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  • Writer's picturecdellarosa

Hilton Head History Series- Part 2: The Civil War

Eleven months after South Carolina seceded from the Union, the shots fired on Fort Sumter reverberated on Hilton Head Island. On November 7, 1861, the Island became the scene of the largest amphibious landing by U.S forces until D-Day, as more than 12,000 Union soldiers landed on the Island. In less than five hours, the Union fleet captured both Fort Beauregard on St. Philips Island and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island. The Island fell into the hands of Federal troops, forcing Island families to evacuate their plantation homes.

Fort Walker was located in what is now Port Royal Plantation. The fort was originally a station for Confederate troops, and later Union troops. Its guns helped protect the 2-mile wide entrance to Port Royal Sound, which is fed by two slow-moving and navigable rivers, the Broad River and the Beaufort River. It was vital to the Sea Island Cotton trade and the southern economy. Hilton Head Island became an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports, particularly Savannah and Charleston. The Union also built a military hospital on the Island.

The Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery altered the prosperous and patrician lifestyle of the plantation owners forever. After assuming command in September of 1862, General Ormsby Mitchel was upset at the living conditions of the former slaves. He confiscated some land on Confederate General Thomas Fenwick Drayton’s Fish Haul Plantation, laid put streets and lots, and provided lumber for the former slaves to build their homes in a town that would be called Mitchelville. It was the first self-governing town (a Freedman's Village) of formerly enslaved African Americans in the US.

Hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head Island, where they could buy land, go to school, live in government housing, and serve in what was called the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers (pictured above). However, it is believed that in the beginning, many were "recruited" at the point of a bayonet.

After the war, as the freed slaves on the island attempted to grow Sea Island cotton, the boll weevil proved to be even more devastating. It lasted almost twenty years as a separate town, disappearing in the 1880s. Consequently, Hilton Head Island lapsed into obscurity, remaining isolated for over 80 years.

During this period, the Island maintained a small population of mostly the descendants of former slaves. They survived modestly on small farms and as hunters and fisherman. Their Gullah culture and language survive today as a living legacy of their strength and perseverance.

Coming Soon- Part 3: The First Resort.

If you missed Part 1 of the series CLICK HERE.

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