The Story of Mitchelville

I have started to write this story several times over the last few months, but could never really find the correct beginning to tell the tale. See, for me, as much as I love writing, it takes me more than a few tries to get rolling with pen to paper. It’s only been the recent lock-downs and the subsequent canceling of Major League Baseball (which has been a first in my lifetime and a first for many others) that got me thinking about all the profound events taking place, both past and present.

Originally, I had a in-depth baseball analogy as my opening to this amazing story, but recent events made me scrap the light-hearted banter and take a more serious approach.  South Carolina is rich in history, particularly in the forging of our United States. Many important events of our country’s history have taken place here. From the very first insurance agency to the very first golf club, South Carolina has had her hand in the mix of  some truly amazing events. South Carolina can also boast of the first shot of the Civil War, the first public library and, unbeknownst to many, the first self-governed town of freed African slaves in the country!

Mitchelville is an unusual and remarkable story and one I hope I can explain in more detail.  Moreover, I pray that whenever you read this story, that you draw a great amount of inspiration, respect and hope for all of us.

The Story of Mitchelville

During the Civil War, Head Island underwent a cultural transformation from an agrarian community which depended on slave labor, to a military encampment where the labor of former enslaved people remained vital. However, as a result of the transformation, they now worked as free people, able to form a town and be paid for their labor.

Map of Port Royal Sound (1862)
Library of Congress

Hilton Head Island was an irresistible prize for the Union. The deep, natural harbor at Port Royal in the vicinity of Beaufort and Hilton Head was used to transport cotton to England and was alluring to the Union Navy. To capture Hilton Head was to control the waterways of the southeast coast and severely damage the South’s ability to raise money from exporting cotton.

In addition to the strategic aspects, the Union leadership was far from enamored with South Carolina. From a Union viewpoint, South Carolina was particularly deserving of invasion and restructuring. Many Confederate political and military leaders hailed from the coastal area of the state and thus control of South Carolina was a matter of national relevance. The Union raised it’s eyebrows at the rich and aristocratic ‘rebels’ of South Carolina. Sea Island cotton was of such value that the per capita wealth in Beaufort County and Hilton Head was three times that of the national average.

With the decision made to attack the Confederacy in the Deep South, a Union fleet, comprised of 60 ships and 20,000 men, sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on October 29, 1861, and arrived on the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina, on November 3rd. The Union force attacked the Confederate forts at Ft. Walker (on Hilton Head) and Ft. Beauregard (Bay Point, St. Phillip Island) at about 10 am on November 7th. By 3 pm, the Union army was successful and the Confederates retreated leaving the entire area under the Union army’s control.

Fort Walker (1862)
Library of Congress

This battle was not only the beginning for the enslaved of Hilton Head, but for all the enslaved people of the Sea Islands. Places like Little Rock, Arkansas, Greensboro, North Carolina, Selma, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, were far in the future…but this was the beginning. To many of the slaves in the Port Royal area, the fall of Hilton Head was the greatest event in their lives.

Within two days, Sea Island African slaves were descending on Union outposts. Reading accounts from that time, it is obvious that the black slaves were sure that it was the Union army that brought them their freedom. Yet the Union army itself was not so sure. In actuality, these former slaves were not yet free and were considered by Union commanders to be ‘contraband of war.’ Some Union Generals even allowed plantation owners to reclaim their property and take these people back into slavery.

Hilton Head Island, however, was different. General T.W. Sherman (not the Sherman of March to the Sea lore), who commanded the Union troops in the Hilton Head invasion, immediately wrote to the War Department and asked for humanitarian assistance (even though many other Union officers called the slaves a problem and a nuisance). Reading accounts of officers, soldiers and the slaves themselves, a picture of oppressive racial attitudes directed toward the black population becomes clear.

Live Oak & Palmetto Tree (1862)
Library of Congress

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Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, was a strong anti-slavery voice in the Lincoln cabinet and he knew that many abolitionists in the North were looking at the situation on Hilton Head and the Sea Islands as a way to advance black freedom. He was also thinking that next year’s cotton crop, which could replenish the Treasury Department’s depleted coffers, depended on a working labor force. Thus, out of abolitionist leanings and economic necessity, he dispatched Edward L. Pierce, a lawyer and abolitionist, to South Carolina to assess the slaves’ conditions and to see if they would be willing to go back to work.

