Southern Branch: Hampton, Virginia

1937 Hospital at the Southern Branch by James Rosenthal

Quick Facts
100 Emancipation Dr. in Hampton, VA

The Southern Branch (now the Hampton VA Medical Center), located in Hampton, Virginia, opened in 1870 as the fourth branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. The site of the Southern Branch is enhanced by Hampton Roads Bay, Jones Creek, and St. Johns Creek, the natural features that surround it. The Board of Managers established a branch in the South for two reasons: to provide a branch close to home for the U.S. Colored Troops and to add a branch in a temperate climate for all veterans. The Southern Branch may be the first Federal facility specifically planned and established as an integrated facility. Very few African American veterans took advantage of the facility; however, the Southern Branch became very popular among many other veterans.

The land on which the Southern Branch sits was from the 1850s Chesapeake Female College for the daughters of the Virginia elite, but the college closed at the start of the Civil War. Union troops quickly took over the site, because they feared Confederate troops would use the tower on campus to spy on Union forces at nearby Fort Monroe. The Federal Government turned the campus into the Chesapeake Military Hospital because of its proximity to the fort and battles occurring in the area. Fort Monroe became known as the “Freedom Fort” because Union officers, in particular General Benjamin Butler, did not return escaped slaves to their masters. The slaves were able to work at Fort Monroe, and many settled in the area as a result of Butler’s policy. At some point during the War, General Butler purchased the land on which the Chesapeake Female College/Chesapeake Military Hospital sat. 

After the Civil War, General Butler became the president and treasurer of the Board of Managers for the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. In 1870, he suggested a new branch be opened in the South to accommodate the U.S. Colored Troops and proposed that the location be near Fort Monroe. The Board of Managers’ search committee selected Butler’s land for the new branch. Butler’s son-in-law completed the transaction for him, and Butler’s ownership of the land did not come to light until after the purchase.

After this disclosure, Congress investigated Butler and the transaction but found no wrongdoing. The Southern Branch officially opened in December 1870, using the old college facilities to house the veterans. The only remaining building from the Chesapeake Female College era is the Engineering Services/Security Services building (Building 36). Constructed in the 1850s in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, the building served as a library. 

The Southern Branch underwent an extensive building campaign during the 1880s. Charles Taylor Holtzclaw designed the Quartermasters’ Storehouse (Building 27). There is speculation but no proof that he designed many of the other buildings during this period. Other buildings that date from the same time include the National Chaplain Headquarters (Building 33), Quarters (Building 6), the Canteen (Building 17), and offices (Building 61). 

The Southern Branch experienced another building campaign at the start of the 20th century. Most of this work is attributed to John Calvin Stevens, an architect from Maine who also worked at the Eastern Branch. During Stevens’ tenure at the Southern Branch, he shifted the design and layout from a late Victorian Picturesque style to a reflection of the City Beautiful Movement, which emphasized uniform buildings with well ordered streets. Stevens' buildings are of red brick with limestone trim in the Colonial Revival style. The 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial, which popularized the Colonial Revival style, likely influenced Stevens. Stevens built the Chapel (Building 48) with a V-shaped floor plan to accommodate both the Protestant and Catholic congregations at the branch. Stevens designed at least six domiciliary residential sections (Buildings 43, 50, 52, 66, and 69), most of which are in the northeastern section of campus. Today, the facility uses these buildings for a variety of services, none residential.  

More changes came to the Southern Branch during and after World War I. Because the facility was close to military bases, the Board of Managers temporarily transferred control of the Southern Branch to the Secretary of War for use as a hospital by the Medical Department of the Army. Transferred to other branches during this time, members of the Southern Branch were allowed to return at the end of the war. After the war, the Board of Managers constructed a new hospital using the standard design of the Office of Supervising Architects, U.S. Department of the Treasury. The main hospital (Building 110) dates from 1938 and has a design consistent with the plans for General Surgical and Medical Hospitals. Treasury Department architects also designed Buildings 114 and 115 in 1941 and 1940, respectively. These have Colonial Revival façades to match the rest of the buildings at the Southern Branch. 

The Southern Branch continues to grow and expand to accommodate more veterans and serve their needs. The 1938 hospital building is still the main hospital at the facility, but recent additions (110A, 110B, and 110C) have altered its appearance and scale. 

Unlike other National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers branches, the Southern Branch did not initially have a cemetery, because Hampton National Cemetery was close by. Burials of Civil War soldiers began at Hampton National Cemetery in 1862, but the cemetery was not officially a National Cemetery until 1866. The cemetery contains the remains of 638 unknown Union soldiers previously buried on Civil War battlefields and reinterred at Hampton and 272 unknown Confederate soldiers that are laid to rest in a separate section. German and Italian World War II prisoners of war also are buried at Hampton National Cemetery. Since 1862, the National Cemetery has grown to 27.1 acres. 

In 1898, a yellow fever epidemic broke out at the Southern Branch, and the entire facility was put under quarantine. The Southern Branch established a new cemetery on the grounds of the facility to bury those who died during the quarantine. Twenty-two men are buried in this cemetery, now known as Hampton National Cemetery, VAMC. 

Last updated: April 2, 2024