Under the Freedom Tree brings to light a long-overlooked aspect of Civil War history, the contraband slaves who risked their lives to seek protection behind Union lines, assisted the Union cause, and launched the beginning of slavery's end. Written by Susan VanHecke and illustrated by London Ladd, Under the Freedom Tree will be released January 7, 2014, by Charlesbridge, publisher of fine children's books.

On the night of May 23, 1861, three slaves held by Confederate forces constructing artillery emplacements in what is now Norfolk, Virginia, escaped, stole a skiff, and rowed across the harbor of Hampton Roads to the Union-held Fortress Monroe. It was a bold and courageous act; the men risked brutal, even fatal, punishment for the hope they saw on the other side.

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Had they escaped days earlier, they would have been returned under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. But Virginia had just seceded and was no longer a part of the United States. Thus the Union commander at Fortress Monroe, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, declared the slaves enemy "contraband" and refused to return them to the Confederates.

As word spread, hundreds and, ultimately, thousands of runaway slaves made their way to the refuge of Fortress Monroe. While technically these individuals were not free, “contraband” was preferable to “slave” and a step closer to freedom. The contrabands worked for the Union forces and lived in camps they built themselves just outside Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

There, under the shade of an enormous live oak tree, slave children learned to read and write, taught by a local free black woman working with the American Missionary Association. The open-air education defied longstanding laws against teaching slaves or free blacks to read or write. These classes are considered the first at what is now Hampton University.


In 1863, under that same tree, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to the area's black community, guaranteeing their eventual freedom. Some historians believe it to be the first reading in the South of the proclamation. The tree, which still stands on the Hampton University campus, is now known as the Emancipation Oak. It has been designated one of the Ten Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society.

© Susan VanHecke 2023