Camp Naglee


            Several weeks ago we looked at the tragedy that was the yellow fever epidemic of 1855 and how Norfolk Academy, or more particularly its facility, played a role in managing the crisis.  Let us now fast forward, if only for a few years.  We should resume the tale in the spring of 1862 as Norfolk, now an important seaport in a new and rebel nation, waits nervously in anticipation of the arrival of “Yankees.”

            Prior to the assault on Fort Sumter in April, 1861, the majority of Norfolk residents would have voted to stay with the original American union.  But the events in Charleston, coupled with greatly exaggerated characterizations of Abraham Lincoln as a warring zealot, changed everyone’s mind.  Norfolk’s delegates to the State Secession Convention voted unanimously to join the new Confederate States of America.  And if Norfolk was important to the United States as a seaport, it was absolutely vital to this new CSA.  It made sense that the town would be an early target of Union forces.  

            For a while the exploits of the new ironclad Virginia buoyed hopes that Hampton Roads could be defended.  But on March 9, 1862, the Virginia could do no better than fight to a sooty draw with the Union ironclad Monitor, and the harbor was laid open to invasion.  Within weeks, Robert E. Lee, newly in command of the Army of Northern Virginia, sized up Union troop movements and decided to commit fully to protecting Richmond.  The withdrawal of Confederate forces up the James left Norfolk completely defenseless. On May 9, 1862, Norfolk Mayor William Lamb officially surrendered the City to no less than President Lincoln himself.

            General Egbert (yes, Egbert) Viele was installed as military commandant of this occupied city. He ordered the 148th New York Volunteer Infantry to keep order and maintain peace.  They barracked in and around the Academy School building, calling their new home “Camp Naglee” in honor of the unit’s first commander.  For an occupying force, the rank and file treated the citizenry they controlled and the Greek temple they inhabited with respect and fairness.  The locals didn’t much care for the daily reminders of this Yankee presence in the form of full dress parades every morning, but there were no reports of bullying, much less of brutality. 

Camp Naglee - 1863

Camp Naglee Illustration dated 1863. Norfolk Academy. Click to view full size image.

            All this changed with the appointment of a new commandant, Benjamin “Beast” Butler in December, 1863.  Here was a man who enjoyed being the boss and loved to prove his power whenever he could, even when it was not necessary.  He and his lieutenants took over the venerable Selden mansion and wrecked the place.  He conducted show trials in which trumped-up charges were made against ordinary citizens (including Reverend Armstrong, whose diaries we saw two weeks ago) followed by confinement to work camps.  And as Grant closed in on Richmond, the 148th was ordered into action and the Greek temple was converted into a surgery called “Delamater Hospital.”  This was the ultimate insult to the locals.  This seat of high learning was now a place where injured invaders could be patched up, and if able, sent back into action against our brothers and our neighbors.  Confederate soldiers would be taken care of in lesser facilities behind General Lee’s lines.

            And then there was the passage and the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation.  This liberation of slaves infuriated many white folks in Norfolk and terrified the rest.  Viele had worked with the leaders of this new African-American community and had maintained a tenuous peace.  Butler had no interest in peace, and with federals looking the other way, violence in the streets became rampant. 

            With news of Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox, and more importantly of the generous terms of surrender offered by General Grant, Norfolk began to rouse itself from its moribund state.  The occupying federals returned to their homes almost immediately.  Within days Delamater hospital was evacuated and the Greek temple once again stood empty. By the third week in April, 1865, paroled soldiers were returning in large numbers.

            Come the following September, Norfolk Academy would undertake again its original mission as a school. Reverend Robert Gatewood would assume leadership of the school, and would usher in a return to the classical “academy” model of instruction.  Gatewood was a true scholar, and a very serious man. He had in many ways lived a hard life, most recently ministering to the wounded and dying in the notorious Libbie prison in Richmond.  In the act of instructing young people he saw a way to once again experience the good side of life.  So for twenty-three years, with an outstanding faculty at his side, he pursued that vocation with unlimited zeal.  Norfolk Academy would once again be recognized as an excellent place for young men to grow and prepare for college.

            The group that succeeded Gatewood would include many familiar names such as Tunstall, Royster, and Grandy.  With America’s eventual entrance into the First World War, and with the concomitant designation of Norfolk as the nation’s chief port of war, those leaders would face an agonizing choice.  But we shall leave that episode for later exploration.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *