Re-examining the American Civil War
By Bob Gibson
Published: June 19, 2011
A 150-year-old Civil War may seem a bloody bad piece of history to be
remembering, but it merits another look.
The American Civil War changed Virginia’s history in so many ways.
Fort Monroe in Hampton offers one of the finest, and least known, examples
of how Virginia shaped the end of slavery.
Virginia’s original sin of enslaving Africans started 392 years ago in Hampton
and started unraveling 150 years ago in May 1861 when three African-American
slaves, who were considered property under American law, were kept as contraband
in the very same place at Fort Monroe.
The first three slaves showed up by boat as runaways at Fort Monroe hours after
Virginia broke from the Union.
“I believe this is the greatest unknown story of the Civil War,” said Doug Domenech,
Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.
Domenech, who said Fort Monroe will make a fine historical park some day, tells
the story of a groundbreaking bureaucratic and legalistic decision, which helped
guide President Lincoln’s hand and policy toward an Emancipation Proclamation
within two years.
Prior to the rebellion launched at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor earlier that
spring of 1861, the U.S. Army had no legal right to keep slaves safe, protected
But a canny and creative Army general at Fort Monroe turned American property
rights against a Confederate colonel and slave owner who had quickly sought
the return of his runaway chattel.
Major Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler was asked by an emissary of the Confederate
colonel to return the slaves. He refused.
Butler was about to make policy that had not yet been made or approved in Washington.
When the three slaves rowed across the James River and up to his fort in a stolen
boat, Butler faced a decision as a commander without clear guidance on such a
matter from Washington.
This was a day after Virginia had ratified secession from the Union and the three
slaves — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend — belonged to a colonel
who had compelled them to dig an artillery emplacement across the harbor from Fort
Monroe, according to a story in the April 3 edition of the New York Times, “How
Slavery Really Ended in America.”
Baker, Mallory and Townsend arrived at the fort under cover of darkness, sought
asylum and brought with them useful intelligence about the gun emplacements being
set up to attack Union forces under Butler’s command.
Butler, who happened to be a lawyer and Massachusetts legislator in civilian life,
decided to declare the three men contraband of war since they were engaged in
construction of a gun battery and were claimed as property by Confederate Col.
Although noninterference with slavery was federal law and Lincoln’s early war policy,
the case of the three fugitive slaves who had been digging a gun emplacement to shell
his fort gave Butler a set of facts that allowed him to change policy toward slaves
The general decided to keep the slaves under his care as contraband of war. The
convenient and canny definition of contraband — and not freed slaves — stuck and
the word spread across the country.
Within days, more contraband started to walk up to Butler’s fort. A village of
hard-working and semi-freed slaves showed up to live at Fort Monroe and the term
“contrabands” was born to describe them in their legal limbo.
Soon a flood of contrabands started crossing Union lines elsewhere across the
South to become valued allies and protected souls.
The contraband label gave cover to Lincoln’s government before it was politically
ready to declare abolition of slavery. It was a creative half step that later
became a carefully crafted full step.
Fort Monroe on a spit of land in Hampton is likely to become an excellent and
historic park, Domenech said, noting that it is the place slaves first set foot
in Virginia in 1619 and where slavery started ending as slaves set foot in 1861
to become contraband and later finally free.
National park status would be fitting for the fort where Gen. Butler started
writing America’s end to slavery.