Pierce’s report was that the ex-slaves’ conditions were wanting, but they were joyous to be free and were willing to work. He proposed the creation of a free labor enterprise where white superintendents would manage cotton cultivation and establish schools for the former slaves. The freed people would continue working but with two major changes: they would work as individuals or in family units instead of gangs, and they would be paid for their labor. Pierce’s proposal, at least in his mind, would expedite emancipation and remove the stigma of ‘contraband of war.’

Chase supported the proposals and arranged a meeting between President Lincoln and Pierce. It seems, from Lincoln’s notes, that he was irritated by Pierce’s zeal but, in the end, gave Chase the authority to instruct Pierce as he wished. The newly named ‘Port Royal experiment’ was now a reality.

On March 3, 1862, fifty-three New Yorkers and thirty-five Bostonians from different backgrounds, professions and denominations boarded the steamer Atlantic in New York bound for the South Carolina coast. They soon embraced the mocking label fashioned by the army of ‘Gideonites.’ Like the biblical Gideonites, these Northerners were committed to carrying their Divine task forward. However, it wasn’t easy. The officers and soldiers that were exhibiting opposition to the freed slaves also showed their contempt and hostility towards the Gideonites because they were ‘meddling do-gooders.’

Before we continue, let’s take a small detour. Check your pockets. If you happen to have a 10,000 dollar bill, you will see none other than Salmon P. Chase on its face. Besides being the Secretary of the Treasury, Chase later was a Supreme Court Justice. He was also a candidate in every presidential election from 1856 to 1872…he mightily strove for that office.

10,000 Bill
Courtesy of US Treasury

Yet, we all owe a debt to him as the first Treasury Secretary to successfully wean the public from hard currency and gradually accept the idea of greenbacks, or paper money. The dollar bill in 1862, by order of Chase himself, had him on the face.

The picture of George Washington on the dollar didn’t appear until 1869. If you didn’t have that 10,000 dollar bill in your pocket but have any other bill, take it out and turn to the back. Every ‘greenback’ has the words “In God We Trust,” a phrase coined by Salmon Chase. Chase did not start Chase Bank or its successor, JP Morgan Chase, nor was he involved. However, that entity was named to honor his contributions as Secretary of the Treasury.

With 10,000 freed slaves on Hilton Head and the surrounding Sea Islands, housing became an immediate and pressing problem. At first, the Army tried to establish military camps at various places on Bay Point and Otter Island. But they were little more than holding areas. On Hilton Head, barracks were constructed, but they were neither spacious nor private. However, at least from the Army’s perspective, it secured the protection of the freed slaves. A reporter from The NY Times investigating the conditions on Hilton Head in October 1862 wrote an article that the conditions were “half brothel, half sty.” He likened them to the Five Points in Manhattan, a notorious crime and poverty section in Manhattan inhabited by Irish immigrants (considered at that time to be the dregs of society). This clearly was a signal that despite their freedom, the ex-slaves were considered to be on the same socioeconomic terms as the ‘worthless Irish.’

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On September 17, 1862, General Ormsby Mitchel assumed command of the Union Army’s outpost on Hilton Head Island. He soon realized the failure with respect to the current housing conditions for the freed slaves. The Mitchel appointment would turn out to be a provident event for the Sea Island ex-slaves, but only came about because of infighting between Union commanders in the Deep South. Heavily involved in campaigns in Tennessee and Alabama, Mitchel chafed under the directives of his superiors and was reassigned after questioning the abilities of those above him.

Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel (1861)
Library of Congress

Mitchel was a man of soaring intellectual achievements and probably the right man at the right time to deal with the ex-slave population on Hilton Head.

Mitchel was born in Kentucky, in 1809, and received an appointment to West Point at the age of 16. He arrived for classes that September after walking the entire distance from his home state. After graduation, he was, for a brief time, an instructor of mathematics at the Point. After he married, he was assigned to garrison duty in Florida. He detested it and thus resigned from the army. Relocating his wife, and now children, to Ohio he passed the Ohio bar and became a practicing attorney for a few years, but his interests lie elsewhere.

He was a true Renaissance Man with interests in mathematics, philosophy and the natural sciences. He secured a position at the University of Cincinnati where he was able to pursue his true love, astronomy. He became a renowned lecturer and was instrumental in the construction of the first major observatory in the United States in Cincinnati. Craters on Mars and its south poles are named after him for his discoveries at the observatory.

