Freedom's Fortress

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  1. Freedom's Fortress: Escape to Freedom - Empowered by a legal loophole, thousands of enslaved Africans escaped and found refuge at a Union-held fort during the Civil War. Fortress Monroe in Virginia became the site of the first “contraband camp”; a spontaneous community of self-emancipated blacks where inhabitants often became recruits for military service.

Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia is strategically located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Positioned on a 565-acre peninsula known as Old Point Comfort, Fort Monroe is a place of astounding beauty and inspiration. The northern stretch of the peninsula is largely open, with over three miles of Chesapeake Bay beachfront. At the southern end of the peninsula, an imposing 63-acre stone fort is the focal point of the park.

Postcard of Fortress Monroe, surrounded by water and boats, as seen in 1861 and 1862.
Fortress Monroe, Old Point Comfort & Hygeia Hotel, Virginia in 1861 and 1862.

NPS/Courtesy of Fort Monroe National Monument

Within the moated walls of the fort, a large parade ground is bordered by historic buildings and a striking collection of mature live oak trees (Quercus virginiana). One particularly majestic specimen, known as the Algernourne Oak, is estimated to be nearly 500 years old—Algernourne being the name of the first fort on Old Point Comfort (1609–1612). These trees are living witnesses to events that shaped both our nation and millions of individuals’ lives: Old Point Comfort saw critical events that led to both the beginning of slavery in England’s American Colonies and the end of slavery in the United States.

In August 1619, the White Lion, a privateer vessel bearing a Dutch letter of marque (official permission to plunder other ships), carried the first documented Africans to England’s American Colonies. The White Lion arrived at Old Point Comfort before its privateers navigated up the James River. In Jamestown, they sold their cargo, which included approximately twenty Ndongos (Angolans) captured from the São João Bautista, a Portuguese slave ship that was bound for Vera Cruz, New Spain (now Mexico).

Aerial view of Fort Monroe and surrounding area after 1933.
Fort Monroe after 1933, showing Hampton Roads and the city of Hampton beyond.

Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Two centuries later, enslaved men helped to construct Fort Monroe. Designed by French military engineer General Simon Bernard and built between 1819 and 1834 in response to the War of 1812, Fort Monroe is the largest of the Third System fortifications in the United States. Known as the “Gibraltar of the Chesapeake,” Fort Monroe was designed to protect the bay’s inland waters from attack by sea. In what would shortly be a twist of fate, a young West Point-trained engineer named Robert E. Lee also lived at and played a role in the construction of the fort from 1831 to 1834.

Just three decades after Fort Monroe was completed, the American Civil War was underway. Despite interference by Union troops, Virginia’s citizens ratified the state’s secession ordinance on May 23, 1861, making Fort Monroe a Union stronghold in what shortly became Confederate territory. (Virginia joined the Confederacy on June 19, 1861.) The same day that Virginia ratified secession, three slaves belonging to rebel Colonel Charles K. Mallory—known to us today as Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend—learned that their master planned to send them to North Carolina to support the secession forces. The three slaves fled to Fort Monroe seeking refuge.

Portrait of a bald, mustached general with a double-breasted uniform jacket.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler, circa 1860-1865.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The following day, rebel Major John B. Cary requested the return of the slaves on grounds of the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution (art. IV, sec. 2, cl. 3), which required that slaves who escaped to another state were to be returned to their owners, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which was intended to enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause.

Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who had arrived at Fort Monroe only two days before, determined that the U.S. Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act did not affect another country, which Virginia claimed to be. Given that the freedom-seekers were property of a rebel colonel and were about to be used against the United States, Butler resolved that he would hold the slaves, hence property, as he “would for any other property of a private citizen which the exigencies of the service seemed to require to be taken by [him], and especially property that was designed, adapted and about to be used against the United States."

Butler was a shrewd military leader and lawyer. His decision, which came to be known as the “Contraband Decision,” enabled thousands of slaves from states in rebellion to seek refuge behind Union lines. However, no existing law or policy supported his clever reasoning, which supplied the Union with able-bodied men capable and willing to support the Union. Despite the impact of his decision on slavery, Butler was not an abolitionist; he had voted for Jefferson Davis at the 1860 Democratic National Convention. Tellingly, his decision did not challenge the fundamental premise of slavery (people as property) and neglected a key question: Were these freedom-seekers now free?

Wooden fencing weaves around a collection of small houses on a flat landscape.
The "Grand Contraband Camp" at the war's end, December 1864.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Enslaved men who found their way to Fort Monroe quickly became known as “contrabands,” a term that marked their provisional state of being neither free nor enslaved. In subsequent months “contraband” was adopted into common use and signaled changing views of slavery in America. In the following years, Butler’s decision had resounding military, political, and social implications as well. It served as a forerunner to the First (1861) and Second Confiscation Acts (1862), the Militia Act (1862), the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and, ultimately, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1865), which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States.

A group of travelers sits in and around a horse-drawn covered wagon, amidst fallen logs.
"Contrabands" traveling by horse and wagon, published as "Contrabands Coming into Fortress Monroe," 1863.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Just over one month after the three slaves found refuge at Fort Monroe, some nine hundred freedom-seekers—men, women, and children—had arrived at the fort. Their liberties were undoubtedly improved over plantation life. However, Butler continued to view the freedom-seekers as slaves and reported on them as such. Living conditions were poor; rations and promised compensation were often withheld.

When the freedom-seekers grew too numerous to be accommodated at the fort, the “Grand Contraband Camp” was established in the burned-out remains of the nearby city of Hampton. This was the first self-contained black community in the nation, which grew to a population of thousands by 1865. Other Union strongholds in Confederate territory saw an influx of “contrabands” as well. By the war’s end, approximately half a million freedom-seekers had fled to Union lines.

A man stands with his palm against a broad-trunked tree.
The Algernourne Oak in 2012

Dr. Michael Dosmann, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

In the fall of 1861, Mary Smith Peake, the first black teacher hired by the American Missionary Association, began teaching “contrabands” to read and write under the limbs of a live oak tree near Fort Monroe, in what is now the community of Phoebus. In 1863, this same oak tree was the site of the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Just five years later, the American Missionary Association founded what would become Hampton University on the site of Peake’s outdoor classroom. The Emancipation Oak, as it came to be known, still grows on the grounds of Hampton University, a historically black college.

A broad, leafy tree obscures part of a two-story red brick building with a porch.
The Algernourne Oak from the Fort Monroe parade ground, 2012.

Mr. Michael Dosmann, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Only one mile apart, the Algernourne and Emancipation oaks symbolize nearly 250 years of divergent policy and public opinion related to slavery. In addition to their cultural significance, these trees are also the subject of scientific interest. Both live oak trees grow far north in the geographic range of the species and are thus particularly cold-hardy specimens. In 2012, the Arnold and Morris arboretums completed a joint collecting trip to the Virginia Tidewater region to gather acorns from live oak trees. Read more about "The Quest for the Hardy Southern Live Oak" in Arnoldia: The Magazine of the Arnold Arboretum.

Today, Fort Monroe is being preserved and adaptively used. The peninsula is managed cooperatively by the Commonwealth of Virginia, through the Fort Monroe Authority, the City of Hampton, and the National Park Service. Live oak trees remain within the fort and, like the fort itself, are powerful and tangible links to our past. When you visit Fort Monroe National Monument, spend a moment with the Algernourne Oak. Imagine all it has seen in the past 500 years.

Last updated: February 17, 2016