Beaufort County, South Carolina

Union Occupation of Port Royal Sound

2 November 1861, Saturday, the citizens of Beaufort were told that the fleet headed south probably was headed for Port Royal. On Sunday, 3 November, Dr. Joseph Walker, thirty-seven year rector of St. Helena's Episcopal Church, suggested that his congregation pack their belongings and hold family prayers. I (FOC) wonder, over the intervening 130 years, why they did not stay and try to protect what they could? On Monday, 4 November, the Union fleet anchored off Hilton Head, and Confederate Brigadier General Roswell Ripley told the citizens that Port Royal was clearly the target of attack and that they should evacuate Beaufort. All across town, trunks were packed, carts and horses were drawn up, and household servants began busily loading family possessions. For some slaves it was the last act they were to perform for their masters.  

SC Coast Walker plantation: Reverend Walker's niece Emily Walker recalled her mother sending their trusted slave "Daddy Jimmy" to Retreat Plantation to get the family's longboat, Santa Ana, to town to evacuate them. The boat arrived at 9:00 at night. With a lantern rigged under a canopy, six burly slaves rowed Emily, her cousin Sarah Stuart with two infants, and her father up the Beaufort River past Brickyard Point and across the Coosaw River to the mainland. As they landed in the morning, they heard the boom of the big Union guns in Port Royal Sound.

Dr. Jenkins: The St. Helena Island planters had gathered on Dr. Jenkins's veranda at Land's End to watch the battle. It became obvious that by early afternoon, the Union fleet had complete control of Port Royal Sound and that all the federal troops accompanying the fleet would soon occupy the sea islands. If they were so foolish as to think otherwise, they soon quitted the veranda, mounted their horses and wagons, and rode off down Seaside Road to spread the alarm among the planter households, and gather their belongings for a hasty evacuation.

Slaves: Reputedly some planters tried to take their slaves with them (FOC: I wonder why not all?), but that most slaves refused to go. Some masters told the field hands that the Yankees would sell them to the ill reputed Cuban sugar plantations if they remained behind. Other planters suggested shooting a few recalcitrant slaves to force the rest to leave. Threats and lies did not work. As the slave woman Susannah disingenuously asked her master Daniel Pope, "Why should they [Yankees] kill poor black folks who did no harm and could only be guided by white folks?" The slaves communicated amongst themselves through an underground network, and knew very well what was going on. On Datha Island, Dr. Berners Barnwell Sams ordered his slave Cupid to gather the slaves on the island at the "big landing" to be transported to the mainland, but Cupid and the other slaves instead took to the woods! Not all the planters tried to take their slaves. Captain John Fripp told his slaves to keep together, stay on the plantation, plant provisioning crops for their own sustenance, and forget the cotton. He wished them well and left St. Helena Island. These were wise words.

Conveniently for the white population of Beaufort, there was a steamer moored at the town dock on 7 November. Many of the inhabitants who had not evacuated the night before put their belongings aboard the paddle wheeler and went directly to Charleston. Had the Union ships immediately steamed up the Beaufort River, they would have captured much of the white population of the town, although as non-combatants, they may have fared better had they stayed. As it was, elements of the Union fleet came up the Beaufort River the next day on 8 November. Henry, the cook at Coffin Point on St. Helena Island, brought word to the overseer to flee. Henry reported that "all the Yankee ships were going in procession up to Beaufort, solemn as a funeral." The army did not actually occupy the village until 9 November, and, according to local tradition, they found only one white man left in town and he was stone drunk on Bay Street.

The Union Navy invaded Port Royal Sound on 7 November 1861. Union steam ships destroyed Confederate Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and occupied it, with no Confederate counterattack.  

Detailed image of the Confederate Forts and Union Navy.

