The following is a guest blog post by Elizabeth D. Leonard, author of Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life.
Benjamin Franklin Butler was one of the most important and controversial military and political leaders of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Remembered most often for his uncompromising administration of the Federal occupation of New Orleans during the war, Butler reemerges in this lively narrative as a man whose journey took him from childhood destitution to wealth and profound influence in state and national halls of power. Prize-winning biographer Elizabeth D. Leonard chronicles Butler’s successful career in the law defending the rights of the Lowell Mill girls and other workers, his achievements as one of Abraham Lincoln’s premier civilian generals, and his role in developing wartime policy in support of slavery’s fugitives as the nation advanced toward emancipation. Leonard also highlights Butler’s personal and political evolution, revealing how his limited understanding of racism and the horrors of slavery transformed over time, leading him into a postwar role as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for Black freedom and civil rights, and one of its notable opponents of white supremacy and neo-Confederate resurgence.
Butler himself claimed he was “always with the underdog in the fight.” Leonard’s nuanced portrait will help readers assess such claims, peeling away generations of previous assumptions and characterizations to provide a definitive life of a consequential man.
Ever since I began work on my biography of Benjamin Franklin Butler, it has become clear that the one positive thing folks today who know anything about him typically associate with the man is his “contraband policy.” This policy, of course, stemmed from Butler’s refusal, while commanding U.S. forces at Fort Monroe in May 1861, to surrender three enslaved men who had escaped to the fort and requested Butler’s, and the army’s, protection. A brilliant and wily lawyer, Butler carefully reasoned his way to saying “no” when the slaveowner’s agent came to reclaim his human property. And so was born Butler’s contraband policy, a significant milestone on the nation’s path to emancipation.
Some folks familiar also know the names of the first three runaway bondsmen who inspired Butler’s contraband policy: Sheppard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend. Meanwhile, a new children’s book, Seeking Freedom, examines the May 1861 events at Fort Monroe in conjunction with the story of a presumably historical beneficiary of the policy named George Scott. To date, however, I am unaware of anyone (including me) having followed up on what happened to Mallory, Baker, and Townsend after their stunning, historically transformative act of courage, and recently I’ve been wondering what happened to them.
Sadly, for a multitude of reasons, unearthing the details of the lives and experiences of specific enslaved individuals prior to the war remains a challenge. Beginning with the 1870 U.S. census, however, significantly more concrete information became available. Moreover, ongoing advances in computer technology combined with the advent of digital databases have further expanded what we can know. A great example of the latter is Ancestry.com, which one might more accurately call a “meta-database” because it assembles so many smaller databases into one giant one. Using Ancestry, I decided to see what I could find out, with a reasonable amount of certainty, about just one of the men who first showed up at Fort Monroe on May 23, 1861: Sheppard Mallory.
Mallory was born in approximately 1835 in Hampton, Virginia. His mother was named Sarah, and—given that he is described in various records as “mulatto”—his father was most likely a White male member of the Mallory family whose patriarch, Charles Mallory, claimed both Sarah and her son as his property. In the mid-1850s, well before he escaped to Fort Monroe, Sheppard Mallory married Fannie Randall, an enslaved woman who, following the war, “kept house” for her family and also worked as a dressmaker and laundress. Sheppard and Fannie had at least four children: Sheppard Jr., born in 1862; William (or Willie), born in 1864; Frank, born in 1870; and Lucy (or Louisa), born in 1878. Of these four children, Sheppard Jr is the only one we know attended school as a youth, though the entire family could read and write. In 1891, Sheppard Jr. married Mary Morris, a laundress, who died of diabetes in January 1922. As for the other children: Frank died of unknown causes before he reached the age of ten; William spent his life working as a servant and laborer, and died in 1949; and Lucy became a dressmaker like her mother, married a man whose last name was Brown, and died of bladder cancer in Hampton in 1948. While they lived, Sheppard Mallory Sr., his children, and their families all remained in Hampton (the family home was at 260 Lincoln Street). Mallory himself took postwar jobs as an oysterman, a house carpenter, and school janitor. At some point between 1900 and 1903, his wife Fannie died of unknown causes, for in September 1903, he married again, this time to Leila J. Smith. Sheppard Mallory died in December 1924 of myocarditis and is buried in Hampton’s Elmerton Cemetery, as are Sheppard’s son, Willie, and Leila.
Just as the names of individuals from the civil rights era are often deployed simply to point us in the direction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sheppard Mallory, Frank Baker, and James Townsend appear in the historical record as if all that matters is their (albeit, heroic) role in pointing us to what Benjamin Butler did, the decision he made, and the dramatic developments that flowed from his contraband policy. Fortunately, these days it is much easier than it once was to learn about the complex, interesting, and revealing lives of these men and their descendants, beyond that dramatic and influential moment in May 1861 when their worlds intersected with Benjamin Butler’s.
Elizabeth D. Leonard’s previous books include Lincoln’s Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky, winner of the Lincoln Prize.