"On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay..."
With these words historian Adam Goodheart begins his account of how Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend's arrival at his fort prompted Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler to articulate a novel war-time argument for disobeying federal law — specifically the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all fugitive slaves be returned to their owners. Butler was not an abolitionist, but he had been a very shrewd Yankee lawyer in civilian life. When a Confederate officer named Major Cary came to inquire about the escaped slaves, Butler rode out to meet him. Goodheart describes the encounter like this:
Cary got down to business. "I am informed," he said, "that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory's agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?"
"I intend to hold them," Butler said.
"Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?"
Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.
"I mean to take Virginia at her word," he said. "I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be."
"But you say we cannot secede," Cary retorted, "and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes."
"But you say you have seceded," Butler said, "so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property."
That's just the beginning of the story of how Baker, Mallory and Townsend's brave act — and the creative response of Fort Monroe's commanding general — began to shift the focus of the Civil War toward emancipation.
Read more about these events in Goodheart's New York Times magazine article "How Slavery Really Ended in America," which is adapted from his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, available at your Milwaukee Public Library.