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Tracing Transformations: Hilton Head Island’s Journey to Freedom, 1860–1865

by Dana E. Byrd

with Tyler DeAngelis

Introduction     |     Scholarly Essay     |     Project Narrative

A few old forts and a pair of cemeteries punctuated by a half dozen historical markers are the only visible traces remaining to testify to the transformation of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, during the Civil War (fig. 1). In November 1861, Union forces invaded this part of the archipelago of barrier islands that hug the South Carolina coastnew-win-icon, granting early freedom for slaves and swelling the island’s population with military forces. Over a matter of months, Hilton Head changed from a site of slavery into a bustling military complex that not only supplied the military machine of the Union but also supported freedom for ex-slaves. Present-day readers might marvel at Hilton Head’s historical significance, as the island has since lost most of its wartime character and is currently known as a vacation destination. Following new inquiries spurred by the development of this project’s digital mapping tool, this essay analyzes the changing face of Hilton Head Island during this seminal five-year period, and determines that through the efforts of the military and of the freedmen who lived there, the island underwent a radical spatial and cultural reorganization that transformed it from an agrarian community dependent on slave labor to a military encampment wherein the labor of ex-slaves remained a vital component, yet, as free people, they were now able to participate in the community and be paid for their efforts. The Old South was shuffled aside for a New South.

I developed the mapping tool, titled Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age, to help me organize the relevant information within a geographically oriented framework, which would in turn help me better understand the spatial dimensions of Hilton Head’s transformation (fig. 2). On Hilton Head Island, Union soldiers and sailors, newly freed slaves, and well-meaning missionaries participated in a laboratory for freedom that preceded the Emancipation Proclamation by almost a year.[1] Each of these constituencies produced its own narrative of that experience, leaving a trail of archival material including documentary photographs, tourist views, period accounts of military life, missionary reports, military documents, and celebratory postwar regimental histories. Scholars working on this subject have productively considered these materials separately from each other, but gathered together, these records allow for deeper understanding of the internal organization of the island, especially the way in which it was dramatically reordered between 1861 and 1865. Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age has inspired fruitful lines of inquiry about patterns of military and freedmen occupation on Civil War Hilton Head that I will investigate in this essay.

The familiar phrase “events take place” is the methodological force behind this essay’s exploration. Place can be recuperated through a methodology that incorporates a diversity of objects and sources in order to understand the relationships they mediate between people and the landscapes they inhabit.[2] In the case of Hilton Head Island during the Civil War, these relationships enable us to better understand the process of freedom making. When Union troops invaded the island, they did not, contrary to some histories written after the fact, instantly and fully eradicate the architecture and order of slavery; we know this by studying what was left behind. In the course of building the interactive multimedia map for Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age, the picture of the experiences of the military and the freedmen and -women on the island that came into focus demonstrated that freedom was not an overnight process but, rather, a series of incremental changes that occurred over a four-year span. In the antebellum era, Sea Island plantations were often represented in literature and visual art as idyllic sites of agricultural production—an image that shifted radically when, during the war, the Union military occupied the island and transformed the traditional master-slave plantation economy into a community powered by waged workers. This transformation of space lasted until nearly the turn of the twentieth century, at which point Northern businessmen who had been introduced to the island by way of its Civil War history began buying large swaths of land for the establishment of exclusive hunting clubs, a trend that paved the way for the island’s eventual transformation into a vacation destination.[3]

Why Hilton Head Island, South Carolina? Politically, those on the Union side saw South Carolina as particularly deserving of invasion and restructuring; indeed many of the Confederacy’s political and military leaders hailed from the coastal areas of the state, making South Carolina a place of national relevance. As one Union soldier explained: “To fully comprehend the fitting punishment of South Carolina we must keep in remembrance her position before the war. . . . She was rich, and aristocratic, and looked upon the people of the North with contempt.”[4] From this same perspective, statesmen such as “Squire” William Pope (1788–1862), military leaders such as General Thomas Fenwick Drayton (1809–1891), and others who owned large tracts of land populated by enslaved workers accordingly encouraged secession from the antislavery Union as a means of preserving their wealth. Until the start of the Civil War in 1861, the Hilton Head Island plantations—including Pope’s Coggins Point and Drayton’s Fish Haul [Hall]—were profitably dedicated to the production of Sea Island cotton (figs. 3, 4), which was big business throughout the region.[5] Per-capita wealth in Beaufort District (of which Hilton Head Island is a part) was more than three times the national average.[6]

