Remembering Samuel Chapman, the Civil War General Who Became an Educator for Freed Slaves

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American Civil War soldier Samuel Chapman Armstrong later became an ally and educator for freed slaves

Samuel Chapman Armstrong was the founder of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia). A native of Hawaii, he fought with the Union Army during the Civil War and was eventually awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general of volunteers. After working for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia, he recognized that African Americans needed greater educational opportunities, prompting him to establish Hampton Institute. Some of the Institute’s most notable graduates include civil rights leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Thomas Calhoun Walker.

In His Younger Years

Armstrong was born on January 30, 1839, on the island of Maui in the Kingdom of Hawaii. His parents, Richard Armstrong and Clarissa Chapman Armstrong, were Protestant missionaries sent out by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Massachusetts. The Armstrongs arrived in Hawaii in 1832 and began establishing churches. In 1840, Richard Armstrong was appointed Kahu (Senior Pastor) of Kawaiaha’o Church in Honolulu. King Kamehameha III appointed Armstrong as Minister of Public Insurrection in 1847 and, in 1855, he became President of the Board of Education. His teaching activities made him known as “the father of American education in Hawaii.”

Samuel attended Punahou School and then its collegiate branch, Oahu College. Although very studious, he was also a noted prankster. The young Armstrong secretly lowered the flag of the American consulate in Honolulu in honor of the death of a family pet. He also hanged his sister’s dolls to halt their “i-doll-try.”

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Samuel Chapman Armstrong devoted his post- Civil War years to providing educational opportunities for black students. (Public Domain)

A Useful Education

During his teenage years, Samuel worked as his father’s secretary. This gave him an understanding of the principle that students should engage in manual labor to pay for their education. Armstrong’s methods enabled students to acquire valuable skills by farming or practicing crafts like carpentry. The younger Armstrong would keep these important lessons with him for the rest of his life.

Sadly, the senior Armstrong died as the result of a horseback riding accident on September 23, 1860. Samuel, following his father’s wishes, then attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There, he lodged with, and obtained special lessons from, Mark Hopkins, the college president. This experience taught him the importance of a practical or useful education, as well as teaching students how to make a living and to be good Christians.

James Garfield, later a major general and 20th president of the United States, also graduated from Williams College. Both men later joined the U.S. Army and served together during the Civil War.

In the Army Now

Initially, the Civil War meant nothing to Samuel Chapman Armstrong as he identified himself as Hawaiian. His parents were anti-slavery—having ministered to the Polynesian people who, they thought, “were, in many respects, like the Negro race.” Although his pre-War experience with African Americans had been minimal, Samuel’s impression of them rose as he fought alongside the Union’s black troops. He wrote that the War should not end until “every slave … can call himself his own, and his wife and children his own.”

Armstrong joined the 125th New York Infantry as a captain. His unit was captured at Harper’s Ferry on September 15, 1862, but he was exchanged in December and returned to his unit. Armstrong fought during the Battle of Gettysburg, and on July 3, 1863, he helped to defend Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge.

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The Protestant Church of Hawaii, Kawaiaha‘o, where Armstrong’s father was a pastor, was made with timber and indigenous coral blocks from ocean reefs. (Public Domain)

Serving With Black Troops

Armstrong wanted to serve with the newly-formed United States Colored Troops (USCT). In late 1863, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and assigned as executive officer of the 9th USCT. While training at Camp Stanton near Benedict, Maryland, Armstrong established a school to educate his troops. Due to pre-War slave codes, most of his men could not read or write. Armstrong believed that literacy would make better soldiers.

Armstrong was reassigned to command the 8th USCT and led this unit during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. In November 1864, he was promoted to colonel “for gallant and meritorious service.” His troops were the first to enter Petersburg on April 3, 1865. Armstrong noted that the 8th USCT received “a most cheering and hearty welcome from the colored inhabitants of the city, whom their presence had made free.”

Armstrong and his men were mustered out of service on November 10, 1865. As a result of his outstanding war service, on January 13, 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Armstrong as a brevet brigadier general of volunteers to date from March 13, 1865. The United States Senate confirmed his new commission on March 12, 1866.

Supervising Freedmen’s Bureau

From 1866 to 1868, Armstrong served as superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau for a district covering the lower Virginia Peninsula. By that time, he was deeply committed to assisting the black population and sought to train these newly-freed citizens to better compete within the constraints of their circumstances.

On April 1, 1868, Armstrong opened Hampton Normal School and Institute, an educational institution to train black teachers who, in turn, would teach other African Americans. This was not to be just any ordinary school. Armstrong incorporated many of the educational principles that he had learned from his father and from President Mark Hopkins of Williams College, yet he also included thoughts of his own. Armstrong strongly believed in the need for “racial uplift” via schools like Hampton Institute.

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An illustration depicts the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s bloodiest battle. (Public Domain)

Armstrong molded the Institute’s curriculum to reflect his background as an abolitionist and as a child of white missionaries in Hawaii. He believed that several centuries of slavery in the United States had left many of its black citizens in an inferior moral and economic state, and they needed help and education to become fully active in American society. The solution, he believed, lay in a Hampton-style education: an education that combined cultural education with moral and vocational training. Armstrong believed in “an education that encompassed the head, the heart, and the hands.” Therefore, the primary means to advance blacks within society was by the moral power of literacy and labor.

Hampton Institute emphasized that students should take courses in English, arithmetic, geography, basic science, and history. In addition, all students were required to work in the school’s shops or on the school farm. While some argued that Armstrong’s methods reinforced the theory that blacks were only suited for manual labor, his vision was simply to provide a moral and practical education for these recently freed citizens.

Hampton Institute had no endowment, and most of its initial students were impoverished. Therefore, manual labor in the school’s fields and shops subsidized their education. Furthermore, most graduates were expected to go into teaching, and they would need a supplemental income to support themselves and their families.

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A health and hygiene class in session at the Hampton Institute, 1899. (Public Domain)

The Most Distinguished Early Graduate

One of the leading lights of the Hampton-style education was Booker T. Washington, who described Armstrong as “the most perfect specimen of a man, physically, mentally, and spiritually the most Christ-like.” Washington later recalled that he was admitted to Hampton, despite his ragged appearance after a long journey, based on the ability he demonstrated when the assistant principal observed him meticulously sweeping and dusting a room.

At the request of Armstrong, Washington—after leaving Hampton Institute—established Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he embraced his mentor’s principles of education and hard work. He considered the general to be “the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet.” Of Hampton Institute, he said: “One might have removed from Hampton all the buildings, classrooms, teachers, and industries, and [given] the men and women still there the opportunity [of] daily contact with General Armstrong, and that alone would have been a liberal education.”

The need for new facilities and teachers to support his educational activities required Armstrong to become a major fundraiser. He reached out to many Northern philanthropists like Collis Potter Huntington, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, as well as abolitionist groups like the American Missionary Association.

The tremendous strain of fundraising and promoting his educational theories resulted in Armstrong suffering a debilitating stroke in 1892 while delivering a lecture in New York. Railroad and ship building millionaire C.P. Huntington provided his friend with a private railroad car so that the ailing Armstrong could return to Hampton, where he died on May 11, 1893.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine. 

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