Historical highway markers approved
Five markers approved to include one in Hampton
HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) – Five new historical highway markers, including one in Hampton at Fort Monroe, were approved recently by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
One of the new markers commemorates the decision of Union Maj. General Benjamin F. Butler to declare runaway slaves “contraband of war,” a news release from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources said.
The “Benjamin F. Butler’s Contraband Decision” marker is slated for installation at Fort Monroe, which became known as “Freedom’s Fort,” as a result of Butler’s decision during the Civil War.
According to the text of the new highway marker, Butler’s decision became official federal policy, and resulted in thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fleeing to Union lines seeking refuge throughout the remainder of the Civil War.
The text of the marker reads, “Three enslaved men arrived at Fort Monroe from Sewell’s Point on 23 May 1861 seeking freedom. Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler put them to work on Union fortifications after learning that they had escaped from constructing batteries for Virginia forces. The following day when Virginia Maj. John B. Cary came to ask for the return of the slaves, citing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Butler refused to return property that he considered ‘contraband of war.’ His decision soon became official Federal policy. By the war’s end many thousands of enslaved men, women, and children had fled to Union lines seeking refuge.”
Other markers commemorating historic events will be placed in Richmond, Fairfax County, and two in Albemarle County.
I’ve inquired to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources regarding the other markers scheduled for placement. Likely the Fairfax County marker is for the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts.
While generally I applaud the addition of more markers, in this case I’ve got to ask if the marker is needed. The proposed text, cited in the article, places a bit finer point on the story presented by a marker already standing outside the fort, which reads:
Fort Monroe was the site of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s decision in 1861 to accept escaping slaves as “contraband of war.” Thousands of former slaves who cast off their bondage and sought sanctuary here called this “The Freedom Fort.” The First and Second Regiments of U.S. Colored Cavalry and Battery B. Second U.S. Colored Light Artillery, were raised here during the Civil War. In 1865, the Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees (“Freedmen’s Bureau”) established its state headquarters here.
The news article doesn’t mention the exact placement of the new marker. Virginia’s marker system is known for duplicates, particularly for important historical sites such as battlefields, placed at points designed to attract attention from different roadways.
Regardless if the marker will be a duplicate, the larger point is again being made – Fort Monroe should be preserved, preferably within the national park system.