A prime commodity from 1820 until 1870, Sea Island cotton required a special set of spatial and geographic conditions for its production—parameters that led to a particular organization of space and labor on the plantations. These conventions are exemplified by Drayton’s plantation (figs. 5, 6, 7). A visitor to Fish Haul would first encounter acres of sandy-soiled fields punctuated with rows of three-to-four-foot-tall cotton plants. In the late fall, moistened by ocean breezes, these plants would be dotted with glossy cotton bolls.[7] The next element of the plantation to come into view would be the wide lane ornamented with live oak trees and flanked by a dozen small cabins for enslaved workers. On the Sea Islands, each of these cabins housed at least two families in a space measuring on average fourteen by twenty feet. Only after reaching the end of this “slave row” would the visitor be treated to the sight of the “big house,” or planter’s residence, through a monumental gateway. On the Sea Islands, this residence was generally a double-pile house constructed of wood and elevated on brick piers, with access to the first floor on both the land and water sides. Depending on our visitor’s relationship to the Draytons, she might be invited into the front parlor of the home to rest on the fine furniture; she might even be asked to stay for supper to enjoy a sumptuous meal attended to by enslaved servants. Access to anything beyond the public rooms of the first floor would have been restricted. Genteel behavior was absolutely required.

A visitor approaching by water would experience the plantation in reverse: first the big house on the bluff, then the neat outbuildings, the slave quarters, and finally the extensive cultivated fields. The positioning of the main house in relation to the slave quarters ensured that the workers were under surveillance day and night; this close watch was considered necessary to prevent insurrections, particularly as on South Carolina plantations enslaved workers usually outnumbered their owners fifty to one.

Also important to the function of the plantation was its proximity to the Port Royal harbor. The trip to Charleston could be made in a few hours, ensuring that free Hilton Head residents were not geographically isolated and could receive supplies by boat. Most importantly, however, the port was the method by which the island’s precious cotton could be easily conveyed to market and sold for enormous profits.[8] Most Sea Island cotton plantations hewed to the conventions exemplified by Fish Haul.[9]

During the summer of 1861, as the Department of War organized the military to reclaim portions of the South, strategic circumstances made the Sea Islands, and Hilton Head Island in particular, an irresistible prize for Union forces. The deep natural harbor at Port Royal Sound in the vicinity of Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, which had primarily been used to ferry cotton to market, was alluring to the Union navy because it would allow them to control the waterways and, thus, commercial and military traffic up and down the southeastern coast. On November 7, 1861, Union warships massed at the mouth of Port Royal Sound for what was at that point the largest sea battle in US naval history.[10] The “Big Gun Shoot” lasted only a few hours, and when it was over, Forts Walker and Beauregard had been captured, white planters and their families had fled inland for safety, and their property and enslaved workforce of twenty-five hundred had been left behind. All twenty-four Hilton Head Island cotton plantations were abandoned by their owners and subsequently claimed and occupied by Union forces.[11] The island’s social and economic dimensions were instantly altered.

These changes, including the military occupation of plantation houses and the repurposing of structures, were in some respects a normal outgrowth of wartime activities, but given the circumstances, they were especially disruptive to the spatial organization of Hilton Head.[12] Because of its proximity to the harbor, Squire Pope’s main house on the eight-hundred-acre Coggins Point plantation was ideal for staging a military occupation.[13] The genteel two-story mansion, with mansard roofs and a floating staircase, was at the center of the plantation and offered panoramic views of the island (fig. 8). As early as November 1861, the home was transformed into a busy administrative building, housing the chief quartermaster’s office and the telegraph station, as well as the signal station for the island. Signal Station, a photograph taken by New Hampshire photographer Henry P. Moore in March 1862—six months after the invasion—captures the house in its new role as a signal station for the Union (fig. 9).[14] We see the corps members who have supplanted Pope capitalizing on the commanding view, keeping watch of flat “lowcountry” terrain, waterways, marsh, sound, and ocean in order to communicate with Union forces along the coast. Signals sent from the Hilton Head Island Station could be seen from warships at anchor in the channel, such as the USS Wabash, and across the sound to soldiers at Fort Beauregard (later renamed Fort Seward) on Bay Point.[15] The view Squire Pope had enjoyed over his dominion was swiftly altered and pressed into the service of waging war.

