When the Civil War ended in April 1865, few places in the South showed less promise of recovery than the devastated lower Virginia Peninsula.
Burnt to the ground by its own people, the port town of Hampton was a desolate, otherworldly ruin — and its early glory as a symbol of Confederate sacrifice had been eclipsed by the seemingly endless squalor of shanty homes erected by thousands of refugee slaves clawing for survival.
The countryside was a wasteland, too, with the wholesale abandonment of homes by Southern families leaving farm after farm wildly overgrown when they hadn’t been doled out to help hungry freedmen feed themselves or — in hundreds of cases — taken over by black squatters.
But where most white landowners saw their old way of life torn apart when they returned, others looked past this upheaval to find potential.
By the year’s end, newly free black watermen had tonged up 2 million bushels of oysters, selling them to Northern buyers at a price that enabled thousands to escape going back to their masters’ farms.
Newly arrived Yankees used that giant pool of willing labor to develop not just a new, immensely rich seafood industry but also an equally profitable, nationally known seaside resort at Old Point Comfort.
“Hampton was big money after the war — and the Northerners who resurrected it not only built the resort and seafood business but also helped bring the railroad here,” historian John V. Quarstein says.
“So 30 years after the war we had the resort, the oyster and crab houses, the railroad and then the shipyard — all because these entrepreneurs knew they had to form partnerships to succeed. They brought a prosperity you didn’t see in the rest of the South.”
Saved by oysters
With the government intent on making more than 40,000 leave their villages in Hampton and Yorktown — or give up the farms they thought they had been promised as “loyal freedmen” — the refugee blacks of the Peninsula had plenty of reason to look to the water at the war’s end.
None was more compelling than their loathing for their former lives and fear that hunger would drive them back to their old masters, writes Robert F. Engs in “Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia 1861-1890.”
Those who tried farming routinely were cheated by white landowners so reduced by the war that they struggled to pay their bills, the Freedmen’s Bureau in Hampton reported.
And looming just across the James River in Surrey was a haunting relic of the Old South — the old courthouse auction block where former slaves were forced to step up, then watch as an auctioneer in Confederate garb entertained bids for forced labor contracts.
Some white landowners were “using the whip just as in pre-war days,” Bureau chief C.B. Wilder reported.
They also tried impressing the children of former slaves — claiming they were bound to their old masters until they became adults — then doubled down on their defiance of emancipation by promising to shoot any ex-slave who had helped defeat the South as a Union soldier.
Thousands had enlisted in the Peninsula’s refugee camps, and — unlike black units raised elsewhere — they had showed their mettle at Petersburg and Richmond before returning.
So no one doubted there would be retribution.
“White Southerners had been laid low. They had suffered on the battlefront. They had suffered on the homefront. Their world had been erased almost overnight,” former Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb says.
“The past looked good to them compared to life after the war, and they tried desperately to reestablish the old order.”
Despite these forbidding prospects, the largest portion of the refugees reluctantly returned to their home counties, while a much smaller number fled to the North, Engs writes.
But thousands remained, including many of the blacks who had dominated the region’s fishing, oystering and maritime transport trades before the war and saw the potential for escaping their old lives by working on the water.
Long before the conflict started, the collapse of the New England oyster fishery and the rise of railroads and steamship lines had pushed Virginia’s oyster catch from 178,000 bushels in 1849 to 2.3 million bushels in 1859, David Martin Schulte of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science writes in “Frontiers of Marine Science.”
And most of them were sold to Northern wholesalers by black boatmen.
So many rushed back to the oyster beds after the war that the number of oysters brought to market jumped from 2 million bushels in 1865 to 4 million in 1871.
Huge fleets put out from the coast near the former refugee centers at Hampton and Yorktown, eager to bring home the income that provided for their families, made them independent of their old masters and — over time — enabled many to buy their own land.
So disruptive was this new opportunity that Peninsula blacks clustered to the shore, forcing struggling white landowners to pay more for their labor if they could hire it at all.
“The abundant resources of the water … was sufficient for the blacks’ own few wants,” the Norfolk Virginian lamented.
“But (it) contributes nothing to the wealth of the community.”
Still, that was just the initial impact of an industry about to explode.
“What you had here was an opportunity that blacks didn’t have in other places,” Quarstein says.
“And people who understood they were no longer slaves — that they had to be treated as partners — are the ones who succeeded.”
Massachusetts Yankee James McMenamin wasn’t the first Northerner to see a future in Hampton seafood.
