What up, my nerdy friends! I miss you! Thanks for this opportunity to celebrate my book launch with you for Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America.
More than five years ago (Wait! What? I don’t feel five years older!) I shared a post with you about my book Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. “Loving Lafayette” described how I came to love history as an adult—through the personal experiences of people and their emotions, as opposed to memorizing battle dates and hearing a story about George Washington and a poor, defenseless cherry tree over and over which wasn’t even true.
I won’t reiterate my particular love story with the dapper, altruistic young Frenchman who saved America. I reference him because he led me to write Seeking Freedom.
How could a hero from the Revolutionary War lead me to a virtually unknown story from the Civil War? Do you believe in ghosts? I do.
What are inspirations but whispers from the spirits? Never have I felt this more than on October 20, 2017, at 12:39 pm (I know this thanks to my trusty iPhone’s photo records) when Lafayette nudged me inside Quarters No. 1 at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. The building is heralded because President Lincoln stayed there in 1862, planning a successful attack on Norfolk, Virginia. But I never cared about planning battles. It’s the people inside the battles who call to me.
I was with my fellow American Friends of Lafayette. Each year the Friends pilgrimage to Yorktown, Virginia to celebrate Yorktown Day—the day we secured victory in the American Revolution, thanks largely to Lafayette (who fought as an American) and his countrymen who blocked the harbor so the British couldn’t escape. This is a super amazing story—but not today’s story, lol.
My Friends always invent a delicious weekend of Lafayette-themed events, and they’d planned an excursion to Fort Monroe (previously called Fortress Monroe) because Lafayette stayed there in 1824. I wanted to skip it and go home. I’d been through a breakup, and it was tough being single in this group of marrieds. I told my fellow Friend Bonnie Fritz, who said that I couldn’t leave because I would find my next story at Fort Monroe. Why did she say that? I asked. She said something told her: I had to go to the fort. Vexed, I went. I told you, I totally believe in that stuff.
At 12:39 I tramped up the wooden steps and entered Quarters 1, waiting to meet my story. Passing through the foyer, I turned left and entered Lafayette’s room, flitting about and creaking over every floorboard Lafayette had trodden. That’s when Robert Kelly, not only an American Friend of Lafayette but also the Fort Monroe Casemate Museum Historian at that time, announced there was one more thing to know before heading into Lincoln’s room.
That one more thing was my story.
Robert talked about three African American men who fled enslavement when Virginia succeeded, rowing a boat to Fortress Monroe—the one place in Virginia still held by the Union. It was a desperate attempt for refuge. They knew they’d be ripped from their families and taken further South to build weapon stations. The Union custom, strangely, was to return refugees to their enslavers. This made no sense to General Benjamin Butler, the new commander of Fortress Monroe.
Butler met with the men—Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend—in that room where we stood. He didn’t return them to enslavement. A lawyer, he devised a legal ploy to hold them.
He called the men contraband of war, because they were forced to build weapon stations against the Union. Contraband was confiscated.
This declaration became a joke on both sides of the fight. How ludicrous, to deem people as contraband of war! But the contrabands, as they came to be called, didn’t laugh. They found a haven at Fortress Monroe, and they arrived in droves. So many came that Lincoln, who hadn’t wanted to address the issue of enslavement, was forced to face it.
“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the United States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”
–President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
Flush and giddy with new purpose, I took a moment before leaving that room to thank Lafayette. He’d put that message in Bonnie’s head, ushering me to this room. Lafayette had been devoutly against enslavement. It broke his heart when Washington refused to join him to end it.
“I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery!”
–Marquis de Lafayette, 1845
There’s more, especially how I found my story’s hero: George Scott, who’d fled enslavement two years earlier, surviving in the woods. He saved Fortress Monroe from Confederate attack, and he was the first African American to be armed in the Civil War. I’m out of room, but you’ll find this in my backmatter.
“The Fort was the site of General Benjamin Butler’s “Contraband Decision” in 1861, which provided a pathway to freedom for thousands of enslaved people during the Civil War and served as a forerunner of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.”
–President Barack Obama, November 1, 2011
I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to share the untold story of Fortress Monroe and the ending of slavery in America with young readers–and all of our untold stories. Not only is this in tribute to the people who molded history, it’s also imperative to learn about humanity. They say history repeats itself, but it’s people who repeat themselves. When kids read about heroes in history, they find the strength and inspiration to be heroes themselves.
Selene Castrovilla is dedicated to finding history’s hidden truths and revealing the humanity encapsulated within them. She’s the author of Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America (Booklist starred review), Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette (Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth + starred review) and many other books. She loves doing Zoom school visits and rousing students’ passion for history! Hit her up at selenecastrovilla.com. A fun fact about her headshot: it’s a selfie she took at NerdCamp Long Island.