Coggins Point had been spatially organized to facilitate the production of Sea Island cotton, while also conveying the wealth and gentility of its owners. The configuration that had been so effective in managing slave labor was then used by Union officers to exert a similar control over the landscape. The clustering of military complex buildings on the northeastern end of Hilton Head allowed the Union to easily defend the island from Confederate attack, as any vessels approaching by water could be seen well before they landed. The signal station was also a highly visible marker of Union presence, and slaves who could see it from neighboring islands were moved to defeat the surveillance systems meant to hem them in and escape to Hilton Head in order to free themselves. They came by the hundreds. Northern missionaries also capitalized on these waterways beginning as early as November 1861, when they began traveling to the area from Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Similarly, the waterways that had been so vital to expediting the sale of Sea Island cotton were used to deploy soldiers and sailors in order to reclaim the southeastern coast from the rebels.[16] The military’s control here is directed outward, toward other spaces on the Sea Islands, unlike the former landowner’s control, which was exerted inward on the captive population that was his enslaved workforce. In choosing Pope’s plantation for use in this way, the military took full advantage of its access and physical proximity to the water, its view of neighboring islands, and its commanding control of ocean traffic; and although this observation is not explicitly recorded in primary sources, the facts became evident through their coordination in this project (fig. 10).[17]

In 1862, the Department of the South, a military district comprising areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, was officially founded at Hilton Head.[18] The headquarters required an enormous military operation to enact the war department’s victory plan. This operation included the provision of supplies and services for a combined military and civil force numbering forty thousand people. In a pattern repeated across the island, vestiges of the old plantations were shamed by new, shining technological marvels necessary for the transformation. As an example, Squire Pope’s dock was unable to serve the large naval ships that could only sail in deep water. Rather than eradicating Pope’s dock, the Department of the South constructed right next to it an enormous “long dock,” extending some 1,277 feet, complete with railroad tracks.[19] New Hampshire photographer Henry P. Moore took a photograph of the pier from the top of the Pope house (a.k.a. the new Union signal station) that also shows the old dock to the immediate left of the new pier (fig. 11). Here, we see the two docks, old and new, one made by slaves, the other crafted by freedmen; one built for cotton export, the other to fuel the war machine; one Southern craftsmanship, the other Northern engineered. My discovery of these two docks emphasizes the capacity of Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age to help modern researchers visualize historical spaces. Even after having examined this photograph in detail, I did not notice that both docks were present until I used the tool to toggle back and forth between different temporospatial contexts. Only then did the evidence in the photograph lead to my realization that old and new existed in the same place. This narrative of coexistence is different from the Department of the South’s traditional account of the dock, which insists that the new eradicated the old (fig. 12).[20]

In addition to the sanctioned actions of the military on Hilton Head Island, the occupying forces did not in all cases respect antebellum plantation boundaries, and in several cases subjected the island to looting. Daniel Eldredge, the historian of the Third New Hampshire Regiment, mused on the Northerners’ claim to southern space, writing: “The Third New Hampshire landed and went into camp in a cotton field to make room for tents. To get on shore—to plant our feet on the other fellows’ heath—was exhilarating, inspiring.”[21] This feeling of possession perhaps contributed toward making even the most honest soldier more likely to loot the abandoned mansions and storehouses of the “contemptuous” sea island planters. In a letter home to his sister, Henry Stark, a member of the New Hampshire Regimental Band, described these looting campaigns, writing: “The island is covered with plantations, which are entirely deserted by their owners, and we just take what we want. I went out with Hamilton and another fellow yesterday to a plantation about five miles from camp and got as many oranges as we could carry. The soldiers are in the houses carrying away furniture, and everything else almost. I got some books and a plate.”[22] Stark’s use of the word “covered” addresses the fact that the entire island was made up of twenty-four plantation spaces held by various owners. To the occupying soldiers from the North, this arrangement of space must have felt vastly different from their Northern towns, which contained a mixture of public, church, and private lands (fig. 13). Through Stark’s assessment, we come to understand the regional specificity of space, and the discomfort produced in a Northerner by the tiny fiefdoms that were the antebellum plantations.

Pope’s plantation may have been ideal for establishing a military complex, but it was only temporarily suitable for housing the hundreds of ex-slave refugees fleeing from the mainland and other areas beyond Union lines. Beginning in November of 1861, these freedmen who streamed to the island sought protection and nominal freedom under the aegis of the Union forces on Hilton Head. Twenty thousand former slaves living on the South Carolina Sea Islands transitioned to freedom under careful monitoring of the federal government through a program dubbed the Port Royal Experiment. Two years before the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the experiment was a program of national and local importance, and was a proving ground for newly freed slaves: if Sea Island workers could manage themselves in freedom, they would demonstrate the ability of former slaves throughout the South to be neatly incorporated into the fabric of the nation. Freedmen on Hilton Head were the first of the Southern slave population to experience such a change in their circumstances, and the historical record is replete with written and visual accounts of their experience.