This 7 November battle was lost primarily because the sea was smooth as glass, the Union ships were steam powered, not subject to whims of wind and wave, and they steamed in an oval, presenting a continuously moving target to the Confederate gunners who could not hit them, while the Union gunners were dead on.  In addition, Union gunboats positioned themselves in line of sight to an unfinished, and ungunned, quarter of the fort on Hilton Head, and demolished it.  This was a sad day for the planters sitting on their veranda watching the battle! They soon (unnecessarily) fled for their lives, although General T.W. Sherman kept order upon his occupation (recall, this was not General William Tecumseh Sherman, may his name forever live in infamy!).

Hilton Head Island was occupied without further opposition shortly after 2:30 PM.

In the two days between the white flight (love that pun!) and the arrival of the Union troops, the slaves from both the town and surrounding plantations looted Beaufort and occupied the fine mansions. Several local men stationed on the mainland made forays into Beaufort to burn the valuable cotton, collect personal belongings, and gather military intelligence. Capt. James Stuart of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, dispatched to burn the cotton, reported that the town was plundered. Lt. Teddy Barnwell led a detachment of the Rutledge Mounted Rifles onto Port Royal Island the same day to gather military information. He reported that the town was "still as death," but from the fourth floor of the Barnwell Castle on Bay Street he could see the Union gunboats steaming up the Beaufort River. When Thomas Elliott slipped into Beaufort on November 8, he found that the homes had already been ransacked by the slaves and that the debris of furniture and household goods cluttered the streets. When he arrived at his own home, Elliott found several plantation slaves reveling in the house."Chloe, Steven's wife, seated at Phoebe's piano playing away like the very Devil and two damsels upstairs dancing away famously."

On Hilton Head Island itself, the invading Union troops looted the abandoned plantations. General T. W. Sherman, enraged at the behavior of his own troops, soon put a stop to this (recall again, this was not General W. T. Sherman!). On 11 November, he issued General Order Number 24 from his headquarters on Hilton Head Island ordering any troops or officers engaged in looting to cease their activity or be disciplined. He noted that "the right of citizens to be secure in their property must continue." Despite General Sherman's best efforts and intentions, the sea island planters had already lost everything. Few ever recovered the land or possessions left behind, and the major fraction of their estate, the slaves, were of course never returned. Obviously no one in the South was compensated for the loss of slaves. Financial records suggest that roughly half the wealth of the planters was tied up in the value of their slaves. The sea islands of the Beaufort District had changed forever.

As the planters began to appreciate the magnitude of this irreversible loss, Union occupiers began to realize their gain, not in slaves or real estate, but in the harbor, and its utility to the blockade. Commodore DuPont mused, "This is a wonderful sheet of water - the navies of the world could ride here." Captain Rufus Saxton of the Quartermaster's Corps, in his report to General Sherman, saw Port Royal as a tremendous gain: "We are now in possession of the finest harbor in the South, where the largest ships can enter and ride at anchor in safety. In the heart of the richest part of the cotton district with direct and easy communication by inland water with Charleston and Savannah, it possesses unrivaled advantages for a Quartermasters and Naval depot, and in the future a great commercial city must grow up here."

The Battle of Port Royal Sound was the beginning of the end of the Old South. Beaufort was the first southern city captured by Union forces, remaining in their hands throughout the war. Few of the planter families ever returned to the sea islands, and not until 1892 were they compensated by the federal government for their plantation lands lost to conquest.

Though the slaves were not immediately freed, they were never returned to slavery, and they were among the first slaves in America freed after the Emancipation Proclamation of 22 September 1862. The old order of the South, almost two centuries in the making, had for these islands vanished in a single day, and the sea island community would never be the same again.

Beaufort had been completely abandoned by its white citizens on 11 December 1861 by the time Federal forces arrived there, and the slaves were looting the town.  The general in charge (Stevens) ordered the town cleared of looters and secured.  Beaufort remained in Union hands throughout the war.  The (Union) military that occupied Beaufort was surprised to find the town abandoned.

Modern Highway Map of Beaufort, showing Historical Markers (SCDAH South Carolina Highway Historical Marker Guide)

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