Escape! Better Forward Than Back


On the night of May 23, 1861, at the dawn of the Civil War, three slaves held by Confederate forces building artillery emplacements at Sewell's Point, Virginia, slipped away from the army camp in what is now the city of Norfolk. The men—Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory—stole a skiff and rowed by moonlight across the harbor of Hampton Roads to the Union-held Fortress Monroe, not far from a certain impressive oak tree. 

What would happen to the runaway slaves at Fortress Monroe? They didn't know, but it was surely better than their current situation—being owned, worked, and sold like farm animals and likely taken by the Confederates farther south, away from their families.  

The three men's daring escape was a bold and courageous act; they risked brutal, even fatal, punishment for the hope they saw on the harbor's other side. Little did they know that their brave getaway would alter the course of the Civil War, launching the beginning of slavery's end, and that the oak would soon become an important landmark.


Image: Library of Congress

© Susan VanHecke 2024