Some sources note that by early 1862 there were nearly a thousand additional “contrabands” (as the escaped ex-slaves were known to the occupying forces) living under the protection of the military, and the federal encampment—by then known as the Department of the South—was quickly overrun by those who would free themselves.[23] A majority of the residents who were crowded together in the camps on the Sea Islands were women, children, and the elderly.[24] Most slaves who chose to flee their homes probably had no inkling of the cramped conditions that awaited them in their first days in the contraband camps, and indeed life in the barracks may have been a step down in terms of the quality of their living space; a comparison with the thoughtfully laid out and sturdily built slave quarters on the Fish Haul plantation supports this contention (see fig. 5). Housing the refugees in barracks rather than tents or other structures was, however, the most convenient option for the army, as it allowed for sheltering many people in a small space. Unfortunately for those who lived in them, the barracks were not conducive to privacy, and they were neither spacious nor quiet. The imposition of undifferentiated spaces on the freed population did nothing to help the escaped slaves adapt to their new freedom. These structures were built during the summer of 1862 under the supervision of the army quartermaster, and although it is unclear where they were located, it is likely that they were placed within the military complex (fig. 14).[25] By housing refugees in purpose-built barracks, the military effectively secured the population under its protection.[26]

Within a short time, it became apparent that the barracks were an ineffective means of managing the freed population. Less than three months after their construction, in October 1862, a reporter for the New York Times described the barracks area as “a sort of Five Points, half stye, half brothel.”[27] The article’s invocation of the notorious crime- and poverty-ridden section of Manhattan indicates that life in the barracks had descended into bedlam. Even more striking here is the use of place to invoke socioeconomic status; using Five Points as shorthand suggests that the freedmen were thought of in the same socioeconomic terms as Irish immigrants in New York City. The attempt to organize the freed population had to be refined.

The solution to this problem was the creation of Mitchelville.[28] When General Ormsby M. Mitchel and his staff proposed the development of a community for the newly free residents of the area, they chose a form that was as different as possible from the former slave quarters of Hilton Head. The space they chose was an uncultivated portion of the Fish Haul plantation. The founding of the town had three goals: to alleviate problems associated with the mass housing of large numbers of freedmen at the post of Hilton Head and related encampments; to provide adequate living conditions for this populace; and to develop skills of self-management among the freedmen. The federal officials certainly felt a clear obligation to treat the freedmen properly, especially given the general opinion in the North that the Southern planters had not done so. In what follows, I routinely direct the reader’s attention to the interactive multimedia map to illustrate my observations about the daily life of freedmen at Mitchelville.

Portions of Mitchelville were built and occupied by March 1863. A New York Times article from late 1862 recorded the development of the town and made this assessment: “The Negroes were to build their own houses . . . and they should begin to learn what freedom means by experience of self-dependence.”[29] This reporting not only echoes the previously mentioned goal of developing the freedmen’s skills of self-management, it also explicitly links architecture to freedom and self-sufficiency.[30]

In order for this program to be successful, freedmen had to be not only rehabilitated from the damaging effects of slavery but also lifted up from what white people considered their racially inferior condition. Materially, this meant that the freedmen eschewed the plantation cabins of old—structures that, like the barracks, had forced them to share quarters with other enslaved workers they were not related to—and instead erected homes that were designed for lives lived in freedom. Using lumber foraged locally and milled in the military camps, each family unit was given supplies to build a house. Two archival sources—a half dozen extant photographs of the town taken by Samuel Cooley and an 1865 map of the area produced by the federal government—have been aligned in Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age to serve as foundations for the claims that follow.

The structures the freedmen built varied tremendously. They used military-supplied boards, wood shake shingles, bitumen paper, brick, and glass to construct and ornament their homes, but because they were used in an array of combinations, the individual homes exhibit a fair amount of variety. The humid climate and proximity to the ocean were certainly factors in the need to raise all the houses above grade, and this detail suggests that most of the interior flooring was probably made of boards rather than bare dirt. Clay from the beach was likely used as chinking. Many of the houses were sealed with a layer of whitewash, lime, or paint. Residents were restricted only by the size of their lots and the availability of materials (fig. 15).

