Armstrong was born on January 30, 1839, on the island of Maui in the kingdom of Hawaii, where his parents were missionaries. Of the family’s ten children, he was the youngest of three sons and the fifth of eight children to survive infancy. His father, Richard Armstrong, was a Presbyterian from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, and his mother, Clarissa Chapman Armstrong, came from a Congregationalist family from Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
As a youngster Sam Armstrong exulted in the outdoor life that the Hawaiian Islands provided. A serious student first at the Punahou School and then at its collegiate branch, Oahu College, he was also a prankster who secretly lowered the flag of the American Consulate in tribute to the death of a family pet and hanged his sisters’ dolls to thwart their “i-doll-try.”
Armstrong’s most important model in shaping his own life was his father, who had become a government servant as well as minister of the largest native church in Honolulu by the time Armstrong was an adolescent. Richard Armstrong was a member of the king’s Privy Council, minister of education and, ultimately, superintendent of public instruction. In the schools that the senior Armstrong created for the people of Hawaii, he inculcated the principle of manual labor whereby students helped support the cost of their education and acquired useful skills by farming or practicing crafts such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and barrel making. For most of his teenage years Armstrong was his father’s secretary, and the experience influenced his own approach to education.
Richard Armstrong was killed in a horseback-riding accident in 1860. His bereaved son followed his father’s last wishes and journeyed to the United States for the first time to attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There he completed his last two years of college education. He was housed and given special training by the college president, Mark Hopkins, who became another important influence in Armstrong’s life and career. Under Hopkins’s tutelage he refined his concept of practical or useful education, which played down the academic benchmarks of a classical education in favor of teaching students how to make a living and be good Christians.
The Civil War did not initially concern Armstrong, who still identified Hawaii as his homeland. His parents had opposed slavery, but Armstrong had met few African Americans before coming to the United States. After graduation, however, many of his schoolmates, including future president James A. Garfield, enlisted in the Union army, and Armstrong soon followed. He wrote a friend that the war should not end until “every slave … can call himself his own, and his wife and children his own.” He joined the 125th New York Infantry and was commissioned a captain. The regiment fought at, where Armstrong earned a promotion to . By April 1864, he was a lieutenant colonel in command of the 9th United States Colored Troops Regiment, then stationed in South Carolina and subsequently transferred to the . By October 11 he had been promoted to colonel of the 8th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, Twenty-Fifth Corps. At some point he was breveted brigadier general. During the final assault on on April 3, 1865, Armstrong’s troops were among the first to enter the city after it was abandoned by the . The 9th Regiment received, in Armstrong’s words, “a most cheering and hearty welcome from the colored inhabitants of the city, whom their presence had made free.” In the aftermath of the war he commanded black troops in Virginia and Texas.
From 1866 to 1868 Armstrong served as assistant subcommissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) for the district covering the lower peninsula between theand York rivers as well as Surry and Isle of Wight counties and portions of the Eastern Shore. He strove to reduce the huge population of homeless refugees by pressing former slaves to accept employment as farm laborers. As a result some blacks felt that Armstrong and his associates at the bureau sympathized more with the defeated white landowners than with the freed African Americans they were charged with aiding. Armstrong was himself deeply committed to assisting the black population, but he also believed in the superiority of the white race. He sought to train the freed people so that they might better compete within the constraints of their circumstances.
Even before the Freedmen’s Bureau closed down at the end of 1868, Armstrong had acted to create a school to train black teachers who would in turn educate other African Americans. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute accordingly opened in April 1868. It was not to be an ordinary school. Armstrong incorporated many of the lessons about education he had learned from his father and from Hopkins but also introduced ideas of his own. For example, he believed that the future for African Americans depended on the strength of their families. Thus, Hampton was coeducational in order that future married partners could be educated together.
Hampton Institute emphasized practical knowledge. Students took courses in English, arithmetic, basic science, geography, and history, including what was then known of African history. In addition, all students were required to work in the school shops or on the school farm. Many critics have charged that Armstrong’s program mirrored and even reinforced convictions that blacks were suited only for manual labor. Whereas some of this criticism of Hampton is justified, especially in Armstrong’s last years and after his death, his initial design was strictly practical. Hampton had no endowment, and most of its early students were impoverished. Manual labor in the school’s fields and shops subsidized their education. Furthermore, most graduates expected to go into teaching, and because most southern schools for blacks remained open for fewer than six months a year, teachers needed supplemental skills to support themselves and their families.Armstrong’s design succeeded. Within a decade graduates of Hampton were teaching thousands of black children all over the South. Alumni were also entering professional fields such as medicine and law and . In fact, Armstrong not only helped many of them to obtain advanced educations, but he also depended on black members of the General Assembly to assist him in securing additional funding for the institute.
In 1878 Armstrong initiated a program for Native American students at Hampton. Many of the Indian students distinguished themselves, but with that program the nature of the school began to change. As the institute grew, so did its need for donors. Armstrong increasingly gave up supervision of day-to-day operations in order to raise funds to keep the school going. By the 1880s he was much celebrated among northern philanthropists. In 1887 his alma mater, Williams College, and in 1889 Harvard University each honored him with an LLD.
Hampton grew more and more dependent on major benefactors who set restrictions on how their contributions could be used. A rising national tide of racism made it easier to rationalize industrial education and manual labor than to advocate genuine black advancement, and Armstrong eventually succumbed to those pressures. Academics at Hampton were publicly de-emphasized in favor of its trade-school programs. Coping with new pressures, raising money, and overseeing the school took their toll. After suffering one stroke in 1891, Armstrong died of a second one on May 11, 1893. As he had requested, he was buried in the student cemetery on Hampton’s campus.
Armstrong’s life and legacy have been subjected to much criticism, partly because he may have inspired Hampton’s most famous graduate, Booker T. Washington, to advocate a philosophy of accommodation to racial segregation. Such criticism has some validity, but it also distorts by oversimplifying Armstrong’s design for Hampton. Moreover, he laid down a solid foundation, and the school survived. More than a century later Hampton is a respected small university with an honored past. This achievement is, in part, also a result of the continued dedication of Armstrong’s descendants to the school he founded.
Armstrong married his first wife, Emma Dean Walker, of Stockbridge, on October 13, 1869. She died on November 10, 1878, after many long illnesses. Their two daughters, Louise H. Armstrong and Edith E. Armstrong, both taught briefly at Hampton Institute as adults, and the former married William Scoville, who served as secretary of Hampton’s administrative board from 1918 to 1935 and as an institute trustee from 1941 until his death in 1943.
Armstrong did not remarry until September 10, 1890, when he wed Mary Alice Ford in Montpelier, Vermont. A teacher at Hampton Institute at the time of their marriage, she briefly resumed work as an educator at Hampton after the general’s death and then returned to her native New England, where she directed summer camps. They had two children. Their son, Daniel Armstrong, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and commanded the Negro Recruit Training Program at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Waukegan, Illinois, during World War II (1939–1945). Their daughter, Margaret Armstrong, married Arthur Howe, president of Hampton Institute from 1931 to 1940, and their sons in turn served on the school’s board of trustees from the 1950s into the 1970s.