Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The casemate at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., where fugitive slaves once flocked to find freedom. The fort will be returned to state control in 2011, and many want to honor its history

From the New York Times article entitled, "THE CONTRABAND AT FORTRESS MONROE," Published: July 20, 1861: A letter to the Boston Traveller, dated at Hampton, Va., July 10, says:

"Your correspondent has been obliged to interrupt his letters for some days, being specially detailed at head-quarters on a peculiar and responsible duty. On Monday morning last he was deputed to collect the colored men together, enrol them and put them to work on our intrenchments. Word was then passed around that they must meet at the Court-house yard when the bell was rung. They came as required, and went into the Court-house.

Your correspondent then made a few remarks to them saying that they had been put to work on the intrenchments of the Secessionists, and that we needed their services. That they would only be required to do what white men were doing -- that they should be treated kindly and no one should be required to work if he was unwell or beyond his capacity; that they would be furnished with soldier's rations of food, and that he hoped when he should go home to be able to tell the Northern people that colored men were as industrious as the whites. They evinced no displeasure. Their names, ages, and the names of their masters were taken. A few old or sick men were excused, and those now engaged at officers' quarters were not called upon.

Contraband Cooks

In the afternoon they went to work between 2 and 3, and worked till 6. Tuesday and to-day they have worked between seven and eight hours each day, coming together between 4 and 5 A.M., and working two hours before breakfast. There was some sulkiness in one or two at first, but it has passed away. The men were treated with kindness, were all allowed to test for fifteen minutes at intervals, and they were requested to take other rests if they felt unable to keep on. They worked well and were cheerful. There were sixty-four in all, three or four of them having come into Hampton since Monday. They have thrown up an intrenchment 250 feet in length, and if your readers could see how handsomely and well it is done, they would confess that the negro can do some things as well as the white man. To-day, as usual, they were dismissed at 11 A.M. to come together at 3 P.M.

The contrabands are curious as to what shall be their fate. One or two told me that after working on our intrenchments it would go hard with them if their master's returned. One inquired suspiciously why his master's name was taken down. All hope that, some how or other, they will soon be free, and that their fugitive masters will never return. They call me by various titles, as boss, massa, general, &c. The post of an overseer of negroes in Virginia is certainly a new one for a pretty earnest Massachusetts Republican to occupy, and as your correspondent addressed them, there was one message which he then wished he could deliver to them, and that was that the hour of their emancipation had come. Indeed, in conversation with one or many, I tell them all that they are as much entitled to their freedom as I am to mine.

And will the Government be so false as ever to fail to protect every negro who has ever served our officers or men, helped to build our defences, or in any way aided our cause? If it shall ever be so base and treacherous as that, it will deserve to be a thousand times overthrown, and be forevr accursed among the nations. Whatever may be our general duty to this oppressed race, to such as we have thus employed, our national faith and our personal honor are pledged. The code of a gentleman, to say nothing of the grander law of rectitude, at least necessitates protection to that extent.

Contrabands at Ft. Monroe, Virginia

Yesterday I was at the Fort for the purpose of inquiring whether rations could be furnished to the negroes on account of their wives and children -- it being manifest justice to provide for their families, whom they could not labor to support while so employed. This suggestion was cordially responded to, and rations ordered for them. This morning I inquired of each man whether he had a wife and children. In some instances the melancholy answer was given that he had had a wife, but she had been sold and carried off.

Some of the colored men who are at work have no shoes. They can use the pick without them, but it is more difficult to use the shovel. Shoes cannot be obtained for them without a special order from Washington.

Some slaves come into our pickets every day, having escaped from their masters. Some vacant buildings are assigned to them, and they are set to work.

Your readers will, I trust, not complain that I have so much to say about the negroes. They are the main feature of interest here. This is our first introduction to slave-life in Virginia, and we are now summoned to confront the gravest question of the war. God grant that we may have the courage and forecast to meet it. The anxious student of passing events cannot fall to find in the slave society, which is now presented, objects for perpetual reflection.

Fort Monroe is located at Old Point Comfort, where ships carrying the first Africans to Virginia presumably passed as they entered the colony. When the fort was under construction (1819 -34), slaves hired from local plantations performed much of the labor.

Since our regiments have been here, we have been engaged on guard and picket duty. One night we were out till morning, expecting an attack of cavalry. Our officers gave us special directions for our conduct in the anticipated attack. Many of us were stationed as sentinels to the distance of a mile or two into the country.

The bridge over Hampton Creek is still unbuilt. Indeed, work on it is suspended, and the timber requisite is to be obtained from Portland. There has been the most extraordinary delay about the rebuilding of this bridge. There is timber here; if from no other source it ran be obtained from the houses of traitors who have abandoned their property. The bridge is needed, both for convenience and protection, and any two or four companies can furnish men to complete it in two days. Still the work goes sleepily on or is intermitted. P.

The New York Times, "THE CONTRABAND AT FORTRESS MONROE," Published: July 20, 1861

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