In the war for Southern Independence, the people of Hampton were warmly for the Confederate cause, but their close proximity to the most powerful fort of the United States rendered their position a most unhappy one. The first regular battle of the war occurred in their vicinity at Big Bethel near the place where Colonel Mallory was killed during the American Revolution. Nearly all the families abandoned the town, and on August, 1862, the place was fired by order of General Magruder. The soldiers selected to do this were property owners in the town, who approved the policy, and the few remaining residents, not over twenty in all, were notified in advance. This drastic and perhaps useless action was taken because of a dispatch from General Butler, which fell into General Magruder 's hands that the houses would be used for military purposes. In the general conflagration the church also was consumed, with the exception of the massive walls which remained standing. Only
five houses were left, and the citizens by thus yielding to the flames, property worth $200,000 demonstrated 'Hheir intensive devotion to the cause they had espoused and for which they considered no sacrifice too great."
At the breaking out of the war, John B. Gary, principal of the Hampton Military Institute, was commissioned by General Lee, Major of all the Hampton troops and after the battle of Bethel, in which he took part, he was promoted Lieutenant Colonel of the Thirty-second Virginia Regiment, commanded by Colonel Ewell, President of William and Mary College. It was on the occasion of a visit paid by Colonel Cary to General Butler under a flag of truce that the latter originated the expression "contraband," as applied to the negroes. Colonel Cary demanded the return of some negroes on the ground that they were private property, but General Butler declared that they were "contraband of war," and refused to give them up. After the war was over Colonel Cary settled in Richmond, where he was for some time superintendent of schools and amassed a fortune through his great business ability.
During the war the possession of Fort Monroe by the Federal authorities was a factor of great value to them in eventually achieving success. It became the starting point of great naval and land expeditions against the South, a great depot for prisoners and armaments, and a place of refuge from disaster. It was formidable guns of Fort Monroe that probably saved the Federal fleet in 1862 from entire destruction by the Merrimac. It was here that Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, was confined after one of the most gallant resistances ever put up by any people in defence of self-government. The cell in which he was shackeled, like an ordinary criminal, is pointed out, but it conveys no pleasant ideas of the magnanimity of his conquerors.
During this period the country between Fort Monroe and the present grounds of the Hampton Institute was occupied by a wilderness of tents called Camp Hamilton. The old Chesapeake Female Institute was used as a Hospital. This was connected by a bridge with Hampton Hospital, the great receiving place for sick and wounded soldiers of the Federal army in Virginia. This last building occupied the site of the present Hampton Institute.
The neighborhood was the refuge place of hundreds of negroes, and the burned section, where Hampton once stood, was filled with their rude shelters propped up against the brick chimneys, which survived the fire.