Even with the insights provided by Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age, there is no obvious visual organization to the siting of Mitchelville homes on lots. Some were oriented with the gable to the street, others with the ridge. Thanks to the digital tool, the spatial organization of the homes can be reconstructed. The placement of the houses are more regularly spaced on the northern portions of town, suggesting that they adhered to the military’s regular plan of “neat and laid out streets”; it is thus likely that these were the first areas developed by the freedmen.[31] It is noteworthy that these houses were also the closest to the plank bridge that connected Mitchelville to the military encampment. Written sources suggest that this bridge was patrolled by freedmen sentries to prevent soldiers from harassing women in the village.[32]

Mitchelville continued to grow, with the southern, eastern, and western edges of town showing a less rigid layout that suggests they were developed later. In 1864, members of the Pennsylvania 32nd US Colored Regiment built Fort Howell on the western edge of the town.[33] The earthworks fort was built in a former cotton field on the western end of the Fish Haul plantation, and the town’s citizens were protected by the military billeted there until the end of the 1860s. Mitchelville, complete with businesses and community spaces, reached its peak in 1865, when it was home to three thousand residents (fig. 16).

A review of extant photographs of Mitchelville reveals that the wide variety of the shapes and sizes of the houses was simplified and generalized on an 1865 map of the town; the mapmakers represented the footprint of each house with the same size square.[34] The Chicora Foundation’s archaeological investigation of portions of the town has found traces of postholes that suggest that none of the homes was larger than 220 square feet. This means that the typical home in Mitchelville was about 100 square feet smaller than the average Sea Island slave cabin, although that space often housed multiple families.[35] The Mitchelville houses were also grouped much more closely together than the slave cabins built only a few years earlier (fig. 17). The tight arrangement of multiple house types indicates a return to kin-based community organization. Nuclear families occupied single homes, which were then clustered in groups of extended families. In this case, the term “extended families” refers to kinship networks created by blood as well as place; it was, for instance, not uncommon for families to further organize themselves according to the plantations from which they had fled. Through the compact clustering of the Mitchelville houses, kinship networks that had been severed under slavery were then reaffirmed, rediscovered, and renewed.[36]

Scholars of material life have argued that the inclination of groups to emulate their social betters “in pursuit of refinement” is a quintessential democratic preoccupation; yet, there is no evidence of this tendency in Mitchelville’s material record.[37] As they worked their way toward citizenship, Mitchelville freedmen seem to have been uninterested in traditional markers of refinement, or, at least, not in any consistent way evident in looking at photographs of their houses. As an example, a home with a well-built chimney would elsewhere have indicated elevated social status; in Mitchelville, however, the home with a well-built brick chimney may have lacked glazed windows, another established indicator of status (see figs. 15). This incongruity suggests that architecture in Mitchelville did not conform to any traditional convention.

Individually, the freedmen’s houses at Mitchelville represented an improvement on most antebellum slave houses. If, as architectural historian Bernard L. Herman has concluded, antebellum slave housing had much more to do with the wishes of the plantation owner than those of the slave, then we have much to learn from housing created in freedom for and by freedmen. Indeed, an examination of the architecture created by freedmen with an eye toward their formal contributions might allow us to identify the material changes stimulated by freedom and that are therefore representative of the freedmen’s approach to material life.[38]

The smaller square footage suggests that single families occupied each house, rather than multiple families, as in slavery. The most popular Mitchelville improvements on the slave-cabin form included the use of glass in windows, the use of stoves rather than open-hearth fireplaces, the elevation of the houses, and the attendant use of wooden plank flooring. Stoves, for example, enhanced living conditions because they were less smoky, easier to operate, and more efficient than open fires. Viewed individually, these minor distinctions between slave housing and the Mitchelville homes may seem slight, but together they signal a freed community’s eagerness to leave the material impoverishment of slavery behind in an attempt to form regimes of respectability uninflected by both Southern planters and Northern conventions.[39]

Among the important source materials placed in context through Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age are the writings of Northern missionaries who flocked to the island from Philadelphia, Boston, and beyond to aid the former “chattel” in transforming themselves. Sarah P. Lillie was among these missionaries who came to help the freedmen. In a letter published in the Freedmen’s Journal, a periodical produced for the benefit of the freedmen, about the circumstances of her Hilton Head Island charges, she wrote:

Our school is getting along nicely now. At first we were almost disheartened, they seemed so wild and so utterly regardless of school discipline; but we can see great improvement since the first opening; and I don’t think I am too ambitious when I venture to hope that ere long we can compare our schools favorably with those at the North. . . . Seats have been made for the church, since opening our school, and two windows have been put in.[40]

Lillie’s statement not only is useful for basic information on the town, such as confirmation that there was at least one school and one church, but also it provides insights that cannot be conveyed through photographs, such as the disposition and promise of the students. This important information is now included in the Mitchelville section of Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age. Other accounts also allow us to differentiate between the residences as they actually stood and how they were represented on the 1865 map, something that is not possible to do when looking at a traditional map alone. Similarly, the Freedmen’s Record tells us that in 1864, Mr. Lymas A. Anders, a former slave, constructed a multipurpose building that served as a church and a schoolhouse and had attached lodging for a missionary teacher.[41] Given the scope of this building, one would expect it to be featured on the 1865 map and identifiable through markings or a footprint; curiously it is not. Perhaps the school and church buildings had a footprint similar to that of the freedmen’s cabins, or perhaps these structures were not sufficiently different in appearance to the cabins for a modern researcher to identify them in photographs. Either way, we must rely on extant written sources to inform our understanding of the map.

While the residents of Mitchelville controlled the appearance of the individual buildings, the spatial organization of the town was dictated by the military, and in ways that directly impacted the experience of the freedmen. By military order, the village was laid out such that no lot was given space for more than a small half-acre garden, and there is no indication that there were land allotments outside of the town. The villagers were thus limited in the types of work they could do to earn income. Some, like Renty Franklin Greaves, enlisted in the military to support their families.[42] Others relied on selling fish, game, and small amounts of produce to soldiers. Another group cultivated cotton.[43] These employment arrangements were only temporary and relied mostly on money from the military. It is unsurprising, then, that after the large-scale withdrawal of troops in 1865, the town of Mitchelville floundered as citizens struggled to find work.[44]

Part of what makes Mitchelville historically significant is its role as an early element of the Port Royal Experiment, a program run by Northerners hoping to showcase the freedmen’s autonomy in a moment when their self-sufficiency was still being questioned. By some measures, the program did not fully succeed in this endeavor, although the evidence left behind on Mitchelville lends more nuance to this assessment. Notably, the freedmen tended to focus more on strengthening family ties and building new personal networks rather than cementing their economic stability; the decisions they made about material life were predicated first on what was best for family and community.

The hasty decline of Mitchelville is one of the elements illustrating the symbiotic relationship between town and military base. As the freedmen relied on the soldiers for income, the soldiers relied on the town residents to support the war effort through manual labor and domestic service. Even military rations were often made up of food cultivated by the freedmen.[45] Until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865, the freedom of these former slaves was contingent on the aegis of the military. Together these groups—military and freedmen—flouted the antebellum plantation rules of enslavement, transgressed on elite spaces, and confiscated the plantation owners’ personal property. They did so while building new structures and social orders that shared the space with plantation elements of the old, defeated South. From Pope’s old dock, which was eclipsed by the technologically superior “long dock,” to the slave cabins of Fish Haul, which were abandoned for settlements in new freedmen-designed structures on the other side of the plantation, military and residents reorganized the island of Hilton Head for the new social order. The residents of Mitchelville and members of the military may have been separated by a marsh, but they were connected by a shared interest in creating a new South that saw the end of the war, the Confederacy, and slavery. Only by viewing the growth of these two sites alongside each other are we able to truly comprehend the nature of the changes to the fabric of the Old South.

By examining how the character of a given place changes over time, we can better analyze the values and societies that inhabited them. In Hilton Head, noting how the land was wrested from the hands of elite planters and utilized by those dedicated to freedom, we see how the plantation evolved to become a site that helped define the boundaries and meaning of Hilton Head freedom. In other words, the freed plantation emits its own transcendent kind of power and authority.

The town of Mitchelville and the military complex on Hilton Head Island resulted from a reconfiguration of plantation architecture and space. As this essay has demonstrated through looking at the Coggins Point and Fish Haul plantations, the shift of space varied from location to location—Coggins Point became a military complex and Fish Haul became a freedmen’s village—and these were just two of the twenty-four antebellum cotton fiefdoms on the island.[46] This reconfiguration of plantation space happened incrementally over the course of five years but was no less significant in its impact.

