Sunday, August 07, 2011

150 Years Ago -- The Burning of Hampton

General John B. Magruder, 1860s photoImage of John Magruder via Wikipedia

On Wednesday, August 7, 1861, a force of 500 men under Confederate General John Magruder burned the town of Hampton, Virginia.

Magruder learned from a copy of the New York Tribune, which contained a report from Union General Benjamin Butler to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, that Butler planned to use Hampton as a holding point for the thousands of runaway slaves that were coming into his lines.  Butler also planned to fortify the town to protect his position at nearby Fort Monroe.

Just after midnight, Magruder's force fought off the picket force that was guarding the bridge into the town, then set about burning the town to the ground.

Magruder's force had to work quickly because they were within range of the Fort Monroe guns, but Magruder claims in his official report that "Notice was then given to the few remaining inhabitants of the place, and those who were aged or infirm were kindly cared for and taken to their friends, who occupied detached houses."

An Associated Press correspondent witnessed the episode and his account appeared in the August 31 issue of Harper's Weekly:
The greater part of the five hundred houses were built of wood, and no rain having fallen lately, the strong south wind soon produced a terrible conflagration. There were perhaps twenty white people and double that number of negroes remaining in the town from inability to move, some of whose houses were fired without waking the inmates. They gave Wilson Jones and his wife, both of them aged and infirm, but fifteen minutes to remove a few articles of furniture to the garden. Several of the whites and also of the negroes were hurried away to be pressed into the rebel service. Mr. Scofield, a merchant, took refuge in a swamp above the town. Two negroes were drowned while attempting to cross the creek. A company of rebels attempted to force the passage of the bridge, but were repulsed with a loss of three killed and six wounded.

The fire raged all night. The greater part of the rebels withdrew toward morning, and at noon to-day, when I visited the place, but seven or eight buildings were left standing.

The glare of the conflagration was so brilliant that I was enabled to write by it. A more sublime and awful spectacle has never yet been witnessed. The high south wind prevailing at the time fanned the flames into a lurid blaze, and lighted up the country for miles and miles around.

An illustration of the fire appears in the same issue.

Also on this date, the War Department entered into a contract with J. B. Eads for construction of seven ironclad river gunboats.  The boats, the Cairo, Carondolet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, Pittsburg, and St. Louis, would see duty in Ulysses S. Grant's western campaigns.
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