During the Civil War, Chimborazo Hill was the site of one of the largest military hospitals in existence. There were more than 100 buildings and almost 4,000 patients during its busiest times. An upcoming National Park Service tour asks the question what became of Chimborazo after the war?
For details on the upcoming National Park Service Tour, go here.
A huge logistical problem faced the Union Army once it occupied Richmond. Vast numbers of former slaves and refugees descended on the city looking for protection of the army and a place to live and start a new life.
Mike Gorman: And so the newly established freedmen's bureau here in town decided with so many former slaves flocking and overtaxing the existing apparatus for dealing with such an issue they took over the former hospital at Chimborazo and the buildings that were here now very quickly become a refugee camp.
Mike Gorman, historian with the National Park Service. By sorting through records of the freedmen's bureau recently made available online, Gorman has started to put together a picture of what life was like for the former slaves that took up residence at Chimborazo.
Mike Gorman: The freedmen's bureau was issuing permits for people to come up here and make clothes and take over wards as schools and apparently there was a soup kitchen and a depot for issuing rations. By and large it seems that the basics for life, if you were indigent, aged or disabled would be provided for by the bureau but otherwise it was up to you.
The freedmen's bureau did offer assistance finding work for able-bodied former slaves – but the work they were offered wasn't much different from what they did before emancipation.
Mike Gorman: ... the freedmen's bureau was arranging for indentures. So slavery's gone, but this apparatus in the freedmen's bureau was preserving essentally the same thing on a contract basis which is what indenture really is.
Another reality of life at Chimborazo was racial violence. Mike Gorman recounts an incident in March 1866 that escalated into a riot. As he tells it, the freedmen didn't take abuse lying down.
Mike Gorman: …There was this kind of running gun battle Involving eventually the soldiers from Libby Prison that were guarding the prison. Reports are that the blacks up here had armed themselves, they had barricades. They were being abused as it turns out by local whites, the whites in the area who were constantly throwing rocks at them, roughing them up … and they fought back.
Gorman says the initial response to the incident from Police and newspapers was to criticize the former slaves. Over the course of a week, public opinion changed.
Mike Gorman: This is from the Richmond Dispatch: In March 10, 1866. It's referring to as they said “white boys.” It says “They have not enough sense to see they are treating free negroes in a manner that would not have been permitted towards slaves.” And so essentially the black rioters were cleared and the white rioters went to prison.
After a couple of years, the Freedmen's Bureau essentially washed their hands of the Chimbarazo properties by selling off the buildings, giving preference to the former slaves that taken up residence. Gorman says that there were freedmen living at Chimborazo for the next fifteen years.
Mike Gorman: They stay until the city in 1880 decided to put in this park. And one of the reasons that they did was because this quite frankly was taking on the character of a shanty town. Right outside the city limits until it was annexed by the city. People in the paper said it was the first thing you saw coming up the river, it was a place of hideousness, of crime. All kinds of typical 19th century racist language you can imagine being used. They saw it as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Buy the land, rouste out the blacks, clear the site and put in a beautiful park.
Historian Mike Gorman will lead a tour and discussion of Chimbarozo after the War this Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. For details visit ideastations.org. For WCVE FM, I’m Peter Solomon.