During the night of May 23, 1861, a small rowboat landed at Fort Monroe in Hampton, and three enslaved men stepped out—Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. They had been constructing Confederate fortifications at Sewell’s Point when they commandeered the boat and rowed to the fort to escape their bondage. Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler had just taken command of the fort the day before. He questioned the three men and learned that they were enslaved by Col. Charles K. Mallory, 115th Virginia Militia. On May 24, Confederate Maj. John B. Cary rode to the picket line under a flag of truce and met with Butler. Cary told Butler that Mallory wanted his property returned, as was required under the United States Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act. Butler pointed out that Virginia had seceded from the Union the day before and was therefore a foreign power not entitled to the benefits of the laws and Constitution. Cary responded that the U.S. Army was in Virginia to assert that it had not in fact left the Union, and therefore the slaves should be returned. Butler replied that because the men were employed in building fortifications to wage war, they were subject to seizure as “contraband of war” just as though they were weapons or other tools of a foreign power. Butler therefore refused to return them.
Within three days, dozens of self-liberated men, women, and children were pouring into Fort Monroe. Butler put the men to work, and gave all the “contrabands,” as they were called, food and shelter. He also wrote his superiors for guidance and approval, which came slowly but soon became official policy. Vast numbers of enslaved men and women fled to Union lines, where they lived in camps or “contraband villages.” Many were employed as cooks and teamsters. Many slaveholders moved enslaved people deeper into Confederate territory, away from Union-controlled areas, to thwart them. By early in 1865, however, Confederate authorities estimated that between 61 and 70 percent of Virginia’s mature males had fled. Butler’s “contraband” policy, therefore, further encouraged self-emancipation and became a step on the road to President Abraham Lincoln’s eventual Emancipation Proclamation.
Fort Monroe, which guarded the entrance to Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay, was completed in 1834. It stands on Old Point Comfort, where in 1619 the first enslaved people in colonial Virginia disembarked. Beginning in 1861, the fort earned its nickname, Freedom’s Fortress, as a haven for self-emancipated people. Today, Fort Monroe National Monument, as a decommissioned U.S. Army post, is also a National Historic Landmark and open to the public.