Civil war decision helped turn fort into a park

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Print this page by Robert Powell

In May 1861, the month Virginia voters ratified secession from the United States, three slaves appeared at the gates of Fort Monroe asking for asylum.

They would force the fort’s commander to make a decision that ultimately led to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That bit of history is a big reason that Fort Monroe is now a national park, a development that could help promote tourism in Virginia.

The masters of Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory contracted with the Confederate Army for the slaves to work on fortifications at Sewell’s Point (now the site of Naval Station Norfolk). They escaped at night, rowing a skiff across Hampton Roads to Union-held-Fort Monroe on a peninsula known as Old Point Comfort.
Their plea for asylum posed a legal dilemma. Although fighting had begun the month before at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, restoration of the union, not the emancipation of slaves, was Washington’s primary aim in the early days of the Civil War.

In fact, the federal fugitive slave law, which required escaped slaves to be returned to their masters, was still in effect.  Lincoln’s administration feared premature talk of abolition would cause the four remaining “loyal” slave states — Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri — to bolt to the Confederacy.

Despite these concerns, Fort Monroe’s commander, Major Gen. Benjamin Butler, took in the slaves and put them to work behind his lines.

Under a flag of truce, Confederate Major John B. Cary, showed up the next day demanding the slaves’ return. Butler refused, saying that, since Virginia had seceded from the union, the slaves were now “contraband of war.”  In essence, Butler, a lawyer from Massachusetts, was confiscating slaves as he would anything else that could be used in the South’s war effort.

By July, more than 900 escaped slaves had taken refuge at Fort Monroe. At Butler’s request, Lincoln’s secretary of war, Simon Cameron, endorsed the “Contraband Decision” as the policy of the U.S. Army. Eventually thousands of slaves fled to Fort Monroe, which became known as “Freedom’s Fortress.”

Butler’s decision helped pave the way for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 executive order declaring that federal government would free all slaves held in the Confederate states. From then on, abolition was a central goal of the war.

But Butler’s actions at Fort Monroe did not make him a war hero. A political ally of Lincoln with little military experience, Butler was considered incompetent by Gen. Ulysses Grant, who succeeded in removing him from command only after a series of blunders.

Meanwhile, the presence of “contrabands” at Fort Monroe became overshadowed by a more famous resident, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who was imprisoned there for two years after the war.

After 177 years as an Army installation, Fort Monroe was deactivated in September as a result of federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) recommendations made in 2005.

At the urging of Virginia’s congressional delegation, President Obama used the 1906 Antiquities Act to turn about half the 565-acre base into the nation’s 396th national park. In addition to its moated, stone fortress, the Fort Monroe National Monument includes unspoiled beaches along the Chesapeake Bay.  Tourism related to the park is expected to generate 3,000 jobs in the region.

The proclamation creating the park notes the many significant roles the fort has played during its history. But Butler’s “Contraband Decision” in 1861 stands out, not only because of its connection to the Emancipation Proclamation, but also because of what had happened on roughly the same spot 242 years before. In 1619, a Dutch ship landed there bringing the first enslaved Africans to the British colonies.

“Old Point Comfort marks both the beginning and the end of slavery in our nation,” reads the park proclamation, signed by the first African-American president of the United States.

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