Striking story of how, on the very spot where African captives first landed in the American colonies in 1619, slaves who had been forced to build fortifications for the Confederate Army claimed asylum on Union soil.
Back at Monroe — dubbed “the freedom fort” — fugitives continued arriving daily. Each morning, dozens lined up to pitch in with manual labor. Soon they seemed almost like members of the garrison. A Times correspondent wrote: “Their shovels and their other implements of labor, they handle and carry as soldiers do their guns. . . . I have no doubt they would make fair or even excellent soldiers.” Moreover, as the garrison’s medical chief remarked, “they are the pleasantest faces to be seen at the post.”
Many of the Union soldiers had never really spoken with a black person before; the Vermont farmboys had perhaps never even seen one before leaving home. Now they were conversing with actual men and women who had been (and perhaps still were) slaves: people who had previously figured only as a political abstraction. Some fugitives shared horrific accounts; one man described “bucking,” a practice in which a slave, before being beaten, had his wrists and ankles tied and slipped over a wooden stake. Almost all spoke of loved ones sold away; the most chilling thing was that they said it matter-of-factly, as if their wives or children had simply died.
via How Slavery Really Ended in America – NYTimes.com.
Earthshaking events are sometimes set in motion by small decisions. Perhaps the most famous example was when Rosa Parks boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. More recently, a Tunisian fruit vendor’s refusal to pay a bribe set off a revolution that continues to sweep across the Arab world. But in some ways, the moment most like the flight of fugitive slaves to Fort Monroe came two decades ago, when a minor East German bureaucratic foul-up loosed a tide of liberation across half of Europe. On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, a tumultuous throng of people pressed against the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie, in response to an erroneous announcement that the ban on travel to the West would be lifted immediately. The captain in charge of the befuddled East German border guards dialed and redialed headquarters to find some higher-up who could give him definitive orders. None could. He put the phone down and stood still for a moment, pondering. “Perhaps he came to his own decision,” Michael Meyer of Newsweek would write. “Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, ‘Why not?’ . . . ‘Alles auf!’ he ordered. ‘Open ’em up,’ and the gates swung wide.”
The Iron Curtain did not unravel at that moment, but that night the possibility of cautious, incremental change ceased to exist, if it had ever really existed at all. The wall fell because of those thousands of pressing bodies, and because of that border guard’s shrug.
In the very first months of the Civil War — after Baker, Mallory and Townsend breached their own wall, and Butler shrugged — slavery’s iron curtain began falling all across the South.