‘Free To Fight’

I’m still scanning the photographs for a possible image of my great-grandfather. I’m also still marveling at the stories and photographs about a group of brave and determined individuals who walked off plantations in Tidewater Virginia and into eventual freedom. I’m hoping Willis Samuel James, known then only as the runaway slave Sam, will be among the pictures I see. Even if he doesn’t appear, the faces of the men, women and especially the children, will engage me for weeks to come.

This trove came to me courtesy of The Virginia Pilot, Richmond’s daily newspaper. Last summer it published “Free to Fight,” Kate Wiltrout’s ambitious eight-part look at “contraband of war,” Fort Monroe, and Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler. The impetus came from a move by the federal government to decommission the fort, built to defend Washington, D. C. during the War of 1812.

I learned about the stories a month ago and sent for the booklet that compiled all eight parts. I read it as soon as it arrived and learned much about the history of the fort, which I knew remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War. Despite space limitations Wiltrout packed in a vast amount of information. I did not know much about General Butler. He did not agree with immediate emancipation for enslaved people and used his lawyer’s reasoning to declare contraband the three brave men who first crossed the bridge from Hampton on that late spring day in 1861 (the day after Virginia seceded). Treating the men like horses or grain seized from the enemy meant that he didn’t have to return the “property” to their owner; it also meant that he could put them to work for the Union cause; and it left untouched slavery in the states that had not seceded – because they were not the enemy, the slave owners could keep people in bondage. Butler eventually changed his mind and came to the conclusion that these people were in fact free.

But free to do what? Wiltrout brings humanity to the story as she describes the flood of poorly clothed, hungry, destitute people who began to overwhelm the fort. She describes with compassionate detail the men and women, black and white, who came to their aid.

She touches briefly on the early disastrous Union campaigns, which placed this mass of self-emancipated humanity in jeopardy.

Though he did not start out as an abolitionist, Butler advanced the cause of blacks a second time. Relieved of command in Virginia, he went to New Orleans where he put in the field the first Union regiment of free black men. The rebels had organized the Louisiana Native Guard, which willingly changed sides after the Union army occupied the city. Many doubted their courage, but Butler was reassured. “We are willing to fight. … The only cowardly blood we have got in our veins is the white blood.” Again Butler led the way as President Lincoln opened military service to black soldiers and seamen the following year.

“Heroism,” the final chapter of “Free to Fight,” returns Butler to Fort Monroe where his decision to enlist black troops is vindicated.  Three thousand strong, they storm the fort at New Market Heights, which white soldiers had twice failed to conquer. Wiltrout highlights the efforts of Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood who carried the flag after two standard bearers had been shot. He received the Medal of Honor, as did Sergeant James Harris.

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