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Civil War contraband: Fort Monroe to celebrate road to emancipation
By David Macaulay, email@example.com | 247-7838
HAMPTON - The name "Shep Mallory" carved in the brick on the side of St. John's Church in Hampton is understated but points to a momentous act that changed the course of the history of America.
Hampton historian John Quarstein, who discovered the inscription two years ago, says "the odds are pretty good," that it was carved by Shepard Mallory in the days after the burning of Hampton in August 1861, when downtown became a vast camp for about 10,000 contrabands, fugitive slaves under the protection of the Union during the Civil War.
Mallory was one of three slaves who gained Union protection at Fort Monroe early in the Civil War.
Like the inscription, the contraband story has been understated in recent years, according to the Hampton based Contraband Historical Society. The society is presenting a celebration at Fort Monroe on May 21 and May 24 to mark the 150th anniversary of the contraband decision which was a milestone in the dismantling of slavery in the United States.
In 1861, three young black slaves, Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend, claimed asylum at the stone fortress held by Union forces under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler.
The field hands had learned their master, Confederate Col. Charles Mallory, wanted to send them to the Carolinas. They didn't want to be separated from their families, according to the society.
On May 24, 1861, on Mill Creek Bridge outside Fort Monroe, Butler and two aides met with a representative of Charles Mallory. Butler refused to return the three slaves, saying they were "contraband of war," and would be treated like any other war material.
The decision had massive ramifications for the course of the Civil War as slaves headed to Union lines to escape.
"Fort Monroe was tremendously significant," said Philip Adderley, vice chairman of the society.
"Others ran away before and that was why the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted," he said.
Under that 1850 legislation, runaway slaves would be returned to their former masters, even if they escaped to the North where slavery no longer existed.
Adderley said Butler's decision turned this idea on its head. "He realized that anything that was used in war time by the enemy can be confiscated as contraband," he said.
"It really did bring on or start the real road to emancipation," he said.
Adderley said Butler's decision helped lead to President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, although it did little initially for slaves in the Hampton area, who were enlisted to work for the Union forces.
"General Butler really was a hero of sorts but not just because of his decision. He was dedicated to the decision and he loaned money for places to live when they (contrabands) were destitute."
Adderley said Butler also mustered an early black regiment at Fort Monroe.
According to the Contraband Historical Society the contraband story has been a neglected one until recently and it is only now being told.
"Our history has been left out of the history books. It's been too long," said Adderley.
As many as 10,000 contrabands lived in a contraband camp in the heart of Hampton for about a decade, according to the society.
"For so long the contraband story has been buried," said Bill Wiggins, a historian with the society. "You find very little reference to it."
Wiggins said the 100th anniversary of the Civil War took place at a "very volatile time" while the Civil Rights movement was going on. "Nobody wanted to say much about it at all."
There was a contraband celebration at Monroe in 2000, according to the society. At the time the Casemate Museum at the fort contained very few references to the events, according to Adderley. But he said the story is now represented at the museum.
But much of the story is still to be discovered. "There's so much we want to delve into but we don't have the backing or the sponsorship," Adderley said.
The Contraband Historical Society was set up in 1999 by Gerri. L. Hollins.
The commemoration events are an "enormously important occasion," said Hampton Mayor Molly Joseph Ward.
"There is no doubt that the escape of those men, their seeking sanctuary at Fort Monroe and Benjamin Butler's decision, led to the beginning of the end of slavery in this country and changed the dialogue from solely being about secession and the rights of the southern states to secede, to the immorality of slavery," Ward said.
See the Hampton Matters blog at dailypress.com/hamptonmatters
The Contraband Celebration at Fort Monroe
Saturday, May 21 – 10 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.
The celebration will include a parade from the gazebo in Continental Park to the Parade Ground. Events are free and open to the public.
Tuesday, May 24, 6.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.
History conference panel discussion, Post Theater, Tidball Road, Fort Monroe
For more information on the events visit http://www.contrabandhistoricalsociety.org