Contraband descendant Gerri Hollins (front) led fellow descendants and others into Fort Monroe for Saturday's Contraband of War Sesquicentennial Celebration.
A full moon striped the water, illuminating the route to freedom. Three miles across the mouth of the James River, three hours by rowboat with a favorable tide, the Union fortress at Old Point Comfort beckoned.
It was May 23, 1861, the day Virginians voted to ratify the state's secession from the United States. While others may have celebrated, three enslaved men rowed from Sewell's Point in Norfolk to Fort Monroe in Hampton.
Their arrival forced a military decision that changed the moral compass of the nation. The war for union would also be a war about slavery.
"There's no question that the actions of those three men clearly opens the door for a subsequent emancipation," said Bill Wiggins, a Hampton historian with the Contraband Historical Society.
"Their actions forced the federal government through its military representatives to take a stand," Wiggins said. When Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to return the slaves and declared them contraband of war, thousands of other slaves soon followed. By the end of the war, the area around the fort was home to a community of 10,000 former slaves.
Fort Monroe was an appropriate place for slavery to begin to unravel. In 1619, the first Africans in the English colonies arrived there as captives on a Dutch ship.
"It was the first place that African-Americans stopped in British North America and the place that slavery started to die," said Robert F. Engs, a visiting professor at the College of William and Mary and author of "Freedom's First Generation," about blacks in Hampton from 1861-1890.
"It really embodies the entire history of Africans in America up to and through the Civil War and . . . what they accomplished there once they had the opportunity.
"It should be right up there with Mount Vernon and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in terms of shrines to the meaning of America."
Thulani Davis, a writer and artist in the New York City area, remembers Hampton from her childhood when her parents taught at Hampton University. Her family connection goes back to William Roscoe Davis, one of the earliest and most respected members of the contraband community that grew up around Fort Monroe during the Civil War.
"I am continually astounded," Davis said, "that all those contrabands came there without knowing that the first Africans landed there, and that I walked those beaches and picnicked there and never knew that American slavery began there."
The timing of the African arrival is also significant to her.
"It was before Plymouth Rock," where the Mayflower arrived in 1620 to start a Massachusetts colony, she said. "We were really here from the beginning. We were in the first colony.
"The descendants of the people who were at Plymouth are like American royalty, first citizens. So are these unknown people."
Adam Goodheart, who wrote about contrabands in his recent best-selling history book "1861," considers Fort Monroe as possibly "the most important and least known historic spot (in the nation). I get the sense that is changing. The momentum seems to be tipping right now."
When national and international reporters talked about the book with Goodheart, who is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Maryland, "all of them wanted to talk about what happened at Fort Monroe," he said.
"Intellectually, politically, socially, culturally, it was a watershed moment in so many ways in American history. It's one of those moments when everything changes."
Shepard Mallory, Frank Baker and James Townsend did not foresee such momentous consequences when they started across the water. They sought freedom only for themselves.
Ordered to build rebel fortifications at Sewell's Point, across from their home in Hampton, the slaves heard that they could be sent to North Carolina to build Confederate defenses there. Slaves who went south often lost their families forever. So the three men took a chance.
They were fortunate that a sympathetic general had arrived just one day earlier.
Benjamin F. Butler, a Massachusetts lawyer, had recently received his military appointment from President Abraham Lincoln for political reasons. Butler had backed Jefferson Davis for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1860, but he was a staunch Unionist and an important ally for the new Republican president.
Legalities and politics were big considerations when Butler met the three fugitives.
Though the Virginia Convention had voted to secede from the Union on April 17, the decision wasn't final until a popular vote May 23. When Butler ordered the 1st Vermont into Hampton to disrupt the polls, the "terror prevailing among white inhabitants," according to one report, allowed the three slaves to slip away. After dark, they rowed across to Fort Monroe.
Mallory, Baker and Townsend were owned by Col. Charles King Mallory, commander of the local militia. Two of them had wives and children they didn't want to leave.
That much we know from Butler's interviews with them. The general didn't bother to record the men's names, and sources aren't consistent on whether the third man was Isaac Monroe or Shepard Mallory. Mallory, in any case, became a prominent member of Hampton's black community.
The escapees' military value was unquestioned.
"I am credibly informed that the negroes in this neighborhood are now being employed in the erection of batteries and other works by the rebels which it would be nearly or quite impossible to construct without their labor," Butler wrote in his initial report to Gen. Winfield Scott. "Shall they be allowed the use of this property against the United States and we not be allowed its use in aid of the United States?"
The day after the slaves escaped, Col. Mallory sent Maj. John B. Cary - a man who would later become superintendent of schools in Richmond - to Fort Monroe to demand the men's return under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act.
In a meeting on horseback, Butler refused.
"The Fugitive Slave Act did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be," Butler reported to Scott. Furthermore, international law allowed the confiscation of property as "contraband of war," and since Virginia considered the slaves to be property, they could be confiscated.
Butler's decision had immediate repercussions. The next day, when Confederates evacuated Hampton, eight more slaves crossed to Fort Monroe. The day after that, 47 arrived.
By July, more than 900 contrabands had found safety around the fort.
If the sole purpose of giving asylum to slaves was to irritate the Confederates, it succeeded.
A report from Norfolk on Oct. 15, 1861, in Richmond's Daily Dispatch noted that eight more slaves had disappeared recently by boat.
"Since they cannot win battles, they endeavor to make up for it in stealing. Their contraband dodge on the negro question is too mean a sophism for a London prig, in whose category stealing is stealing," the correspondent wrote.
The disappearance of slave labor struck at the roots of the Confederacy.
Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, had famously called slavery the very cornerstone of the new Confederate nation.
"Once that cornerstone began to crumble, as it did at Fort Monroe," Goodheart said, "the very foundation of the Confederacy began to crumble. I don't think that's what Stephens meant but it's what happened."
Slaves were even part of the early Confederate battle plan. "Our negroes will do the shoveling, while our brave cavaliers will do the fighting," Goodheart quoted a Richmond newspaper at the time.
In the counties around Hampton Roads, every slave owner was required to provide at least half of his able-bodied hands for military use.
Before the first big battle of the war at Manassas in July, "Confederate forces were devoting almost as much energy to chasing fugitive slaves as fighting Yankees," Goodheart said, referring to a dispatch to Gen. Robert E. Lee about cavalry being used to track down a group of escaped slaves.
"There were slaves detailed to the army that were escaping," Goodheart said. "They realized that there was a chance that Union commanders and troops would take them rather than sending them back. They saw the North as allies."
At Fort Monroe, that alliance solidified.
Butler's initial contraband of war decision was approved by Simon Cameron, secretary of war, and Lincoln. Fort Monroe became the Freedom Fortress not just for able-bodied men but also for babies, women and the elderly. Among the first 900 who arrived, Butler estimated that only 300 were men in their prime.