Enslaved, Terrorized, Disenfranchised: Black Americans Still Found Ways to Change America (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, racism, African American history, Fugitive Slave Act

Kerri Greenidge is an assistant professor in the department of studies in race, colonialism and diaspora at Tufts University.

Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War
By Alice L. Baumgartner

Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War
By Jonathan Daniel Wells

One night in May 1861, mere weeks after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., three enslaved men rowed a skiff across the James River in Virginia toward Fort Monroe, a military post near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The men — Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend — were field hands, forced by the Confederacy to build an artillery emplacement at Sewell’s Point. As they worked, the blue flag of the 115th Virginia Military blew in the wind above them, its motto an ironic appropriation of another Virginia slaveholder’s dramatic call, “Give me liberty or give me death.”

After learning that the rebel colonel Charles Mallory planned to send them further south, away from family and kin, to build additional fortifications in North Carolina, the men decided to flee. Fort Monroe, the last federal military stronghold in Virginia, provided sanctuary, but only after Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, the fort’s commander, met with Colonel Mallory’s agent, who refused to denounce Mallory’s allegiance to the Confederate States of America.

Butler, a conservative Democrat until South Carolina seceded from the Union five months before, was no abolitionist. Nevertheless, he agreed not to send Baker, Mallory and Townsend back to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act, which provided federal protection for “absconded” property. Butler reasoned that, because Colonel Mallory intended to use the men to support further insurrection against the United States, he had the right to confiscate them and their labor in service to the Union Army.

Historians have argued that Butler’s so-called contraband of war policy did not concern itself with the Black men’s humanity. Regardless, the actions taken by the three men — the fact that they compelled the racially apathetic Butler to alter the Union Army’s fugitive slave policy — changed the course of the Civil War. By engaging in what W. E. B. Du Bois referred to as “the slaves’ general strike,” Baker, Mallory and Townsend joined a defiant stream of enslaved migrants who used the chaos and uncertainty of war to define freedom on their own terms.

These “contrabands,” like centuries of enslaved people before them, challenged the pro-slavery federal government to confront the political reality wrought by its peculiar institution. In response to Butler’s decision, and the steady flow of fugitives flooding Union strongholds across the South, Congress passed a series of Confiscation Acts that effectively dismantled more than 200 years of slavery in North America. Unwilling to wait for emancipation from a government built on their degradation, enslaved people walked, rowed and ran to freedom.

Read entire article at New York Times

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