The defense of the nation and the quest for freedom converged at Fort Monroe in 1861, barely one month after the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
Working for the Confederate Army building gun positions, three enslaved men, today known as Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory, escaped to Fort Monroe seeking freedom with the Union Army.
The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act mandated these men be returned to bondage.
The fort’s commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, a lawyer by profession, reasoned Virginia had seceded and stated it was no longer part of the United States, therefore the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply.
Further, because the Confederacy used enslaved persons in their war effort against the Union, Butler argued these men would be considered property and retained as “contrabands of war.”
The word spread and over the next couple of weeks hundreds of enslaved people including men, women and children showed up seeking refuge.
Butler’s landmark decision to consider these freedom seekers as contraband influenced thousands to seek sanctuary behind Union lines.
That is how “Contraband Camps” came to be formed in areas near Union forces. Descendants of the “contrabands” still live in the Chesapeake Bay area today.
Fort Monroe became known as Freedom’s Fortress and has remained a national symbol for protection and freedom.
The fort continued as a bastion of defense and training until it was deactivated in September 2011.
On Nov. 1, 2011, President Barack Obama established Fort Monroe as a National Monument.