By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
4:33 PM EST, January 14, 2013
Few people imagined the consequences when Fort Monroe commander Benjamin F. Butler gave three Hampton slaves asylum as "contraband of war" 150 years ago.
For generations, Southern slave-holders talked of their "contented Negroes" with conviction. Despite whipping posts and slave patrols, the belief that few slaves wanted to leave their masters was widespread in the North.
Even the New York Times initially gave Butler's decision no more than a brief, five-line report.
However, within hours after Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend found refuge on May 24, 1861, the enslaved blacks of Hampton and the surrounding region did what at the time was unexpected. They turned this old stereotype and 200 years of Southern slave culture completely upside down.
They voted for freedom with their feet, fleeing their masters to converge on the Old Point Comfort bastion in droves.
At first it was a world run amok. None of the old rules applied to the thousands of fugitive slaves who flocked to the fort, eager to press their case for education, political and property rights and religious liberty.
But by late September 1861, as the bewildered Union army struggled with the exodus, these pioneering blacks transformed Fort Monroe into the crucible of a revolution.
"What's so important about this is how quintessentially American they were," says Williamsburg historian Robert F. Engs, whose 1979 book — "Freedom's First Generation — was among the first to explore this landmark change.
"Their goals were American goals. They started creating their own schools. They started creating their own churches. They clearly had an agenda of their own — one often at odds with the military and the missionaries."
'Different kind of humanity'
Few Southern towns provided more fertile ground for this pivotal moment in American history than the old port of Hampton.
Compared to the remote life on most plantations, the town and surrounding region were far more closely linked to the world — both by maritime trade and the constant stream of outsiders who passed through Fort Monroe and the nationally known resort at the nearby Hygeia Hotel.
Hampton also had a long tradition of literacy among both free and enslaved blacks, plus a diversity of relatively independent slave occupations ranging from boat pilots and watermen to craftsmen. More than 100 slaves rented out their own time, working as much for themselves as the annual fees they paid their masters.
"There was a distinct difference in the blacks at Hampton. They were much more cosmopolitan, much more sophisticated than those found in such places as the Sea Islands in South Carolina," Engs says.
"And the fact that they could read persuaded many Northern whites that they deserved freedom."
Still, black freedom was the last thing on the minds of many Union soldiers, plenty of whom regarded the Negro race with as much bias as rebel slave owners. And even those who showed sympathy to "Butler's fugitives" were more preoccupied with fighting a war than dealing with the unexpected fall-out from the collapse of slavery.
For many soldiers from New York, Pennsylvania and New England, especially, the resulting chaos was compounded by the fact that most had never seen or talked to a black person.
"The army's first response was bewilderment. They were shocked — and completely unprepared for what happened," Engs says.
"And these were Northerners who had little experience with African-Americans. So many felt confronted by a completely different kind of humanity."
'We pray powerful glad'
Some relief came in July 1861, when Butler — who finally had approval to put the contrabands to work — began organizing them into labor battalions. Thousands toiled as teamsters, dockworkers and builders as well as servants, laundresses and cooks.
On Sept. 3, Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood of the American Missionary Association arrived, offering his support to two schools founded by free blacks Mary Peake and Peter Herbert before joining with contraband leaders to establish a third school for 500 students in the rebuilt shell of Hampton's burned-out courthouse.
Over time, this alliance would result in six busy schools, including the 250-student Butler School built by the military in 1863. Yet even with classes operating night and day, they couldn't meet the demand from a fugitive population that ultimately eclipsed 10,000.
"They recognized that in order to be free they had to be able to read and write," says Norfolk State University historian Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, author of "The African-American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads."
"They knew power came from knowledge — and they wanted to make their voices heard."
Bristling under the paternalistic hand of the AMA's Congregationalist and Presbyterian missionaries, the mostly Baptist contrabands founded their own churches, too, including several — such as First Baptist Church and Zion Baptist Church — that are still active.
Rising from the rough-hewn cabins of "Slabtown" in present-day Phoebus — and the Grand Contraband Camp that rose near the burned-out ruins of Hampton — these congregations worshiped without any white influence, underscoring the contrabands' determination to practice their own kind of religion.
"As one slave said, the problem with the missionaries was that, 'They pray powerful sad — and we pray powerful glad,'" Engs says.
"They wanted control of their own souls."
'But they persevered'
The contrabands met with far less success in their attempts to obtain land.
Though some rented abandoned farms from the army, all but a few — notably the small band who settled on Butler Farm Road — were forced to return them at the war's end.
Other tests of faith dogged the contrabands, too, including corrupt Union officials who routinely cheated them out of rations, clothing and wages. During the war's first years, especially, they also faced the threat of rape, robbery, impressment and even murder by roving gangs of federal soldiers.
"It wasn't as bad as Alexandria, where three contrabands died every day," Newby-Alexander says.
"But the people in Hampton were often hungry — sometimes starving. They were poorly clothed and sheltered — so they were often cold. But they persevered rather than returning to their masters."
So many came and stayed that more than 40,000 were counted in Hampton Roads at the war's end — with the largest concentrations in and around Hampton.
Among their legacies is Hampton University, which was founded in 1867 as a freedmen's school, and a robust community of black entrepreneurs that owned and operated half the businesses on Hampton's main street during Reconstruction.
"You can't underestimate the social and political chaos and fluidity these escaping people created — or their determination to take advantage of it," Engs says.
"Considering all the obstacles they faced, the fact that they accomplished so much was a remarkable demonstration of tenacity. They knew when they packed up that freedom was not going to be easy or free."
Want to know more?
Go to dailypress.com/civilwar to read an 1862 biography of Mary Peake, the free black Hampton woman who started the historic effort to teach the fugitive slaves at Fort Monroe. Also new — archival photos and period prints illustrating the contrabands' experience in Hampton Roads.