Essays - Autumn 2004

Reaching Point Comfort

By Adam Goodheart | September 1, 2004


On the night of May 23, 1861, barely a month after the outbreak of the Civil War, three young men made their way stealthily through the darkness toward the fort that guarded Hampton Roads, Virginia, near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. When they reached its outer ramparts, they were spotted by a picket guard and taken into custody—an outcome they embraced willingly and with relief, though doubtless also with a good deal of apprehension. Ahead of them lay an uncertain fate; behind them, two of the men had left wives and children whom they might never see again.

The next morning, at an audience with the fort’s commander, the three men told their story. They were slaves, they said—field hands belonging to a local planter, lawyer, and Confederate colonel named Charles Mallory. Having just learned that Mallory planned to send them down to South Carolina as a contribution to the war effort there (whether with or without their families is unclear), they had determined to risk their lives by sneaking through the Southern lines and joining the federal garrison holding Fort Monroe, a small island of blue in a sea of rebel gray. The three slaves—whose names were Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepherd Mallory—wanted their freedom and were ready to pledge loyalty to the Union cause.

Baker, Townsend, and Mallory were not the first to take this bold gamble. Even at this early stage of the war, slaves throughout the Confederacy had already begun defecting to the Union forces. But time and again they had been turned away by Northern commanders, who insisted that it was still their duty to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After all, the conflict was about preserving the status quo of the Union, not about freeing slaves. Some even permitted Southern slaveholders to cross the lines and reclaim their so-called property. Not a single slave, so far, had been granted protection.

But the commander of Fort Monroe was no typical Yankee officer. General Benjamin Butler, a Massachusetts man, loathed slavery—and perhaps loathed Southerners as well; later in the war, his supposed insults to Confederate womanhood would earn him the sobriquet “Beast Butler.” So, two days after the slaves’ escape, when an officer in gray came riding up to the causeway under a flag of truce and politely requested their return, General Butler refused. He had already promised the men asylum, and they were at work helping build a bakehouse for the fort.

Then the floodgates opened. On the morning after the Confederate emissary went back to Colonel Mallory empty-handed, eight more fugitive slaves appeared at the gates of the fort. The day after that, there were forty-seven. And within a few weeks, Fort Monroe was mobbed by hundreds of African-Americans—field hands and house servants, octogenarians and breastfeeding mothers, all seeking freedom.

Soon the hesitant Lincoln Administration, faced with this fait accompli, would ratify Butler’s action and make it official policy across the South. And when, more than a year later, the president issued his proclamation of freedom, he was merely acknowledging what thousands had already seized of their own will. As much as the Great Emancipator himself, Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepherd Mallory were the authors of their people’s liberation. Their names, as far as I know, appear in no book of American history, but are remembered today in the black community of Hampton Roads, where some of their descendants still live.

An odd thing, too, is that the place where American slavery first ended was the same spot where it first began. Fort Monroe sat—and still sits—at one of the most strategic spots on the Chesapeake, a low-lying peninsula called Point Comfort. Cut off from the mainland except by a narrow causeway, it both commands the mouth of the James River and gives a vantage point over the whole opening of the bay. Long before Point Comfort was fortified by the U.S. Army in the 1820s (the builders included a fledgling lieutenant of engineers named Robert E. Lee), others had recognized its military potential. In 1781, during the siege of Yorktown, the French placed a battery there. Several decades earlier, the peninsula had been the site of a British bastion called Fort George. And back at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Point Comfort—the same spot where General Butler would train his Rodman guns on rebel blockade-runners—had been garrisoned by a few dozen men who guarded the approaches to Jamestown from a crude palisade known as Fort Algernourne. It was the easternmost American outpost of the Virginia Company, with three thousand miles of watery wilderness between it and the Old World.

And so it was at Point Comfort that, in the late summer of 1619, a pair of Anglo-Dutch privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, called in search of provisions. They had had a successful voyage. Cruising the West Indies for Spanish and Portuguese shipping, the pair had taken a rich prize: the São João Bautista, a Portuguese ship heavily laden with cargo from Angola, on the southwest coast of Africa. The privateers plundered as much as they could carry before allowing the São João Bautista to limp on toward Veracruz, and then turned north toward Virginia to trade some of this booty for fresh supplies. As seems to have been customary for overseas shipping, the White Lion and the Treasurer unloaded at Fort Algernourne rather than making their way upstream to Jamestown.

Their looted cargo was an exotic one, a commodity never before shipped to these northern latitudes: Africans. The São João Bautista had been laden with captives of war, probably seized during recent tribal conflict along the Kwanza River valley, and now bound for hard labor in the silver mines of Mexico. But instead, by a strange twist of fate, some two dozen of them would labor in the tobacco fields of Virginia.

The details of this story were unearthed only in the past few years, by two historians, Engel Sluiter of the University of California at Berkeley and John Thornton of Boston University, delving into Spanish and Portuguese archives. However, it has long been known, from a letter by John Rolfe, that the slaves landed at Point Comfort. It is strange, therefore, that such an uncanny historical coincidence—of the two dozen Angolans’ and the three fugitives’ arrivals at the same place, more than two hundred years apart— has apparently never been noticed. (Never noticed, that is, except in the October 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in an article by a well-read officer from New England who had witnessed the fugitives’ arrival: “It was fitting that the system which . . . had been spreading over the continent for nearly two centuries and a half should yield for the first time to the logic of military law almost upon the spot of its origin.”)

Among the uncanny coincidences of American history, this one is perhaps not as amazing as certain more famous ones—for instance, the deaths of both surviving authors of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826. Yet perhaps it resonates in a profounder chord. Edmund Morgan, in his classic 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom, examined the seemingly paradoxical fact that the South’s “peculiar institution” grew out of the same ground that nourished the ideals of the Declaration—the ground of Virginia. He was apparently unaware that both slavery and freedom took root within a single square mile of Virginian—of American—soil.

One day in the spring of last year, I drove down to Point Comfort. Fort Monroe, its moat and stone battlements nearly unchanged from the days of General Butler, is still a military post, although there is no longer any need for it to survey the Hampton Roads shipping; instead it houses something called TRADOC, the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. A large sign beside the gates of the fort, when you cross the causeway, proclaims it “Freedom’s Fortress,” a name given to it by the fugitive slaves.

My visit happened to come just a week or so before the invasion of Iraq, but the teenage military policeman at the gate waved my car through with barely a glance. It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and the facility seemed almost deserted; I was free to explore. In one of the massive stone bastions, I found a small museum of military history, which mentions Baker, Townsend, and Mallory (though not by name). There was also a historic marker dedicated to Robert E. Lee, and another one for the fort’s old lighthouse, and one marking what is thought to be the site of Fort Algernourne. Up on the wide, grassy ramparts there was an entire park honoring the memory of Jefferson Davis, who was imprisoned here pending trial for treason at the end of the Civil War.

There was nothing at all that mentioned the 1619 Africans, at least several of whom are known to have survived in the New World, some having children, spreading out across Virginia in the decades that followed, until they intermingled with the vast numbers of Africans who followed them to these shores, and the trail goes cold. When, later, I reached the fort’s staff historian, he claimed (apparently unsatisfied with the firsthand testimony of John Rolfe) that there just wasn’t enough evidence that the slaves had really landed there. Or maybe they did stop at Point Comfort, he conceded, but where was the proof that they ever got off the boat?

Climbing the ramparts to Jefferson Davis Memorial Park, I looked over the battlements and watched as a long gray Navy transport slid silently through Hampton Roads and into the Atlantic, bound for another American war. Everything had happened here, and nothing at all.

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