The Grand Contraband Camp in Hampton

Some 7,000 fugitive slaves lived in the ruins of Hampton after it was burned by Confederates in August 1861. Taken at the end of 1864, this photo of the Grand Contraband Camp shows scores and scores of slab-wood cabins as well as the ruins of St. John's Church rising up from a grove of trees near the horizon. To the right, it also shows cabins sprawling across part of the 17.7-acre property recently purchased by the city for a new court house site and private development. Click here to see an image you can zoom in on. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Among the very best views of the sprawling fugitive slave village that rose up in the ruins of Hampton during the Civil War is a December 1864 photograph taken by famed photographer Timothy O'Sullivan.

Probably shot from the roof or cupola of the city's old courthouse, which had been converted into a bustling school by Northern abolitionist missionaries and runaway slaves, it looks west towards the burned-out brick shell of St. John's Church and a panoramic landscape filled with slab-wood shacks and fenced-in gardens.

Some 7,000 people flocked here during the war after Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of Fort Monroe made his landmark decision to offer asylum to fugitive bondsmen as "contraband of war." Later historians have described this pioneering group, which organized their own schools and churches in a defiant effort to carve out lives as free men, as "Freedom's First Generation."

Click on the enlarged pdf file and you'll be able to see not only the individual cabins and the shadowy figures of some of the contrabands but also the tidy fenced lots where they supplemented their meager rations with gardens. You can also see a small part of dirt-paved Queen Street running diagonally from left to right as well a now filled-in branch of the Hampton River.

To the far right is the southern part of the 17.7-acre tract that is now slated by the city for the construction of a new court house as well as private development. If you zoom in on the pdf file, you easily see that the cabins continue to run in that direction as well as far off to the west.

Just how much of the property was covered by the homes of the fugitive slaves is unknown. But a recent map of African-American landmarks created by Hampton University architecture students under the supervision of Prof. Carmina Sanchez-del-Valle shows the village extending well to the north of current-day Lincoln Street, perhaps nearly as far as Pembroke Avenue, and to the west past Armistead Avenue.

Archaeologists familiar with Hampton's history believe there's a high likelihood that some of the historic camp's features may be preserved under the surface. They also believe that a nearby mid-17th-century site unearthed on the other side of Pembroke Avenue in 1996 suggests there's a good chance of finding more of the city's pioneering early colonial landscape under the surface, too.

Still, any investigation will have to be preceded by a thorough study of surviving records, including a 1878 map and this photograph as well as one other taken by O'Sullivan at the same time, the archaeologists say. And only after that can anyone really begin to talk about whether or not it's worth finding the funding to put a shovel in the ground. -- Mark St. John Erickson