"Historic and Rather Pretty Village"
An event that set the stage for Hampton new century took place on the night of June 24, 1813 when a large force of British infantry and marines landed on the western edge of town and overwhelmed a much smaller group of defenders. The invaders then sacked the town, murdering and pillaging as they went. The brutal attack helped solidify public opinion about the War of 1812 and galvanize the nation's resolve to protect its ports.
Within four years after the incident, granite blocks from a quarry along the Potomac River began arriving at Old Point Comfort. In 1819, construction began on Fort Monroe, one of the largest stone fortresses ever built. This "Gibraltar" would become a powerful federal presence and change the course of history for the entire region. At the same time, a companion bastion, eventually named Fort Wool, rose on an artificial island in Hampton Roads.
Once viewed as a "historic and rather pretty village" with tree-lined streets and brick sidewalks, Hampton would change almost overnight. As the Civil War began, thousands of additional troops poured into Fort Monroe. At the same time, thousands of escaped slaves—treated by the North as "contrabands of war"—were granted sanctuary near the fort. Realizing that Hampton could not be defended, Confederates put Hampton to the torch, leaving a smoldering heap of ashes.
The war also contained the seeds of Hampton recovery. Acting on the need for former slaves to gain an education, in 1868 Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong founded Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to train teachers. The National Soldiers' Home for Union Civil War veterans was begun. Fabulous tourist hotels like the Hygeia and Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort came into being. Finally, northern entrepreneurs turned Hampton into one of the nation seafood capitals.
(left) 1861 engraving showing Fort Monroe, along with the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort. - Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum
(center) View from the Hampton River of Hamton Institute, now Hampton University. - Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum
(right) "Contraband" enslaved people settled in Hampton, building their homes near the ruins of the town burned by the Confederates Army in 1861. This image appeared in an 1865 issue of Harper's Weekly
, based on a photograph taken in Hampton by Alexander Gardner. - Courtesy of the Hampton History Museum