Ben Butler and the Contrabands

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Fort Monroe, Old Point Comfort, Virginia, ca. 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When Union general Benjamin Franklin Butler arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, he immediately sought to show the Virginians that his troops could go anywhere they wished on the Peninsula. On May 23, 1861, Butler sent Colonel J. Wolcock Phelps into Hampton. The Union troops marched into the town and then returned to the fort. In the ensuing confusion, three men enslaved by Colonel Charles King Mallory escaped. Frank Baker, James Townsend, and Shepard Mallory seeking their freedom, made their way onto Fort Monroe. Butler refused to return the runaways and called them ‘Contraband of War.’ Their decision helped transform the Civil War into a conflict between the states and a struggle for freedom.

FORT MONROE: THE KEY TO THE SOUTH

Winfield Scott recognized Fort Monroe as key to his policy of bringing his native state of Virginia back into the Union. He believed that the enforcements he had already sent and the additional troops he intended to transfer to the Peninsula necessitated a change in command. Scott needed a high-ranking officer to command the growing number of troops on Old Point Comfort.  He wanted an aggressive leader who would actively contest Confederate positions threatening the Hampton Roads anchorage and secure the Peninsula as an avenue of approach against Richmond. Scott’s selection was somewhat of a surprise. Instead of detailing a veteran officer to this critical post, he chose the sharpster lawyer and slick politician turned militia officer, Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler.    Read more

Up, Up and Away: Civil War Ballooning in Hampton Roads

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General Benjamin Franklin Butler, USA, ca. 1862-1865. Mathew Brady, photographer. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The Civil War introduced many new technologies to achieve victory in a total war. Although  balloonists like John LaMountain and Thaddeus Lowe achieved considerable fame during the war, they were not the first military balloonists. The Chinese used paper balloon ‘lanterns’ sometime between 229 to 234 AD., when Chancellor Zhuge Lang’s army was surrounded by Mongolian troops. Lang employed hot air balloon lanterns to signal for reinforcements. It was the French who first employed a hot air balloon in combat. The Montgolfier brothers tested balloon flight between 1782 to 1784. Using a balloon made of silk or cotton stretched over a wooden frame, they proved the feasibility of flight.

During the French Revolution’s War of the First Coalition, the French employed their Aerostatic Corps using the balloon l’Entreprenant to observe the Austro-Dutch army during the June 26, 1794 Battle of Fleurus. Napoleon disbanded the Aerostatic Corps in 1799. When Venice attempted to free itself from the Austrian Empire, the Austrians used hot air balloon bombs during the siege of that city. About 200 balloons were launched from the deck of the SMS Vulkan. Only one hit a target as the wind shifted to send the bombs back over the Austrian lines. These ballooning activities set the stage for balloon advances during the American Civil War.   Read more

Hampton Roads History: The Founding of Newport News

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Map of Virginia. John Smith and William Hole, ca. 1624. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Although several sections of modern Newport News were visited when the English colonists first came to Virginia, Newport News remained just a place name on maps for more than 250 years. Yet, the Civil War brought attention to this point of land and 30 years later, the city of Newport News was born.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

So, where did the unusual name of Newport News come from? The city’s downtown was labeled Point Hope on Captain John Smith’s map of Virginia. The first references to “Newportes Newes,” with eight different spellings, appears in the Virginia Company’s record of 1619, making it one of the oldest English place names in the New World.   Read more