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Letter from Virginia

Free Before Emancipation

Excavations are providing a new look at some of the Civil War’s earliest fugitive slaves—considered war goods or contraband—and their first taste of liberty

July/August 2015

Letter From Virginia Contraband Group



Nothing but a forest of bleak sided chimneys and walls of brick houses tottering and cooling in the wind...a more desolate site cannot be imagined than Hampton today. —Philadelphia Inquirer, August 8, 1861



Along the Hampton, Virginia, waterfront, the Virginia Air and Space Center, a vaulting modern structure, evokes a bird taking flight over the Hampton River. Like everything else in Hampton’s downtown, the building rests upon the ruins of a city deliberately put to the torch in 1861. At that time, the city’s Confederate-aligned inhabitants were anxious about Union control of nearby Fort Monroe and even more so about an influx of African Americans to the fort. In August of that year, the white population of Hampton evacuated, and the Confederate army destroyed the city.


The African-American population that had the people of Hampton on edge was mostly runaway slaves who had arrived at Fort Monroe seeking Union protection. Fort Monroe sits on a small peninsula at the southern end of the city, overlooking the broad waterway known as Hampton Roads. In the summer of 1861, it would have made a critical destination, just beyond Confederate reach, for runaway slaves. By law—the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—runaway slaves were to be returned to their owners. But instead they found freedom at Fort Monroe, thanks to a commanding officer experienced in exploiting legal loopholes.


Once the Hampton residents fled, wide areas were left open for settlement by these newly freed people. Soon, empty fields next to the charred city developed into an independent community supported by the Union army. Word of the freedom and autonomy of the camp spread, and more such settlements arose near Union strongholds, sheltering runaways, providing labor for the Union army, and beginning a quiet revolution.


Today, on city-owned land just off Armistead Avenue, sits the site of the original community—once known as the Grand Contraband Camp—that the former slaves established next to, and eventually within, Hampton. The recent demolition of dilapidated apartments there has cleared the way for an investigation into the site’s history. The James River Institute for Archaeology, with funding from the city of Hampton, is conducting the first excavations. Archaeologists hope to learn more about the lives of the newly freed, including how they constructed their homes, how they cooked, what they ate, and what their daily routines might have been. The work is an exploration of the beginnings of one of the first self-contained African-American communities in the United States, a community that began in part because three slaves had refused to be separated from their families to build Confederate fortifications.