Freedom’s Forts

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Steve T. Phan

“The Red-Legged Devils have returned” was the battle cry as elements of the modern Co. A, 5th New York Infantry, “Duryee’s Zouaves,” arrived to Fortress Monroe National Monument in 2018. The living history group followed in the footsteps of the original historic regiment that disembarked off the tip of the Virginia Peninsula on May 18, 1861. The original gaudy-clad soldiers arrived to reinforce the isolated Federal citadel and immediately began scouting operations in enemy territory north of the brick bastion. Members of the regiment also witnessed the aftermath of the war’s first interaction between enslaved African Americans and the Federal armies during the Civil War. It was this consequential interplay involving the forces of slavery and freedom that inspired the living history group to attend and portray the events of 1861 a century and a half later.

Major General Benjamin Butler’s astute “Contraband Decision” during the war was the inspiration that brought the 5th New York living history group to Fort Monroe National Monument. I fell-in with the living history unit in November 2017 during the annual Remembrance Day Parade in Gettysburg and soon joined as an official member. The lead park ranger at Fort Monroe and a National Park Service colleague reached out and invited the 5th down to Hampton, Virginia for the annual “Contraband Decision” program. It is organized as a first-person living history act, where uniformed volunteers portrayed characters and units while visitors listened and observed the dialogue. The first living history station provided visitors access to Quarters No. 1 where they witness Maj. Gen.  Butler’s interview the three enslaved African American men who fled to the fort on 23 May 1861: Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend. Their testimony before the Massachusetts politician include details about constructing Confederate forts and earthworks up the Peninsula. The lawyer turned volunteer general resolved that he would hold the slaves— property being used against the United States—as contraband of war, setting a precedent that reverberated across the Union armies.

For the 5th New York living history station, news of the Contraband Decision arrived to our encampment by a civilian. George Templeton Strong—lawyer, diarist, and co-founder of the United States Sanitary Commission, (a private relief agency that supported sick and wounded soldiers), visited Fortress Monroe to observe conditions on the ground. Our station portrayed Strong spending time with the regiment’s officers. Over a meal, Strong relayed a conversation he had with General Butler concerning the enslaved men fleeing to the fort. Strong believed Butler’s decision to provide sanctuary for the three men was just a small drop before the tidal wave of African Americans fleeing to Federal lines. He was correct. Within days of the contraband declaration, dozens and then hundreds sought refuge at the fort. From the regiment’s perspective, Butler’s decision was secondary to the men’s desire to launch offensive operations against the enemy beyond Hampton. The first major land battle of the Civil War in Virginia occurred in early at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, where the 5th saw action and performed well despite the Union defeat.

The Contraband Decision programs were quite provocative. As a frontline interpreter, I noticed how deeply fascinated many of the visitors were to the dialogue, especially the interaction between General Butler and the three men. It got me thinking about my work.

The Civil War Defenses of Washington were comprised of 68 major forts by the end of war. The first defensive strongholds were erected after the Federal army crossed the Potomac River and occupied the Arlington Heights and subsequently Alexandria (Virginia) in May 1861. Consequently, the forts became the testing ground that witnessed the complex struggle between slavery and freedom in the Nation’s capital. An estimated 40,000 African Americans fled to Washington D.C. during the Civil War, mostly from Virginia and Maryland. Before reaching the confines of the city, the refugees ran into direct contact with Federal forts, encampments, and soldiers. Exactly what this interaction entails has become the focus of my research and programs.

I have been developing History at Sunset programs for the Civil War Defenses of Washington (NPS). The first program details the evolving interpretation of freedom at Camp Brightwood, a large Federal encampment and logistical area located south of Fort Stevens. Finding accounts from Federal soldiers vividly describing the scene as African American came into Federal line from Maryland, I realize I’ve merely scratched the surface of this subject. There will be more detail of this research in my next post. Stay tuned!

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3 Responses to Freedom’s Forts

  1. Meg Groeling says:

    Vive les Zouaves!

  2. John Pryor says:

    I will never forget the part in Hennessey’s book, Return to Manassas, where he describes the slaughter of the 5th Zouaves at the hands of Hoods Brigade at the Battle of Second Manassas. Ripped my heart out.

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