Friday, January 7, 2022

Q&A with Selene Castrovilla




Selene Castrovilla is the author of the new picture book Seeking Freedom: The Untold Story of Fortress Monroe and the Ending of Slavery in America. Her other books include Revolutionary Friends. She lives on Long Island.


Q: What inspired you to write this picture book based on the Civil War experiences of George Scott and Major General Benjamin Butler?


A: It was one of those magical writer’s life days—but I came close to missing my inspiration.


October 19 is Yorktown Day---when the Americans defeated the British at Yorktown, Virginia, and won the American Revolution (although it took a long time to wrap it up officially).


There’s a yearly celebration in Yorktown, and I often attended it as a proud member of the American Friends of Lafayette (AFL), an amazing group I discovered while working on my book Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.


The AFL was scheduled to visit Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort, just outside Hampton, the next day. Lafayette had stayed there in 1824, during his return visit to America as the “Guest of the Nation.” But I’d decided not to go. Pretty much everyone in the AFL was “coupled” except for me, and being the fifth wheel in the group was getting old after two days.


I told my friend Bonnie Fritz I was leaving, and she said, “No, you can’t.” She explained that she knew I would find my next story at Fort Monroe. I pressed her—how did she know? It was a feeling, she said—an overwhelming feeling. I had to stay. I absolutely believe in these things, even though a tiny part of me wondered if she’d made that up.


Robert Kelly, Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum Historian at the time and an AFL member, took us on a tour of Quarters One, the building where Lafayette stayed.


Inside Lafayette’s room, Robert said he had one more thing to tell us before we left. In 1860, the room had served as the office of Major General Benjamin Butler, the fort’s commander.


And it was in that room where he met three freedom seekers named Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory and James Townsend. To give these men sanctuary, he devised a legal strategy. He called them contraband of war because contraband could be confiscated.


Boom! My story had struck me. Bonnie had been right. But where had her feeling come from? I’m sure the spirit of a staunch abolitionist who wanted this story to be told whispered it in her ear. His name was the Marquis de Lafayette.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?


A: Researching this book reminded me of how I researched my first book, By the Sword. For both, I had an event, and I needed to flesh out the story. And for both, I was missing a key element I needed to find.


For By the Sword, I needed to find out the name of Benjamin Tallmadge’s horse, because the story pivots around their relationship. For Seeking Freedom, I had to find out what happened to the three freedom seekers once they were living in the fort.


For By the Sword, I pieced together facts revealing that Benjamin Tallmadge’s horse was named Highlander. But there was no such luck for Seeking Freedom. Without knowing what happened to the men, how could I tell their story?


I needed a hero. A contraband, as the freedom seekers who flocked to the fort were called, whose complete story I could share.  I didn’t panic—I knew I’d find him if I kept digging through primary sources, and I did. His name was George Scott.


I learned about Scott in Benjamin Butler’s detailed autobiography. In his orders prior to the Battle of Big Bethel, he noted that George Scott was to have a revolver. Scott was the first African American to be armed in the Civil War. I saw that this would be a climactic moment.


That’s basically what I do when I research—collect moments, and string them together into a story skeleton. Then, once I know the trajectory, I flesh it out.


A surprising fact I found in my research was that President Abraham Lincoln had no intention of ending the practice of enslavement when he took office. He said so in his First Inaugural Address.


Q: What do you think E.B. Lewis's illustrations add to the story?


A: I’d been fangirling over E.B. Lewis forever, so I was thrilled when I learned he would illustrate Seeking Freedom.


His paintings tell the emotional story, bringing us inside the minds and hearts of the people portrayed. E.B.’s illustrations also heighten the tension, compelling the reader to turn the page. They tell a wordless story of struggle, determination, and courage.


Q: The Booklist review of the book says, "This beautifully illustrated picture book enables readers to see the Civil War from a different point of view." What do you hope kids (and adults) take away from the book?


A: I’d like readers to realize that there was so much more to the Civil War than the Battle of Gettysburg—and that there are unsung people like George Scott and Benjamin Butler who deserve to be heralded. We tend to reiterate celebrated moments instead of digging for lesser known but equally important ones. This is a crucial moment.


And I want everyone to know the contrabands’ story—how they never stopped seeking freedom until they got it. This is how enslavement really ended in America.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on another Civil War story, and a story from the Civil Rights era. Plus, I have a bunch of stories from history waiting for their turn to be told.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ll leave you with some facts about Fort Monroe and Old Point Comfort:


Ships carrying enslaved Africans arrived at Old Point Comfort in 1619. When President Barack Obama declared Fort Monroe a national monument on Nov. 1, 2011, he wrote, “…Old Point Comfort marks both the beginning and the end of slavery in our nation….”


After the War of 1812 left the White House and much of Washington, D.C., burned, the Americans determined to build an impenetrable stronghold to guard the Chesapeake Bay. One of the engineers to design Fort Monroe was a young lieutenant named Robert E. Lee. His quarters remain at the fort.


When the Civil War ended, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was held in a cell inside the casemated walls at Fort Monroe. A giant American flag hung nearby, taunting him. This cell is now part of the fort’s Casemate Museum. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Selene Castrovilla.

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