The common belief is that the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. That is not actually true, as chattel slavery didn’t completely end until after the Civil War. However, based on a Major General’s decision, 12 days into the conflict – slaves were actually defacto gaining their freedom as “confiscated property” or “contraband”, even if all of the legal niceties weren’t exactly being observed. Many of these ex-slaves would go to work for, and eventually fight as soldiers in the Union Army.
On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, had been a military post since the time of the first Jamestown settlers. This spot where the slaves took refuge was also, by remarkable coincidence, the spot where slavery first took root, one summer day in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia Colony.
Two and half centuries later, in the first spring of the Civil War, Fort Monroe was a lonely Union redoubt in the heart of newly Confederate territory. Its defenders stood on constant guard. Frigates and armed steamers crowded the nearby waters known as Hampton Roads, one of the world’s great natural harbors. Perspiring squads of soldiers hauled giant columbiad cannons from the fort’s wharf up to its stone parapets. Yet history would come to Fort Monroe not amid the thunder of guns and the clash of fleets, but stealthily, under cover of darkness, in a stolen boat.
Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend were field hands who — like hundreds of other local slaves — had been pressed into service by the Confederates, compelled to build an artillery emplacement amid the dunes across the harbor. They labored beneath the banner of the 115th Virginia Militia, a blue flag bearing a motto in golden letters: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Continue reading