First, I’d like to apologize for not writing in a long time.
America is a wonderful country, a melting pot of various cultures found ’round the world. One of the pretty cool things that we do, as a nation, is to celebrate this vast mixing of cultures, assimilating into one homogeneous mass without losing our individual cultural roots. Heritage months are meant to celebrate the different cultures in our great land. February has been deemed the month to celebrate Black History and celebrate the contributions to America by our black citizens. As part of this recognition, I think it appropriate to highlight Fortress Monroe’s contribution.
The first recorded Africans coming to Virginia was at [Old] Point Comfort (Current site of Fort Monroe), in 1619. The White Lion, a privateer based out of the Netherlands, traded “20 and odd” Africans for food. Two of these Africans bore a son, name William who was the first child of African ancestry known to have been born in Virginia (1624).
Going slightly off topic for a minute to cover some historical ground: Prior to Fort Monroe…
- Fort Algernon(1609 – 1612), which grew out of an early warning site (1607) was built to protect the approaches to the new colony at Jamestown. The occupants of Fort Algernon survived “the starving time” (winter of 1609/1610) much better than the colonists in Jamestown. Fort Algernon burnt to the ground in 1612.
- Northwest of Fort Algernon, was a small native village named Kecoughtan (near the current VA center in Hampton, VA). In 1610 the English expelled the native inhabitants and built two forts, Forts Charles and Henry. Fort Henry was abandoned in 1637. The fate of Fort Charles is unknown. This old native village, renamed Elizabeth City and then absorbed by the city of Hampton, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America.
- Fort George (1727 – 1749) was washed away by the hurricane of 1749 (Virginia may have lost a fort, but we gained Willoughby Spit).
- During America’s Revolutionary War, the British burnt Hampton to the ground and burned the public buildings in Richmond. Not once; but twice!
- During the War of 1812, the British sailed unhindered through Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. Once again they burned Hampton. They also set fire to our Nation’s capital and landed their army via the Chesapeake Bay.
- Fort Monroe was funded by congress in 1816. The fort was built between 1819 – 1834. Future Confederate General R.E.Lee helped construct the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake.”
On Friday, May 23, 1861, three slaves escaped to Fort Monroe. The commander of the fort refused to return the runaway slaves. After all, Virginia had seceded from the Union, the slaves were “contraband of war.” The runaway slaves explained to Butler that they were being sent to build Confederate defenses, and didn’t want to be parted from their families. Butler allowed them to stay, his reasoning was that the slaves would be used to aid the enemy by building defenses. By keeping them at the Fort, he kept them from the Confederates. By Monday morning, there were 47 former slaves at “Freedom’s Fort.” By early June – 500. And so on, and so on…
I mean to take Virginia at her word, I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.
– Maj. General Benjamin Franklin Butler
News travels fast and Butler’s decision had ramifications beyond Tidewater. Slaves were seeking the Union lines just about anywhere there were Union lines: Northern Virginia, Florida, along the Mississippi River. Former slaves took residence among the burnt ruins of Hampton establishing a Contraband Camp called the Grand Contraband Camp, or locally as Slabtown. Camps were established in Mississippi, Tennessee, and other states as the Union army progressed. Five camps were established around Washington D.C., in Arlington and Fairfax, VA. One interesting tidbit about the Northern Virginia camps; they were built on land which had previously belonged to Confederate sympathizers who had relocated. As Ron Baumgarten noted; “Here were lands that once belonged to those who held people in bondage now being used to help … to transform society in a way and to integrate these former slaves into American society and prepare them for freedom and economic self sufficiency. So, that in and of itself is really revolutionary in essence because where there was slavery there was slavery no more. And, as a matter of fact, where there was slavery, the seeds of social and political and economic change were already being planted.”
While Butler may have been sub-par to poor field general. His prowess as a lawyer and keen observation skills made him the man of the moment. His actions set the stage for Congress to approve the Confiscation Act a few months later, allowing for the confiscation of slaves used for military purposes against the United States. His actions helped reframe the civil war from a focus of maintaining the Union and States rights to that of emancipation of a people; see note below.
Fort Monroe was a beacon of light, and today should serve as a reminder to all that each person, no matter their color or cultural background; has value.
Note: When the Civil War first kicked off, Congress, at the start of a special session convened on July 4, 1861, declared the “Object of the War,” pronounced in the joint resolution was “to maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union and not to overthrow or interfere with the institutions of the states…” That “institution” was slavery. After Butler’s decision to retain the slaves as contraband of war, Congress could no longer delay, and was forced into action. That action, and the pressure put on by the abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass [Intro, timeline, F.D on 13th Amendment, Library of Congress], and many others who worked for the removal of that….”institution.”
Read more about Butler and Fort Monroe in this article, entitled “Slavery, Freedom and Fort Monroe.”
One last note regarding Butler. Of the 18 African-American soldiers who received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, Butler recommended fifteen. There were a total of 25 African-American Medal of Honor awardees during the Civil War.
I refer you to “The Road to Emancipation,” a very good read.