On October 4, 1862, an article in a local newspaper, The New South, reported that General Mitchel was going to remove the ex-slave quarters from the stockade area to a place of more comfort and improvement. His aim was to construct a village within the uncultivated portion of the Fish Haul Plantation. He encouraged the former slaves to build their own houses and have their own police force. The location of the village was not without irony. The Fish Haul Plantation was owned by Catherine Pope Drayton, wife of Brigadier General Thomas Fenwick Drayton, the commander of the Confederate military district of Port Royal. He used the plantation as his headquarters in the defense of Hilton Head Island. He assigned many of his 102 slaves to construct defenses in anticipation of a Union attack.

The New South (1862)
Library of Congress

When Fort Beauregard and Fort Walker came under attack by the Union Navy, it included his brother, Percival Drayton, who commanded the USS Pocahontas. Thomas Drayton was able to escape during the retreat and later became commander of the Right Wing of the Army of Northern Virginia under Lt. General James Longstreet. After the Battle of Antietam, Robert E. Lee became dissatisfied with his performance and transferred him to the Trans-Mississippi Theater, where he primarily did administrative work until the end of the War.

Sadly, General Mitchel died on October 30, 1862, after contracting yellow fever, but not before setting the wheels in motion for a visionary village. He was honored posthumously by the residents who voted to name the village Mitchelville. By March 1863, Mitchelville was finished being built. The village was divided into districts for the election of councilmen. They were charged with establishing a police force and providing for sanitary regulations. The government of the town consisted of a supervisor and treasurer appointed by the military as well as a fully elected council marshal and record keeper. The structures built were tremendously varied. Using lumber foraged locally and milled in military camps, each family unit was given supplies to build a house. The residents used military supplies of boards, wood shake shingles, bitumen paper, brick and glass to construct and ornament their homes. Each structure also contained about a quarter of an acre for a garden.

Every child between the ages of 6 and 15 residing in Mitchelville had to attend school. This was the first compulsory education law in South Carolina. Parents were held responsible for their children. Teachers came from various missionary groups and the “Gideonites” of the Port Royal Experiment. Primary school ranged from 50 to 150 students with the high school having about 90 to 100.

Historical records indicate that there were 4 stores, but 2 shortly left with allegations of cheating the residents. Religion played a big part, and the church was the meeting place for all events and issues important to the community. The first African Baptist Church was built in 1862, and the Queen African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865. Records indicate the existence of two more churches. During that first year of occupation by the Union army, the cotton crop that concerned Salmon Chase was harvested in the amount of 90,000 lbs. The freed workers were paid $1 for every 400 lbs harvested. This was the first time former slaves freed by the Union army were to earn wages for their labor.

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In 1864, the 32nd US Colored Infantry Division, which was organized in March of the same year, was sent to Hilton Head Island with orders to construct a fortification in order to protect Mitchelville. Founded at Camp William Penn in what is today Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Cheltenham Township, they were made up of volunteers from Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Unlike many US Colored Troops, which were usually made of former slaves, the 500-man 32nd was mostly freemen. The troops, under the command of Colonel George W. Baird, arrived in Hilton Head in early August. From that point, they were responsible for building Fort Howell with its 23-foot high ramparts and dry moat with picks, spades and axes. As the fort was near completion in mid-October, the 32nd was removed and deployed to various other locations on Hilton Head and mustered out in August, 1865, in Philadelphia.

Colored Infantry Division (1864)
Library of Congress

The fort was completed in November 1864, by the 144th NY Infantry, which had reported to Hilton Head in June 1864. Organized in 1862, they saw duty in defense of Washington DC and on Folly Island during the siege of Charleston. They suffered many casualties both in battle and from disease, which was all too common during the Civil War. They were mustered out on Hilton Head in 1865.

The fort was named in honor of Brigadier General Joshua B. Howell who had commanded a brigade in the Carolinas and died September 14, 1864, in Virginia. He suffered a fatal head injury when he fell from his horse.

While building Fort Howell, the 32nd setup an encampment near Mitchelville. The camp was named Camp Baird and was located near what is now the Palmetto Hall Plantation Golf and Country Club. There is a historical marker at 260 Beach City Road on Hilton Head Island.

