative forced the question of slavery upon a very reluctant administration and pushed President Lincoln down the road toward emancipation. The conduct of the war and the horrific casualty lists also forced the president to rethink the use of black troops, something that previously only black activists and their white allies had insisted upon.

And, according to Wills, “many runaways contributed valuable military intelligence, reporting on Confederate troop movements when they arrived at Union lines. George Scott, who escaped to Fort Monroe, became a spy and bragged that he could ‘smell a rebel further than a skunk.’ Harry Jarvis, one of the early arrivals at Monroe, had predicted that African Americans would serve on the front lines. He had asked Butler to enlist him in the army but was told ‘it wasn't a black man's war.’ Jarvis responded that ‘it would be a black man's war before they got through.’ He eventually joined the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and lost a leg in the battle of Folly Island.”

With their interim status as contraband, men like Baker, Mallory and Townsend forced the issue of emancipation, and with Lincoln’s issuing of the official Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, came the pledge of enlisting and arming black troops. “By the end of the Civil War,” according to National Archives teacher-training materials, “roughly 179,000 black men (10 percent of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army and another 19,000 served in the Navy.” And you can draw a straight line from them straight back to Baker, Mallory and Townsend’s arrival at Freedom’s Fort and forward from them to the first Memorial Day, which is why I believe strongly that it is time for us to claim the contraband of the Civil War as veterans of the struggle for freedom and as heroes to be honored on this and every future Memorial Day.

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With this in mind, I was particularly moved reading the quote in Wills' Preservation piece from an Army chaplain, who, observing the contrabands, described how African-American slaves “ ‘flocked in vast numbers—an army in themselves—to the camps of the Yankees,’ likening the influx to ‘the oncoming of cities.’ ” We may never know all of their names, or how many died trying to escape, but the varied resting places of the contraband men and women of the Civil War are a virtual tomb of unknown soldiers who won an important moral and material victory that transformed the war.  

As the New York Times put it on Aug. 13, 1861, more than a year before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, “… we begin to see now the stupendous fatuity of Secessionism, which under the color of protecting Slavery by dissolving the Union, is causing Slavery to melt from the land as snows under a summer’s sun.” I wish I knew more about what happened to Baker, Mallory and Townsend after their fateful night rowing to Freedom’s Fort at the start of the war, but for sure I know we are indebted to them for helping those “snows” of slavery to melt.  

‘Their Final Resting Place’

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Ironically, after the Civil War ended, the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned at Fort Monroe. The surrounding city of Hampton became the site of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), which trained the freedmen and gave rise to Booker T. Washington and other leaders. Today, Fort Monroe, or Freedom’s Fort, offers visitors a chance to reflect on this powerful legacy. Other markers honoring the contraband of the Civil War include the first safe haven for runaway slaves in North Carolina—“the Hotel De’Afrique” along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore; the Freedmen’s Colony of Roanoke Island, N.C.; the Contraband Camp of Corinth, Miss.; and Freedom Park in Helena, Ark.

Especially touching is the recently rediscovered Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, where some 1,800 African Americans were interred in the Civil War years. A short distance from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery originally included 75 black contrabands-turned-soldiers of that war until hundreds of their fellow African-American troops convalescing at a nearby hospital learned what was going on and demanded that they be moved. As Wills relates, their 1864 petition declared: “ ‘We are not contrabands, but soldiers of the U.S. Army. We are now sharing equally the dangers and hardships in this mighty contest, and should share the same privileges and rights of burial in every way with our fellow soldiers, who only differ from us in color.’ ”  

And you know what? They were moved to Arlington National Cemetery, incidentally the former estate of Robert E. Lee, now an integrated cemetery where so many of the fallen soldiers of the United States now rest. If you’re interested in visiting, the black soldiers of the Civil War are buried in sections 23 and 27. With them in section 27 are the graves of 3,800 Civil War contrabands, many of whom occupied “Freedman’s Village” on the confiscated Lee estate at Arlington during and after the war. The veterans’ graves (including three Medal of Honor recipients) “are marked with the Civil War shield and the letters U.S.C.T.,” according to the official Arlington website, while the contrabands’ “headstones [are] marked with the words ‘Civilian’ or ‘Citizen.’ ”

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May we keep them and all the departed contrabands of the Civil War in our hearts today, especially Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend, the heroes of Freedom’s Fort who, rowing their way out of slavery at the start of the war, helped elevate the Civil War’s meaning in advance of the first Memorial Day. 

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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