Wednesday, August 7, 1861
General Benjamin Butler had been in a quandary over what to do with the 800 or more escaped slaves that had taken shelter near Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula. He had assumed that since they were considered property by the enemy, they could be confiscated as “contraband of war.” Butler’s opposite, Confederate General John Magruder, had a slightly different opinion.
After the Battle of Bull Run, Magruder took advantage of the Union call for regiments near Washington that diminished Butler’s ranks. He moved 2,000 of his men near Hampton, which had been abandoned by Butler, to sweep up Union pickets, “and to capture and send up to the works at Williamsburg all the Negroes” they could find. That operation netted 150 escaped slaves.
Magruder read Butler’s letter to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, which was printed in the local newspaper. In it, Butler stated that he did not know what to do with so many escaped slaves if they could not hold Hampton, since many had been encamped in that town.
It had been known to the Confederate General that Hampton was a bastion for runaway slaves. Holding the town with a force such as his was out of the question. Hampton was within easy range of the guns at Fortress Monroe. There was but one thing he could do.
On this date, Magruder moved two companies into Hampton. Once inside, a sharp skirmish took place between the Rebels and the Union pickets. After a half-hour, the Rebels held the town, neither side sustaining any major casualties. Clear of Yankees, the Confederate soldiers spread word to the citizens of Hampton to evacuate. Fifteen minutes later, “the town was then fired in many places and burned to the ground.”
General Butler could do little more than watch the town burn. According to his report (though it’s not mentioned in Magruder’s), not only did the Rebels steal away with former slaves, they “took away with them most of the able-bodied white men.”
Butler wasn’t even sure why they had fired the town. His men had given it up without much of a fight and, though they could have forced the Rebels out of Hampton with only a few artillery shells from Fortress Monroe, he wouldn’t have ordered it for fear of harming the townspeople.
However, Hampton was reduced to little more than ashes. The next day, Butler took the elderly and sick homeless into his care at Fortress Monroe.1
Exchanging Prisoners in Western Virginia
In western Virginia, General Robert E. Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners. The Union had captured many at the Battle of Rich Mountain, while the Confederates amassed prisoners at the Battle of Bull Run. Lee sent his son, cavalry officer Rooney Lee, to deliver the written request to the Union commander, under flag of truce.
The younger Lee made his way from the Rebel camp at Valley Mountain, several miles north to the Union pickets on the southern end of Cheat Mountain. There he was halted and Brigadier-General J.J. Reynolds, commander of the Federal works at Cheat Mountain, rode out to meet him. They didn’t wish for Major Lee to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Union defenses.
Reynolds read the elder Lee’s request, considered it and agreed:
SIR: Your proposition inviting an exchange of prisoners is cheerfully acceded to. A list of prisoners in our possession including those paroled will be delivered at the house in Tygarts Valley where this note is written on the 9th instant.
Reynolds must have had second thoughts about assenting to such an idea, as he then wrote to his superior, General Rosecrans, who took over for General McClellan when the latter was called to Washington.
“Now, first, is this action on my part approved,” asked Reynold, “and secondly, can it be effected here?” Both, good questions that might have been asked prior to assenting to a prisoner exchange. Forging ahead, he then asked whether the Confederate prisoners from Manassas be brought to Cheat Mountain, or sent somewhere else.
Adding to the tally, he also reported that they had captured six more Rebels.2