The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe
and the Ending of Slavery in America
Written by Selene Castrovilla
Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
(Calkins Creek; $24.99; Ages 7 – 10)
★Starred Review – Booklist
Three freedom seekers took a chance and entered Fortress Monroe without realizing another freedom seeker was watching them from behind a tree, leading to the eventual freedom of thousands of African Americans in Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America, written by award-winning author Selene Castrovilla with illustrations by Caldecott Honoree E.B. Lewis.
With page-turning, easy-to-understand prose, and a history lesson that no reader will forget, Castrovilla’s nonfiction picture book presents a fascinating narrative of what led to President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to create the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual end to slavery
The book opens with an explanation of what took place when war broke out on April 12, 1861, after Lincoln took office and seven Southern states seceded from the union. It was when Virginia abandoned the United States that the enslaved people knew they would do anything to be free. Castrovilla also explains to readers that the terms slave and fugitive are considered dehumanizing and has replaced these words with enslaved and freedom seekers.
Lewis separates the illustrations with dates helping to visualize the time frame of when events were happening. Freedom seeker George Scott is first introduced watching three African American men enter Fortress Monroe who miraculously are not sent away. After spending two years hiding in the forest, which is much better than being tied to a whipping post, Scott watches more men and women enter the fortress. Hours later, there was still no sign of them! Was it true? Were these people now among friends?
The soft tones of a large brick bridge, and the backs of men and women entering with bare feet, leave us wondering if they will be safe. Lewis’s evocative watercolors show Scott hesitantly walking behind the others on the bridge, becoming the last in the long line to be interviewed. He made the right decision! Fortress Commander Major General Benjamin Butler sits behind his desk questioning every man who has arrived hoping to get information about where Confederates are stationed. “I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war.” Contraband — property used for warlike purposes against the government of the United States — could be legally confiscated.
Scott tells Butler that he has seen many confederates in the woods. And now Butler has a mission for Scott to track down the confederates. In fact, George Scott was the first enslaved man to be handed a revolver and ride off near the front of an infantry of five thousand men. Chaos came fast. The loss … tremendous.
Many of Butler’s men died but the confederates fled. Butler put his legal skills to work in a letter that was sent to President Lincoln asking for freedom for all African Americans. It was then, Castrovilla explains, that Scott journeyed to the capital to ask for freedom. Congress passed an act approving the confiscation of fugitive slaves by the federal government — and freeing all people enslaved by the Confederacy.
The interesting backmatter includes black-and-white photos of groups of Virginia contrabands wearing old civil war uniforms and explains the history of the Aftermath, The Contrabands, Benjamin Butler’s legacy, and the unsung hero named George Scott. It is unknown if he achieved his goal of asking President Lincoln for his freedom.
This book needs to be placed on every elementary and middle school bookshelf to be read not only during Black History Month but during history lessons. It is a book about the inner strength of George Scott, and the three original men, and what drive they had to change the lives of so many. This is an important perspective about the Civil War and the history of Black people in this country that I wholeheartedly recommend. In 2011 President Barrack Obama signed the proclamation that established the Fort Monroe National Monument, the pathway to freedom marking the beginning and end of slavery in our nation.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder