How To Look At History With A Twist In Hampton, Virginia

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Do your eyes glaze over not really caring about the same-old, same-old history lessons you’ve known since grade school? Look at history with a twist In Hampton, Virginia where the past is recharged. Cultural Heritage TravelingMom found lots more than great seafood, dozens of festivals and a walkable downtown.

The haunting “Taps” was first played near Hampton. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Close to Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Williamsburg and even Richmond, Hampton is a 400-year-old destination that stands on its own with pleasures and intrigues to fuel a family vacation. Beaches, brews, antique carousel, NASA Visitor Center, Norfolk Naval Base for starters.

Head to Hampton with the pleasures of the Chesapeake Bay in mind and energize in the Hampton History Museum and the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe. From contrabands of war and connecting history with travel is how you’ll discover history with a twist in Hampton, Virginia.

John Smith was an early arriver in 1607, but you know that story. Ben Butler is the fascinating new discovery for me and I encountered him in both museums.

Churches and their cemeteries intrigue some travelers and create a ho-hum mood with others. But check out the stained glass windows in Hampton, near the two museums, for another unusual look at history in the worship setting.


Contraband of War Means More Than I Knew

Major General Benjamin F. Butler charged with Union forces at Fort Monroe during the Civil War. Faced with a big dilemma, he drew on a lawyer’s lifetime of seeking loopholes and his bent as a social activist. Here’s what happened and how it matters still today:

  • Three runaway slaves in 1861 sought a way to not leave their families while being ordered to move from Hampton to build Confederate fortifications got to Fort Monroe. Rather than follow the 1850 law sending runaways back to owners, Maj. Gen. Butler declared them contraband of war, illegal war goods, and then freed them.
  • To their owner’s emissary, Butler said he would return slaves only to those who declared allegiance to the Union.
  • Because the people of Hampton had burned their own city and fled, rather than leave it for the Union—space was available for the 9,000 contrabands to find safety and space to cobble together homes and community.
  • history-in-Hampton-Museum-sheds-new-light
    The Hampton History Museum adds new understandings. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Exhibits in both museums share that story. Archeologists are digging now in the Hampton neighborhood the location of the original contraband camp, often involving descendants of those early residents.

Travel connections enrich stories of history

“It means something to be in the same place as the history which occurred,” says J. Michael Cobb, retired curator, now consultant and storyteller extraordinaire with the Hampton History Museum.

For me, learning about the three original contrabands—Frank Baker, James Townsend and Shepard Mallory, “same place as history” meant sailing the waters the slaves crossed. The difference – my journey aboard a comfortable tour boat named the Miss Hampton II.

Same waters of the fabled Monitor and Merrimac story too, but visiting here you learn the Merrimac used to be named the Virginia. Civil War buffs keep up with facts but the rest tend to hold on to only a few.

Both museum afternoons were refreshing in their reasonable sizes and welcoming locations.

Artifacts enrich stories in Hampton History Museum. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Located in the walkable downtown, Hampton History Museum offers up 400 years of history in 10 galleries—not overwhelming as museums can be.

One reason I suspect that works so well is the philosophy of the curator of 31 years:   “History is about people so look for them in museum exhibits,” Cobb says. “The Hampton story is so full, so rich from beginning to now; just pick what you want, follow the objects that appeal to you, imagining what it took for people to do what they did.”

Casemate Flows With Tableaux

There’s a 50-foot wide moat around Hampton’s Casemate Museum. Inside, encounter scenes with lifelike characters helping the history to live. I didn’t know what a “casemate” until I arrived, but now I know it means: Vaulted chamber within the walls of a fortification.

I believe it’s excellent architecture for a history museum and this museum contains at least a dozen. Floors are an artistic herringbone brick pattern: pretty to me, serious for its ability to support 7,000 pounds of canon.

Casemate is the name of the museum to meet Edgar Allen Poe, and other figures in history. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

You’ll find Edgar Allen Poe here as a soldier stationed from 1828-29. His likeness sits at a desk with a window overlooking that moat. Think he was writing poetry on duty?

Connect to Familiar Civil War Stories in Different Ways

Robert E. Lee was a 24-year old lieutenant at Fort Monroe, an engineer from 1831 – 34. Later, when President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis wanted to attack, Lee said it wasn’t workable, knowing so from his earlier duty.

Davis had visited too in 1832 as an escort for Black Hawk, and then imprisoned in May of 1865 after his capture by Union troops.   I wonder if any Black Hawks today land on the aircraft carriers in this world’s largest naval base?

All these tales and more are told in individual casemates, easy strolling in between and visual storytelling in each one.

Casement exhibits make being at a fort seem real. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Repurposed Old Fort Monroe

You’ve toured old forts and that’s what they feel like, right? Old. Not this one. Fort Monroe has repurposed itself in multiple ways:

  • National Park Service Monument – ask about Junior Ranger programs and NPS Passport stamps
  • Three miles of beaches including the alluring Paradise Ocean Club previously limited to officer’s only
  • Walking, biking trail along the Bay
  • Fishing pier, kayak launch
  • Residential neighborhood with private homes and the historic Chamberlin Hotel now an assisted living with 161 two-bedroom apartments.

My plan is to apply the history museum insights in Hampton, Virginia to all other museum sightings as I travel. What connections have you made in museums?

Church Windows With Pizzazz

Pocahontas hadn’t appeared in stained glass visions until my arrival at St. John’s Episcopal Church, out the back door of the Hampton History Museum. Folk hero, would you say she is?

Can you imagine finding Pocahontas in stained glass anywhere but Hampton? Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Pocahontas is credited with saving the life of explorer/would-be settler John Smith, but also explained by some historians as simply participating in a cultural ritual of life, death, and rebirth.

Either way, view the window by attending church at St. John’s any Sunday or calling ahead on a weekday to confirm if open. Did you know this is a gift from Native American students in 1887?

Native Americans were studying at Hampton University, in those days called Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Fascinating gallery at the university taught me about the federal contract paying $167 per Native American student from 1878 – 1912.   Maximum number per year was 120 students.

Forty-five graduates served in World War I. The contract ended in 1912 with the perhaps not-so-enlightened declaration that blacks and Indians should not study together.

Soldiers With Saints

The stained glass centurion front and center in the chapel built in 1858 startled me. Cornelius is his name. Soldiers and guards don’t normally appear among the saints or the dearly departed in churches I visit. On the grounds of Fort Monroe and the Casemate, the Chapel of the Centurion is an active church, not a museum.

Stained glass over the altar honors the centurion Cornelius. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Seems he’s pictured here because of his conversion to Christianity.

A bugler named Oliver W. Norton stands tall in another window in this chapel, teaching a history lesson with 24 familiar notes. Seems 1862 is the first time Taps was ever played, and that was at nearby Berkeley Plantation.

Doesn’t that make travel more fun when you connect the dots of something you know as well as Taps and learn it was written where your are (or close by) so the soldiers’ call for “lights out” was peaceful and soothing?

Cultural Heritage TravelingMom also looks toward the sun with NASA’s help in Hampton and Unstoppable TravelingMom Susie Kellogg ventures to nearby Virginia Beach.


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About The Author

Christine Tibbetts believes family travel is shared discovery — almost like having a secret among generations who travel together. She’s Destinations Editor and writing coach for TravelingMom. The matriarch of a big blended clan with many adventuresome traveling members, she is a classically-trained journalist. Christine handled PR and marketing accounts for four decades, specializing in tourism, the arts, education, politics and community development. She builds travel features with depth interviews and abundant musing to uncover the soul of each place.

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