Hampton, Virginia, was once the site of Fort Monroe, a Union base during the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, three Virginia slaves went to the fort to request asylum. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a federal law, still obligated all U.S. citizens to report suspected fugitive slaves. What to do?
General Benjamin Butler, Fort Monroe’s commander and a former lawyer, was sympathetic to the men’s plight. He came up with a clever circumvention to the law by declaring the escaped slaves “contraband” that might be used to support the rebel cause, effectively creating a path to asylum.
Word soon spread, and Fort Monroe received hundreds of slaves seeking protection under the new contraband policy. Thousands ultimately settled in nearby fields and burned-out Hampton homes as white residents fled and Confederate forces, fearing a Union takeover, torched the town. The site buried beneath the now-demolished apartment complex is believed part of what came to be known as the Grand Contraband Camp.
Skip ahead some years, and the land where the Grand Contraband Camp stood was developed into part of the city of Hampton. An apartment complex there was torn down in 2012, giving the city an opportunity to excavate the area. All sorts of relics from the Civil War refugee community have been recovered. Read the story of the Grand Contraband Camp and other camps like it at mental_floss.