May 20. 2012

Union troops march up Bank Street between Main Street and Cove Street (now
City Hall Ave.) Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library.
(Click to enlarge.)


Here’s the city, still under Union occupation just after the Civil War, and federal troops are marching up Bank Street.

Not much is going on, although it appears to be mid-day. There are a few bystanders, maybe shopkeepers, on the sidewalk, and in the distance a lone horse and cart are approaching. The troops, blurred by the camera’s slow shutter speed, appear ghostlike as they hustle over the rock-littered street.

You can almost hear the sounds of their tramping boots and maybe the shouts of an officer. Perhaps even feel the unease among both the occupied and the occupiers.

It was just over 150 years ago that the once-hustling, once-prosperous, port city fell to Union forces. On May 10 1862, under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln, 6,000 troops landed at Ocean View and marched into the city where Mayor Charles Lamb and other officials met them and surrendered.

For free blacks and suddenly freed slaves, it was one of the happiest days they could have imagined. Crowds filled the streets and celebrations went on through the night. A day of public thanksgiving soon followed, with a parade, speeches, bonfires and the peal of church bells.

But soon widespread food shortages began to take a fearful toll. The city was flooded with refugees whose only hope of survival was begging for food. Women and children were reported to be dying daily from starvation.

For many whites – those who hadn’t fled the city – occupation turned out to be a time for bitter resentment.

As Wm. Troy Valos [cq] points out in the current issue of Sargeant’s Chronicles, a publication of Norfolk Public Library, the occupying force was at first cordial to the local populace, “but with time, residents began to deeply despise these troops.”

One author says that Norfolk, still under a blockade and unable to obtain provisions, had been “transformed into a city mainly of paupers.” Another writer quotes a visitor describing Norfolk as “a city of the dead.”

It didn’t help that the first Union commander, Col. Egbert Viele, was replaced by Gen. Benjamin Butler. Although lauded as the man who began the flood of “Contraband” slaves to freedom, it seems he was greatly despised by just about everyone else.

In “Norfolk, Historic Southern Port,” Thomas J. Wertenbaker wrote that the Butler regime “was as corrupt as it was oppressive. No man could do business without a permit from the military authorities, and permits were distributed to those who offered the highest bribe.”

Liquor distributorships were given to Butler’s friends from Lowell, Mass., as were profits from the local gas works. Dogs for whom a $2 fee was not paid were ordered to be shot. Marriage licenses were withheld from couples who were known to hold southern sympathies.

Ministers who dared sermonize against the government were sacked. Provost marshals were directed to see that pulpits were “properly filled, by displacing when necessary, the present incumbents, and substituting men of known loyalty.”

Many homes were deserted and left vacant. Some were seized and used as quarters for troops or northerners who had migrated to the city to fill jobs from which unrepentant southern whites were barred.

As one visitor saw it:

“Sadness and gloom, if not despair, have settled upon both people and houses. Broken glass, crumbling walls, opening roofs, creaking floors, and general dilapidation follow disappointed hopes. . . .I left Norfolk as sad as the large company of women, both white and black, standing in front of the commissary’s office to receive rations for the support of their families . . .  as sad as the winds which howl through the deserted habitations of the hundreds of secessionists.”

Prosperity did creep back into town after the war, and there was, as Thomas C. Parramore, Peter C. Stewart and Tommy L. Bogger write in “Norfolk, the First Four Centuries,” there was a general “unbuttoning.”

After Butler left, they write, the city turned into “a roistering, carousing, gun-slinging, mining camp of a town.”

In other words, from everything I’ve heard and read, its old self.