Wednesday 22 June 2022

Today in Hampton History

1861 - U.S. and Confederate forces fight the Battle of Big Bethel. U.S. troops, whose surprise attack was blown by a friendly fire incident in the night and a warning from a Confederate sympathizer, were defeated and returned to Fort Monroe that evening. The engagement, the first planned land battle of the Civil War, also included the war’s first known Black man fighting in combat.

George Scott had escaped from slavery in 1859 and boldy evaded capture for two years, in one encounter snatching a loaded pistol and bowie knife from an enslaver’s hand before vanishing again.

Scott was one of the first “Contrabands” who arrived at Fort Monroe, and he immediately began working for the U.S. Army as a scout and was “supplied at his request with a [gun] and ammunition.” His information about Confederate fortifications at Big Bethel proved vital for Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s plan to attack. He was with the 5th New York Zouaves when they arrived at Big Bethel, and the New York Times reported he  “was in the thick of the battle.”

In July, Scott and eight other Contrabands transferred to Baltimore with the 5th New York Zouaves and moved on to freedom in the North.

“Contrabands” were Freedom Seekers escaping slavery during the Civil War. In May 1861, U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler devised the “Contraband” doctrine, a legal loophole allowing Freedom Seekers to remain with the U.S. Military rather than being returned to slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act. The “Contraband” doctrine weaponized enslaved people’s status as property against enslavers by declaring them “contraband of war.” Many thousands of people escaped slavery as “Contrabands,” and the policy formed the basis for a series of Confiscation Acts passed by Congress and Pres. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. During the course of the Civil War, almost 200,000 Black men served in the U.S. Army and Navy, helping the United States win the war.

Image: William Headley, a “Contraband” man with the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Library of Congress

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