The Burning of Hampton, Virginia

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of Hampton, VirginiaNot all wholesale destruction was perpetrated by the enemy. The Confederate forces were believed to have started the fire that destroyed Richmond at the end of the war in an attempt to destroy military supplies. The city of Atlanta was burned by both sides in 1864. But the strangest case is the burning of the town of Hampton, Virginia by the Confederate Army on the night of August 7-8, 1861.

In December 1606, three ships carrying men and boys left England. Headed by Captain Christopher Newport on a mission sponsored by a proprietary company they arrived off the coast of Virginia. After a long voyage, they first landed at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay on the south shore at a place they named Cape Henry.

During the first few days of exploration, they identified the site of Old Point Comfort (which they originally named “Point Comfort”) as a strategic defensive location at the entrance to the body of water that became known as Hampton Roads. This is formed by the confluence of the ElizabethNansemond, and James rivers.

A few weeks later, on May 14, 1607, they established the first permanent English settlement in the present-day United States about 25 miles further inland from the Bay at Jamestown. However, Hampton claims to be the oldest continuously occupied English settlement in the United States. Meanwhile, Old Point Comfort became the site of several successive fortifications during the following 200 years.

Fortress Monroe is the last of a succession of defensive forts at Old Point Comfort. It began construction in 1819 on what would become the largest stone fort ever built in the United States. Work continued for nearly twenty-five years. The fort, designed by Simon Bernard, features a moat completely surrounding the inner structures. As a young first lieutenant and engineer in the U.S. Army, Robert E. Lee was stationed there from 1831 to 1834, and played a major role in the final construction of both Fort Monroe and its opposite, Fort Calhoun.

Fortress Monroe had the distinction of remaining in Union hands for the entire war. Its location made it play an important role in the Union war effort in that part of Virginia. Immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln ordered the reinforcement of the fort. Fortress Monroe was to be a thorn in the side of the Confederacy throughout the war.

Across the bay was the town of Hampton. In 1861, the city had at least 500 buildings and was a center for commerce and trade before the war. But once the Union blockade went into effect Hampton began to suffer with the rest of the coastal South.

Gradually, residents began to move out of the city, not wishing to be so close to the Union base at Fortress Monroe. On May 27, 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler made his famous “contraband” decision, or “Fort Monroe Doctrine”, determining that escaping male slaves who reached Union lines would be considered contraband and not be returned to bondage. The order resulted in thousands of slaves fleeing to Union lines around Fort Monroe.

Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder commanded the Confederate forces in the immediate area. Magruder had a fear that Hampton would be used by Unionhampton-roads-map-1859 forces as winter quarters. He ordered Capt. Jefferson Curle Phillips to lead a force of 500 soldiers from Hampton and the surrounding counties into the town at about midnight on August 7, 1861.

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The Confederates fired the town with torches, burning all but 7 or 8 buildings, according to witnesses. “Perhaps twenty white people and double that number of negroes remained in the town; unaware of the fire or unable to flee, some were killed in their sleep,” according to the New York Times.

General Butler was stunned by the burning of Hampton. He stated later that he never intended Hampton as a base for winter quarters and felt that it was a “wanton act of cruelty to the resident Unionists” and completely unnecessary.

Southern responses to the incident sometimes claimed Union General Butler had torched the town, but the Charleston Mercury reported on August 14, 1861, that Confederates were responsible. The article claimed that Union troops had committed “some of the foulest desecrations of these houses and homes of our Virginia people,’ including using the parlors of some of the houses as latrines, as well as writing obscenities on the walls.

“How many soldiers actually burned their own homes, we don’t know. But they did burn one of the centers of their lives, destroying the courthouse and the churches, the businesses, the schools and the homes they had grown up with,” says J. Michael Cobb, a Civil War historian and curator of Hampton Historical Collections.

After the destruction of the town, escaping slaves used the ruins as a refuge. The built the built the Grand Contraband Camp, the first self-contained African American community in the United States. A number of modern-day Hampton streets retain their names from that community.

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