Fort Howell Layout
from Tripadvisor

Fort Howell served its purpose of protecting the freed slave community, but after the war Hilton Head had little use for the fort. It fell into disrepair and was ravaged by many hurricanes. In 1993, the site was given over to the Hilton Head Island Land Trust for maintenance and preservation. [Fort Howell is off Beach City Road not far from Mitchelville and across from the Hilton Head Airport. No remnants of the fort remain but you can see the outline moat and a 50 foot long dirt mound (traverse) that was built to protect the fort from shelling. A wooden plank bridge has been constructed over a section of moat to designate the location of the fort’s entrance. There is a nice walk to the fort over a rustic path. Wheelchair visitors might have some difficulty maneuvering the path. Along the path are strategically placed metal sculptures with educational plaques relating to the construction of the fort and the major players during the Union occupation of Hilton Head. A replica 1864 US flag is also on display. Admission and parking are free.]

In the months that followed the battle, besides Fort Howell the Union army also constructed two other fortifications, Fort Mitchel and Fort Sherman. They completed both in 1862. This was in addition to the expansion of Fort Walker (now known as Fort Welles in honor of the Secretary of War, Gideon Welles).

In late 1861 and early 1862, an earthwork fort was built overlooking Skull Creek. Part of a series of fortifications stretching across Hilton Head from Fort Sherman to Skull Creek. After the death of Ormsby Mitchel, the fort was named in his honor. Designed by Captain Quincy Gillmore it was first named Battery Gilmore. Gilmore used a series of traverses (earth mounds) around the cannon. Mounds were so situated that the fort could absorb direct hits and thus localize any shelling. The fort had 5 or 6 cannons, but the cannons were removed in 1864 and sent to Virginia to be used in the siege of Petersburg.

Fort Mitchel
from the Heritage Library

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[The remains of the fort are located in Hilton Head Plantation, a gated community. Free passes are available at a small guard station just make sure you have proper I.D. It’s a prime spot for a short nature walk on a paved pathway with small historical markers. There are some earthworks to view and era appropriate cannon. The parking lot is shared with the Old Fort Pub, a wonderful restaurant open to the public and a great spot to stop after you walk. The restaurant boasts especially wonderful views from the bar. Guided tours can also be arranged through the Heritage Library (843 686-6560). There are charges for the tour.]

Fort Sherman, named in honor of Brigadier General Thomas Sherman who had led the invasion of Hilton Head, was a large earth fort designed to defend the Union blockade base of Hilton Head against any Confederate land attack that might destroy the army supply lines. At the time of its completion, it was the largest earthwork fort in the nation. Eventually, the 14-acre Fort Sherman site became the name for an 800 acre military reservation encompassing defense, barracks, quarters, workshop, warehouses, hospital and even Fort Welles. [The best option to gain access to these sites is to contact Coastal Discovery Museum located on 70 Honey Horn Drive on Hilton Head Island (843 689-6767).]

After the war ended, these forts were eventually abandoned. However, in 1898 during the Spanish American War, Fort Welles was reactivated for a brief time as a precaution in case of an invasion by Spain. In 1899, it was abandoned again only to be brought back briefly in 1917 during WWI as a guard against enemy submarine attacks.

By 1865, Mitchelville had 3500 residents and its outward face was that of a thriving community of free ex-slaves. But the reality was that all economic aspects were controlled by the military. The freedmen relied on the military for their income. Mechanics working for the army could make 8 to 12 dollars a month. Laborers doing the “heavy lifting” for the military could make 4 to 8 dollars a month. Many relied on selling fish, game and small amounts of produce to soldiers. Some cultivated cotton, but the army controlled the exports and the wages. Some provided domestic services to the army.

In 1865, the federal government began the withdrawal of troops from Hilton Head and the Sea Islands. In 1866, the Union Army’s Southern Department was replaced by the Post of Hilton Head, a smaller command to oversee the military facilities on the island. On January 14, 1868, the Post was dissolved and the army left the island. This withdrawal of the military was the beginning of the end for Mitchelville. Without the military, the residents lost their source of jobs and income. The withdrawal also saw the slow return of planters returning to Hilton Head to reclaim their abandoned plantations. Some were able to wholly re-establish, while others had to be satisfied with only regaining a portion of their holding. In another ironic twist, surviving relatives of Catherine Pope Drayton were able to reclaim a portion of the Fish Haul Plantation.

Some freedmen throughout the Sea Islands were able to obtain tracts of land that they successfully managed as truck farms or small cotton farms. However, for most, the changed conditions brought trying times. Many residents of Mitchelville took down their houses and moved inwards toward Squire Pope, Bayard and Chaplain. By the 1870’s, Mitchelville became more of a kinship-based community with a few families with direct blood ties remaining.