The archive relevant to this transformation is substantial. Visualizing these primary source materials alongside historical photographs and maps turns Hilton Head into a richly detailed case study of its enslaved workers’ socioeconomic and spatial journey to freedom. Doing so also shifts the orientation of study of the plantation from the front elevation of the master’s house to the freedmen’s cabins, allowing us to more richly experience the transformations of a place so vital to our emancipation narratives. Bound together in an investigation of changing space, the various sources testifying to the changed nature of Hilton Head offer a powerful account of lived experience, of which the making, and the unmaking, of the plantation is a part.

In the wake of the withdrawal of most of the federal troops in late 1865, surviving planters began slowly returning to Hilton Head to reclaim their abandoned plantations. Some of them were able to wholly reestablish their plantations, while others had to be satisfied with taking back only a portion of their former holdings. Freedmen were able to retain significant tracts of land that they then successfully managed as truck farms and cotton plantations. The Sea Islands hurricane that struck Hilton Head with a fury in 1893, however, demolished much of the island’s historic fabric, and over the next quarter century, as a result of the devastation and dwindling opportunities on the island, many freedmen and former Confederates alike slowly began to sell their properties. Northerners capitalized on the availability of land and purchased thousands of acres to use as exclusive hunting preserves. The erection in 1956 of the James F. Byrnes Bridge, connecting the island to the mainland, opened up the area for resort development. Real estate magnates including Charles Fraser used the old plantation lines and names to create vacation resorts for travelers. Hilton Head incorporated as a municipality in 1983,[47] and today activists work to preserve the memory of Mitchelvillenew-win-icon and Civil War–era Hilton Head.

[1] Eric Foner, “The Civil War and the Story of American Freedom,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (2001): 8–101; Akiko Ochiai, “The Port Royal Experiment Revisited: Northern Visions of Reconstruction and the Land Question,” New England Quarterly 74, no. 1 (March 2001): 94–117; and Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999).

[2] This assessment of spatial change on Hilton Head Island relies on the work of those geographers and architectural historians who have produced extensive work on space, place, and place-making. See Denis Cosgrove, “Cultural Landscapes” in A European Geography, ed. Tim Unwin (London: Longman Press, 1998), 65–81; Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); and Dell Upton, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Places: A Quarterly Journal of Environmental Design 2, no. 2 (Winter 1984): 59–72.

[3] Robert B. Cuthbert and Stephen G. Hoffius, eds., Northern Money, Southern Land: The Lowcountry Plantation Sketches of Chlotilde R. Martin (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009).

[4] Charles Carleton Coffin, Four Years of Fighting: A Volume of Personal Observation with the Army and Navy from the First Battle of Bull Run to the Fall of Richmond (Boston, MA: Ticknor and Fields, 1866; reprint Arno Press, 1970), 444 and 463.

[5] Richard Dwight Porcher and Sarah Fick, The Story of Sea Island Cotton (Charleston, SC: Wyrick, 2005). See also William H. Capers, “On the Culture of Sea-Island Cotton,” Southern Agriculturist 4, no. 6 (1844b): 201–8; and Jennie Haskell, “Cotton, in the Coast and Upland Fields of South Carolina,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, May 1885, 567–76.

[6] The oft-cited statistic is that in 1860 only 11,000 Southerners—three-quarters of 1 percent of the white population​—⁠owned more than 50 slaves, and a mere 2,358 owned as many as 100 slaves. However, although large slaveholders were few in number, they owned most of the South’s slaves; over half of all slaves lived on plantations with 20 or more slaves, and a quarter lived on plantations with more than 50 slaves. Still, slave ownership was relatively widespread, and in the first half of the nineteenth century, one-third of all Southern white families owned slaves, and a majority of white Southern families owned slaves, had owned them, or expected to own them. These slaveowners were a diverse lot. A few were African American, mulatto, or Native American; one-tenth were women; and more than one in ten worked as artisans, businesspeople, or merchants rather than as farmers or planters. Few led lives of leisure or refinement. For more information, see David Eltis and David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).

[7] The production of cotton hewed to a schedule, beginning with the preparation of land for planting in early January and the preparation of cotton for market in the end of December. William Allen Orton, Sea Island Cotton: Its Culture, Improvement, and Diseases (Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture, 1907), 47–48.

[8] The cotton storehouse was often the closest nonresidential outbuilding to the main house and was the most carefully protected. Other outbuildings, barns, and storehouses were scattered throughout the property and were used to store and process the supplies necessary to cultivate the crop. Porcher and Fick, Story of Sea Island Cotton, 24–25.

