The Civil War changed the lives of both planters and slaves on Hilton Head Island. Gradually a plan was formulated for the education, welfare, and employment of the blacks, combining both government and missionary efforts. The Department of the South, headquartered on Hilton Head Island, became a "Department of Experiments." conducting what a modern historian bas called a "dress rehearsal for Reconstruction" and is often called the "Port Royal Experiment." The town of Mitchelville is the clearest expression of that experiment.
The Civil War, Hilton Head, and
The Evolution of Mitchelville
The choice having been made to attack the Confederacy in the deep South, a Union fleet of about 60 ships and 20,000 men sailed from Fortress Monroe at Hampton Roads, Virginia on October 29, 1861 and arrived off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina on November 3rd through 5th. The naval forces were under the command of Admiral S.P. DuPont and the Expeditionary Corps troops were under the direction of General T.W. Sherman. The attack on the Confederate Forts Walker (on Hilton Head) and Beauregard (at Bay Point on St. Phillips Island) began about 10:00 a.m. on November 7. By 3:00 that afternoon the Union fleet had fired nearly 3,000 shots at the two forts and the Confederate forces had retreated, leaving the Beaufort area to Union forces.
This battle was the beginning step Sea Island blacks would lake down the long road to freedom. Although no one realized it at the time, the fight for freedom and equality would eventually lead to places like Selma, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas. But to many slaves in the Port Royal area, the fall of Hilton Head was the single greatest event in their lives. Sam Mitchel, at the age of 87, remembered the event vividly:
Maussa had nine children, six boy been in Rebel army. Dat Wednesday in November wen gun fust shoot to Bay Pin [Point] I t'ought it been 't'under rolling, but day ain't no cloud. My mother say, "son, dat ain't no 't'under, dat Yankee come to gib you Freedom." I been so glad, I jump up and down and run. My father been splitting rail and Maussa come from Beaufort in de carriage and tear by him yelling for de driver. He told de driver to git his eight-oar boat name Tarrify and carry him to Charleston. My father he run to his house and tell my mother what Maussa say. My mother say, "You ain't gonna row no boat to Charleston, you go out dat back door and keep a-going." So my father he did so.
Within two days of the Union victory on Hilton Head, Sea Island blacks began descending on the outpost. One Union soldier stationed on Hilton Head at the time recounted:
negro slaves came flocking into our camp by the hundreds, escaping from their masters when they knew of the landing of "Linkum sojers," as they called us ... many of them with no other clothing than gunnysacks.