An African American History Of The Civil War In Hampton Roads
There’s a power in history that grounds itself in one small place. That power hits you immediately in Robert Engs’ terse foreword to Cassandra Newby-Alexander’s An African American History Of The Civil War In Hampton Roads:
It was at Old Point Comfort on Virginia’s Peninsula that the first Africans arrived in British North America on their way to eventual—if not immediate—enslavement on Virginia’s tobacco plantations. It was at that same place, 242 years later that the descendants of those first Africans initiated the destruction of the American slave system and changed the history of our nation.
Instantly we’re drawn into the dense, rich and fully human history that Newby-Alexander recounts. We’re reminded once again that lives lived intensely and purposefully can have impacts far beyond their time and place.
Take, for example, the actions of Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend at the outbreak of the Civil War:
On May 22, 1861, President Lincoln sent General Benjamin Butler to Fort Monroe…. One day after his arrival, Butler sent a detachment of Union soldiers to capture Hampton. The Confederates, however, chose to burn parts of the village rather than see it occupied. That night, three enslaved men—Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend—made their way to the Union Army’s reconnaissance expedition. The next morning, on May 24, they were taken to General Butler for interrogation. Mallory, Baker and Townsend explained that their owner had made preparations to join the confederate army in North Carolina and take them with him, requiring that they abandon their wives and families. The official response should have been for Butler to refuse sanctuary to the escaping slaves, as had other Union generals in occupied regions throughout the South. Lincoln refused to formulate a policy regarding escaped slaves for fear of antagonizing the border slave states, but Butler decided that seizure and confiscation of these able-bodied slaves for military purposes would be beneficial to the fort, inoffensive to the Border States and a small blow to the Confederacy.
Since the rebels were already using African Americans as laborers, Butler saw the return of slaves to their masters as hurting the Union war effort. So when their owner, Colonel Charles Mallory, came to Fort Monroe and demanded the return of his slaves under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Butler refused and declared the confiscated slaves “contrabands of war.” Further, Butler made it clear that he would “continue to receive and protect all negroes…who come to see [him].” After writing to his supervisors about his actions on May 31, 1861, the secretary of war approved the independent actions of Butler thereby establishing a policy that affected the course of relationships between African Americans and the federal government.
If, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, this encounter between Mallory, Baker and Townsend on one side and Gen. Butler on the other is one in which we can glimpse the exact time (the morning of May 24, 1861) and place (Gen. Butler’s quarters in Fort Monroe) at which the arc that led to Emancipation and to Union victory began to bend.
Newby-Alexander’s short (112 pages) book is filled with such moments and with the successful reclaiming of names ignored, glossed over and lost by many other histories of those events. This is history written from the ground up and with the world turned upside down. It’s safe to say that never before in his life had Colonel Mallory appeared as a secondary character in any interaction concerning his slaves.
It’s not unlike the story of Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the first chapter of Exodus who disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn boys. The author of Exodus preserves their names, but is completely uninterested in the king’s name (which is not preserved).
Likewise, Prof. Newby-Alexander documents in fascinating detail the actions that African American throughout southeastern Virginia took to secure their freedom during the war and to preserve it after. In doing so, they also, as she concludes, helped lead “to a national transformation in how people of color are treated.”