Mitchelville Drawing
Library of Congress

The hurricane of 1893 was a crushing blow to the Sea Islands and Hilton Head. It not only ravaged the population, but demolished the social and economic fabric of the area. Faced with dwindling opportunities, many freedmen, and even former Confederate plantation owners, sold their properties to Northerners who capitalized on land availability to purchase thousands of acres for hunting preserves.

By 1940, there were only about 1,100 people living on Hilton Head Island and most were descendants of freedmen from the Civil War era. They supported themselves mainly by farming and shrimping. In 1949, a group of lumber associates from Georgia purchased 20,000 acres of pine forest on Hilton Head’s southern end for about $60 an acre. This group included General Joseph P. Fraser, whose son Charles would have a major impact in the coming years with the development of the island. By 1950, logging was taking place on 19,000 acres and the population had dwindled to about 300, mostly descendants of former slaves. Spurred by the logging activity, electricity was brought to the island in 1950.

James F. Byrnes Bridge
from Town of Hilton Head

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The turning point with respect to development occurred with the completion of the James F. Byrne swing bridge, which opened the island to automobile traffic to and from the mainland. That first year, 48,000 cars crossed the bridge. In 1959, tolls were eliminated. In 1982, the bridge was replaced by the 4-lane span that is in use today. Charles Fraser was a graduate of Yale Law School. While attending, he became interested in land use planning. Under the tutelage of Professor Miers McDougal, he became convinced that landowners needed to be bolder in writing deed restrictions and covenants as to their developments.

In the early 1950’s, development along the South Carolina Coast consisted of mostly small cottages perched on cinder blocks. Fraser was about to change all that. Fraser’s father and his group of investors owned 80% of Hilton Head Island. Some disagreements arose and Fraser’s father broke away from the group with a substantial portion of the holdings. Charles then convinced his father to sell him the southern third of the island in 1956.

Charles E. Fraser
from Clemson College

Fraser was now going to bring his ideas of land use to fruition by developing Sea Pines, a resort community. Fraser assembled a small city behind gates. Over the years, four golf courses, a town square, 100 tennis courts and 3,400 homes and condos were built at Sea Pines, all under the tight restrictions imposed by Fraser. Critics of his deed restrictions and covenants believed that the South Carolina court system would find it illegal. Yet in the end, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Fraser was the founding father of resort/community development. He blended natural beauty with man made structures and strict restrictions to maintain that beauty. Many followed his footsteps on Hilton Head and throughout the country.

In the end, this is a story about Mitchelville and its aftermath. Thus, the development of Hilton Head might lead a writer or a reader to feel ambivalent. Remember, Sea Pines Resort (and all its equivalents on Hilton Head) holds beautiful scenery within a gated vacation community that many people cannot afford to enjoy. Charles Fraser often talked about how he wanted everyone to enjoy Sea Pines, but his business model was to market to wealthy retirees and vacationers. Yet, development is not always bad. Hilton Head has become a vibrant economic engine, providing many jobs without compromising its natural beauty. We should always remember the past and have hope for the future. So, for me, I want to celebrate that the first taste of freedom for formerly enslaved people took place in Mitchelville, South Carolina.

We have one more stop on our story.

Think of a bench overlooking the northeastern facing marsh of Beach City Road. It catches the gleam of the sunrise each morning. On April 16, 2013, the Toni Morrison Society in partnership with the Mitchelville Preservation Project placed a bench in honor of the settlement of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island.

The Toni Morrison Society began placing benches to commemorate her 75th birthday to mark important sites in African American History. That should say it all about the importance of Mitchelville.

In 2005, a group of diverse citizens took up the cause of preserving and promoting the former site of Mitchelville. In 2010, the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park was organized as a South Carolina non-profit corporation The park, located at 226 Beach City Road is a work in progress, but you can walk the boardwalk, watch the birds and read the historical markers.

The history will weigh heavily. If you need information, please call the Park organizers (843 255-7300) to arrange tours, visits and to find out about future progress. Not to be amiss, there is a Gullah Museum within the area, but such a rich cultural history needs to be discussed in a future article….and we will do that.

Please remember that Mitchelville is where freedom began for many of the formerly enslaved!

View Photos From Mitcheville Freedom Park

Blair Witkowski
Author: Blair Witkowski

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