August 7, 2011

Solitary man standing amidst the ruins of Hampton after Confederates destroyed the town. Library of Congress.

In the dark of night a century and a half ago…

It was pitch black with a fresh wind out of the south as the few remaining residents of the old village were awakened by startled shouts and the tramp, tramp of marching soldiers. They were carrying torches.

Hampton, the oldest English inhabited place in America, had been a bustling port and population center in its heyday – the most important in Virginia – with tobacco warehouses, a custom house, taverns and blacksmith’s shops. The town declined when Norfolk took over as the major port, but, before the war was “a pretty little town,” as an admirer put it.

Until that night.

To the Confederate leadership, the problem was that menacing presence next-door, Fort Monroe.

The moated fort, now bulging with federal troops since President Lincoln sent them there, was considered impregnable. Furthermore, all along the outskirts of Fort Monroe were makeshift camps populated by former slaves who had taken refuge behind Union lines.

Hampton had been mostly evacuated after it became clear that the Union army would not be dislodged. Just a few months before, troops had ridden into town to disrupt the balloting on the question of secession. The intimidation hadn’t worked but townsfolk realized how vulnerable they were. They had fled, leaving only a handful of Union sympathizers and newly liberated slaves.

At this point thousands of Confederate soldiers, under Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder, were massing within a mile of town, cruising for a fight, probing for information about the Yankees and their intentions. Magruder had wanted to burn Hampton and got his excuse.

On the pages of a northern newspaper he saw what purportedly were plans by his adversary, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, for the town: to fortify if and allow the former slaves to occupy the houses where they had once worked for their owners.

In explaining his actions, Magruder wrote, “Having known for some time past that Hampton was the harbor of runaway slaves and traitors, and being under the guns of Fort Monroe, it could not be held by us even if taken, I was decidedly under the impression that it should have been destroyed before; and when I found from the above report its extreme importance to the enemy, and that the town itself would lend great strength to whatever fortifications they might erect around it, I determined to burn it at once.”

Now here’s the part that doesn’t make sense. Magruder claimed that he put the idea to “the gentlemen at Hampton, many of whom are in the army under my command,” and that they “seemed to concur with me” about the wisdom of torching their own town. In picking those to do the job, he chose companies of men who lived in Hampton and nearby Warwick County.

Maybe they went willingly to this task, but there must have been deep sadness as the hometown soldiers met at the corner of Queen and King streets and fanned out into the four quarters of the town. “And now the quiet of the night was broken by loud yells, the houses were entered and fired,” a Union soldier wrote. “And soon the whole town was enveloped in flames, casting a bright light over the bay, and revealing to our soldiers the forms of the enemy as they moved about the streets...”

When it was over, about 500 houses were gone, and except for a few charred remains, including the walls of St. John’s Church, nothing survived “but a forest of bleak sided chimneys and walls of brick houses tottering and cooling in the wind, scorched and seared trees and heaps of smoldering ruins…” according to an observer. “A more desolate sight cannot be imagined than is Hampton today.”

Within a few hours, the visible history of America’s oldest town had vanished.

Hampton would come back, thanks to oysters and crabs, NASA and the Air Force, but that other dimension was forever lost.

Ironically, the very town that was incinerated to prevent escaped slaves from occupying its buildings is now gaining recognition as the nurturing ground for “freedom’s first generation,” those who inherited the ashes and made a life for themselves.

At 5 p.m. today, the Hampton Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, St. John’s Church and the Hampton History Museum will present “Ruin and Rebirth: The Burning of Hampton,” including commentary by an actor portraying Lincoln. It will take place at St. John’s.