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Key players in contraband decision at Fort Monroe in 1861
By TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF
A lawyer and state legislator in Lowell, Mass., Benjamin Franklin Butler was a better politician than general. At the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, he supported Jefferson Davis as a unity candidate. Though his only military experience was leading a volunteer militia, Lincoln appointed him brigadier general to show nonpartisan Union support for the war.
At Fort Monroe, when three escaped slaves asked for asylum behind Union lines, Butler found a legal loophole. Instead of obeying the Fugitive Slave Law, he declared the slaves contraband of war. The decision became policy throughout the Union Army and pushed Lincoln toward the Emancipation Proclamation.
In New Orleans, he became known as Beast Butler after he declared that any woman who insulted Federal troops would be treated as a prostitute.
After the war, he was elected to Congress as a Republican.
Charles King Mallory
A county judge, Charles King Mallory was commander of the local militia in Hampton. As the U.S. government sent reinforcements to Fort Monroe in early May, Col. Mallory ordered new fortifications built in Norfolk at Sewell’s Point. Three of his slaves working on the project escaped to Fort Monroe, where Benjamin Butler decided to declare them contraband of war instead of returning them.
John B. Cary
Formerly principal of Hampton Academy, John Baytop Cary was artillery commander in Charles Mallory’s militia. When Mallory’s slaves escaped, Maj. Cary was sent to Fort Monroe and became the first to hear Butler’s rationale for holding on to fugitive slaves. After the war, Cary became superintendent of schools in Richmond. Cary Street and John B. Cary School are named for him. He’s buried in Hollywood Cemetery.
Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend
The escapees who rowed to Fort Monroe were Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory (or possibly Isaac Monroe instead of Mallory in a different account of the event). Their names weren’t recorded in Army records, but their owner was listed as Charles King Mallory.
Shepard Mallory is listed in the 1880 census as a 39-year-old house carpenter. He and his wife, Fanny, had three children: Shepard, 18; William, 16; and Lucy, 2.
Frank Baker was recorded as a 61-year-old farmer in the 1880 census. He and his wife had three children: Henry, 25; Easter, 23; and Dempsy, 14. A 7-month-old granddaughter was Easter’s child.
James Townsend was listed in the 1870 census as a 45-year-old day laborer. He was married and had a 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
A composer instead of a warrior, Septimus Winner was inspired by the events at Fort Monroe to write the “Contraband” schottische, which he dedicated to Gen. Benjamin Butler in 1861. The piano music for four hands had a cover illustration showing four blacks tumbling as they ran from a white man with a cane.
A Philadelphia native, Winner was less pleased when Lincoln removed Union Gen. George B. McClellan from command. The song he wrote in protest, “Give Us Back Our Old Commander: Little Mac, the People’s Pride,” was considered anti-Union. He was charged with treason and spent a short time in jail.
More successful compositions landed Winner a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” “Whispering Hope” and “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” were among his catalog of more than 200 popular songs. He also wrote musical instruction books for 23 instruments, according to his Hall of Fame biography.
William Roscoe Davis
Born around 1814 as a slave of mixed-race ancestry, William Roscoe Davis was a powerful and intelligent man who almost killed an abusive white overseer and eventually became an overseer. He later worked as a boat operator and was allowed to keep most or all of his earnings.
He married Nancy Moore, also a mixed-race slave, around 1837. She already had one child and they had six children together. Her owner’s will emancipated her, but the owner’s son refused to honor it. After spending $1,800 on attorneys, Davis won his suit to free her in 1859, but the local judge refused to enforce the ruling.
In 1861, Davis and his family were among the first contrabands to find refuge at Fort Monroe. Lewis Lockwood of the American Missionary Association described Davis as “a man of genius and piety.” In 1862, after Lockwood said a Davis speech was “a masterpiece. It melted every heart,” Davis traveled with Lockwood to New York on a speaking tour to raise money and clothing for the refugees at Fort Monroe. When he stayed longer than his wife liked, she went to New York to find him.
After the war, Davis was a minister and promoter of education for freed people. He was elected doorkeeper of the Virginia constitutional convention in 1867-68 and was the official keeper of the Old Point Comfort lighthouse for 10 years. He died in 1904.