It also took him years after coming to Norfolk in 1871 to carry out the home experiments with salt and a teakettle that led to a revolutionary process for canning steamed crabmeat.
But when the determined Irish-American finally left his job as a court clerk in 1879, he moved straight to Hampton, where he built a landmark packing house that put the crab in the place still known 140 years later as “Crabtown.”
“For crabbing you need shallow water, and he knew the water here was much more friendly,” says Alice Mathews Erickson, author of “A Chronicle of Civil Wr Hampton, Virginia: Struggle and Rebirth on the Homefront,” and a McMenamin great niece.
“So he headed over to where the crabs were — and where he could take advantage of a labor force that already had experience catching them.”
Soon the Hampton Creek plant was promoting itself as the largest in the world, with nearly 400 workers and a fleet of 60 boats.
Its crabmeat won national and international acclaim, fueling sales that — at their height — equaled what today would be nearly $140 million a year.
So crucial was the plant as an anchor of the local economy that — when McMenamin died in 1901 — the Newport News Times-Herald rushed to publish a story reassuring anxious residents that his secret recipe had been safeguarded in a bank deposit box.
And whites weren’t the only ones worried.
“It must have been a sight to see the crabbers go out in their boats,” Erickson says.
“They made good money — and they dressed well for work. Being a crabber was a status symbol.”
Lured by an ad touting the region’s money-making potential, James S. Darling arrived in Hampton 13 years before McMenamin.
But not until 1882 — after starting a grist and lumber planing mill and a fish oil plant — did the New Yorker embrace the shellfish that made him and the Hampton Bar world-famous.
“He was out on his boat when an oysterman came up, handed him $500 and said, ‘Mr. Darling, take this money and plant seed oysters,’” great-grand-daughter Ann Tormey says.
“They said not to plant on Hampton Bar, but he did — and they did very well.”
Much of the astounding growth that made J.S. Darling and Son the world’s largest oyster packer sprang from Darling’s capacity for hard work, Cobb says.
But he also saw legions of black watermen already tonging oysters and looked for ways they could make his firm bigger and more productive.
“He was the right man at the right time,” Cobb says, describing how Darling also parlayed his oyster wealth into the region’s first electric trolley system and famous Buckroe Beach Amusement Park.
“He came here to make money. He was industrious. And he didn’t have the baggage of growing up in the Old South and seeing the blacks here as his former slaves.”
In addition to operating a fleet of some 30 oyster canoes, Darling put more than 100 men to work on two steam oyster dredges, then employed still more on the busy buy boats that purchased oysters from other sources.
Some 160 shuckers came to the plant every day during oyster season, producing so many shells while processing 200,000 bushels every year that the giant four-story pile became a nationally recognized landmark and a popular postcard subject.
“Who do you think Darling saw doing all the oystering when he came to Hampton? It was the freedmen,” Quarstein adds.
“And he knew what was good for them was good for him.”
Seafood wasn’t the only industry in which Northern entrepreneurs and black labor led the region to recovery after the Civil War.
Years before McMenamin and Darling became giants of the crab and oyster businesses, former Union soldier Harrison Phoebus was transforming Old Point Comfort into a seaside vacation colossus that drew thousands from across the South and East Coast.
“He recognized the potential for a resort before anyone,” Quarstein says, “and then he made it happen on a scale that no one else imagined.”
Beginning in 1874 as the inexperienced new manager of the bankrupt Hygeia Hotel, Phoebus expanded and improved the property aggressively, using his frequent visits to other hotels as benchmarks that he became intent on surpassing.
By 1881, he had added so many extensions, wings and annexes that he’d transformed what began as a few score rooms into a waterfront palace.
Stretching more than 700 yards in length, the Hygeia boasted 800 bed chambers, a 7,000-square-foot dance pavilion, a 9,000-square-foot dining room and two long beachfront verandas.
Among its most popular features were the therapeutic baths, including “Turkish, Russian, Thermo, Electro, Magnetic, Mercurial, Sulphur and Vaporbaths” as well as “Hot Sea Baths,” a Boston newspaper noted.
So successful was Phoebus’ enterprise — whose main foyer was touted by Harper's Weekly as “the most noted hotel room in America” — that railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington gladly agreed to extend the Chesapeake & Ohio to Old Point Comfort from its new terminus in Newport News.
That spurred still more business, bringing 20 steamships to Old Point daily.
“The Hygeia was said to be the most expensive building in America,” Quarstein says.
“It was the place for the posh — the place for the upper class. And even after the Chamberlin opened, most people thought of it as the real hotel.”
