History's Faded Trail

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2004


It's not something you see every day on a Civil War tour: Two guys with deep southern roots, one black, one white, gazing side by side into their shared, violent past.

Then again, this isn't actually a Civil War tour -- yet. Asa Gordon and Robert Freis are just starting to put one together. They're looking to tell the underreported tale of the African American soldiers who fought and died in Virginia a couple of lifetimes ago. Right now, on the first day of a two-day scouting trip, they're standing beside the thick stone walls of old Fort Monroe, looking for a place to begin.

What Gen. Benjamin Butler did here in May 1861 seems to fit the bill.

Early in the war, as the introductory video at the Fort Monroe museum explains, the old fort -- which remained in Union hands throughout the conflict -- "provided the setting for a seemingly trivial incident which was to have great consequences." Three runaway slaves sought sanctuary there. Their owner, Col. Charles Mallory of Hampton, sent a message to Butler, the Union commander, demanding their return under the Fugitive Slave Law.

Forget it, Butler said.

Hadn't Virginia seceded from the Union the month before? Didn't that mean that U.S. laws no longer applied? In wartime, enemy property is fair game, and since the South treated slaves as property, they could be confiscated as "contraband of war." Of course, if the colonel would just swear allegiance to the United States -- well, that would be a different story, wouldn't it?

"Butler put him in a position of damned if you do and damned if you don't," says Gordon with a grin.

There was more to it than that, though.

When local blacks heard of Butler's contraband decision, large numbers of them began to materialize at what they called "the Freedom Fort." Many were put to work, with pay, as badly needed laborers. Some eventually ended up in military service. As the war went on, slaves throughout the South would seek freedom within the Union lines. Eventually, as the museum video explains matter-of-factly, this "led to the enlistment of over 200,000 blacks in the Union army and navy."

"I think this is worth a look," Freis says. It seems an understatement somehow.

'This Was Their War'

The story Freis and Gordon want to tell is one that has been largely overlooked for 140 years -- by whites as well as blacks, but for different reasons.

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