Cooking, cleaning and waiting on those visitors required an army of black hotel and resort workers who ran the huge operation so skillfully that they earned a national reputation.
And the opportunity to work for wages rather than a shared crop only grew when Huntington added two of the world’s largest grain elevators and Newport Newport News Shipbuilding to his sprawling rail and coal yards.
Soon, Darling’s trolleys were speeding across the Peninsula to the new jobs, which went to blacks as well as whites.
“He didn’t care who worked for him,” Quarstein says, “as long as they worked hard and got the job done.”
Long before that landmark connection was completed, however, Darling, McMenamin, Phoebus and a host of less prominent Northern entrepreneurs had launched a remarkable post-war revival.
As early as 1870, Yankees made up one-eighth of Hampton’s population yet owned 85 percent of the personal property and one-half the wealth, notes Gladys A. Blair in “Northerners in the Reconstruction of Hampton.”
“Most came to seek their fortunes,” Engs writes, “and many succeeded.”
Not every white landowner struggled with the problem of race when the war was over.
At Smith’s Marine Railway in the Dare section of York County, three of the brothers who owned the business had fought the Yankees — and the fourth had died at Gettysburg, descendant Tim Smith says.
But they and their employees — including two other Confederate veterans — had to respond when the Northern appetite for oysters fueled such a surge in black oystermen that by 1880 they outnumbered whites working the York River by 4 to 1.
“They understood that the world had changed,” Smith says, “and the people who became successful were those who adapted.”
Plantation owners like Confederate veteran Robert Hudgins II of Elizabeth City County changed their old ways, too, tracking down former slaves and brokering labor agreements that both sides could live with, Quarstein says.
But many whites who didn’t adjust ended up still poorer when they couldn’t bring in a crop and pay their bills without black labor.
“This was a conquered people — and they hated every minute of it,” says legal history scholar Wythe Holt, whose Hampton roots go back to the 1700s.
“Their farms were devastated. Their labor was gone. People who were not bred to work had to do the work themselves. And when they looked up from a world that had been turned upside down what did they see — all the people making money were Yankees.”
Many white landowners went bankrupt, creating a land rush in which cash-rich Northerners bought cheap and often resold to blacks.
Others, like the Hicks and Holts of Elizabeth City, saw their sons give up the farm and move to town, where the overwhelming tide of seafood and resort money created new opportunities in law, city government, banking and business.
“The ability to make money was shifting from the country to the town,” Cobb says, “and they move to Hampton because so much of it was being made on the waterfront.”
Even as they began to recover, however, bitterness and resentment colored the outlook of some white families for years.
That’s why Clerk of Court Harry E. Holt Sr. could hang a photo of Frank W. Darling on his wall, his grandson says, yet never asked — as he did routinely with other influential people — the Darling oyster heir to dinner.
“Up until the day he died in 1953, my grandfather was refighting the Civil War,” Holt says.
“His biggest problem was deciding whether he hated Yankees or ‘Negroes’ more.”
Still, that didn’t stop all the biggest and best houses in town from being built by Northerners at a new Darling development served by the trolley tracks to Newport News, while the old guard cloistered together at Pasture Point, Cobb says.
Over on King and Queen Streets, half the businesses that rose up from the rubble of the past belonged to new black merchants who catered to both races.
“They were a mainstay of the whole community,” retired Hampton University history professor Bill Wiggins says, ticking off a long list of enterprises that included butchers, grocers, dry goods, supply houses, restaurants, saloons and furniture stores.
“And they stayed in business for a long time.”
Equally telling about the new ways in which Hampton’s blacks, Southern whites and Northerners learned to work with, against and around each other was the opening of Bay Shore resort in 1898.
Founded by one-time slaves as well as the region’s wealthiest black oysterman, it became a nationally known attraction unthinkable in the rest of the South yet flourished across the fence from white Buckroe Beach for generations.
“These people didn’t love each other. But they worked together in a way that was seldom seen anyplace else — and which they wouldn’t do later,” Engs concludes in his landmark study.
“Hampton was Reconstruction the way it was meant to be — and that really made it different from the rest of the South.”
More about this series
"After the Shooting Ended: The Legacy of the Civil War on the Peninsula" explores the region's struggle to redefine itself after the end of slavery and sets the scene for the 1868 founding of Hampton University.
MARCH 11: Civil War turned the world upside down in Hampton Roads
MARCH 18: Yankee enterprise and black labor resurrect devastated Peninsula