[9] William Drayton and his wife, Mary, were owners of the seven-hundred-acre Fish Haul plantation and four hundred additional acres of pineland tract to the northwest of Fish Haul. Virginia C. Holmgren, Hilton Head: A Sea Island Chronicle (Hilton Head, SC: Hilton Head Island Publication Company, 1959), 126.

[10] The battle of Port Royal, known locally as the Big Gun Shoot, was fought by the largest amphibious invasion force prior to World War II. It consisted of seventy-seven ships (including fifteen warships), thirteen thousand troops, fifteen hundred horses, and the many tons of materials needed to establish the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. See The Early Battles, vol. 1 of The Photographic History of the Civil War, ed. Francis Trevelyan Miller (New York: Review of Reviews, 1912), 357–9; and Robert Carse, Department of the South: Hilton Head Island in the Civil War (Columbia, SC: State Printing Company, 1961), 30.

[11] Julie Saville, The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 24.

[12] Ian F. W. Beckett writes about the universality of military occupation while arguing for an examination of particular circumstances in The Great War: 1914–1918 (New York: Routledge Press, 2007). Beckett also coedits a series at the University of Illinois Press titled “The History of Military Occupation.”

[13] Pope was a state senator and owned two plantations on Hilton Head, as well as parcels near Bluffton, South Carolina. Coggins Point was the site of slavery for two hundred workers who were responsible for producing fine Sea Island cotton. Pope also owned the Cotton Hope, Skull Creek, and Point Comfort plantations on Hilton Head, and Crescent Plantation on the mainland in Bluffton. At the time of the war, Pope maintained the Coggins Point house, a two-story mansard-roofed structure dating to 1806, built on brick piers and with a floating staircase and panoramic views of the island; he probably lived full-time at Cotton Hope. Pope Family Papers, 1825–1916 (SCH 1144.00, container 11/550), South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston; Reverend Robert E. H. Peeples, Tales of Ante Bellum Hilton Head Island Families (Hilton Head, SC: Heritage Library Press, 1970), centerfold; and Holmgren, Hilton Head, 119–20 and 130. 

[14] The United States Signal Corps facilitated communications between military officials when sending a written message was too dangerous or would take too long due to the distance between sender and receiver. In Moore’s photograph, members of the signal corps wave flags (or torches at night) according to a recognized code. The motions of the flags or torches represented numbers, words, or phrases. Rebecca Robbins Raines, Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the US Army Signal Corps (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1996), 8–10 and 33. The Moore material is drawn from my manuscript-in-progress, “Reconstructions: The Material Culture of the Plantation, 1861–1877.” The second chapter of this manuscript examines the career of Henry P. Moore, a New Hampshire artist who traveled to the Sea Islands early in the Civil War to make portraits of soldiers and sailors. Moved by the Southern landscape, he instead trained his lens on a more compelling subject: the occupied plantation. I scrutinize Moore’s photographic views of the transformed plantation and out of them attempt to highlight the perceived distinctiveness of the Southern landscape and, more importantly, the potential for that landscape to be redeemed by freedmen. For more on signal corps maneuvers on Hilton Head, see Daniel Eldredge, The Third New Hampshire and All About It (Boston: Press of E. B. Stillings and Company, 1893), 997–98.

[15] During the war, the Union military constantly renamed the places they occupied: forts were renamed to honor Union heroes, Hilton Head Island was dubbed Port Royal, and plantations were referred to not by their original names but by the names of their former owners, as if the speaker delighted in referencing the disgraced and rebellious owner’s former life.

[16] For more on this campaign, see James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861–1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); and Barbara Brooks Tomblin, Bluejackets and Contrabands: African Americans and the Union Navy (Louisville: University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Also note that the military leadership facilitated continued cotton production. The federal government sold nearly two million pounds of cotton between 1862 and 1864. About a quarter of it came from the Sea Islands, and the proceeds from its sale funded both the war effort and the education of the freedmen.

[17] Despite the tremendous archive of details available about life on Hilton Head, some changes wrought by the military were not recorded visually in the archive. The fortifications that members of the Third and Fourth New Hampshire were charged with building from shore to shore across the island, northeast to southeast, do not appear in existing photographs, drawings, or maps, and it is only through other sources that we have more information about these structures—including, for instance, that the men were required to drive heavy logs into the ground, board over them with planks from local timber, and cover them with sand and earth. The dearth of images of something so important to the war effort suggests that the making of pictures or photographs of these areas must have been restricted. Carse, Department of the South, 26–27.

[18] General Order No. 26, March 15, 1862; Orders and Circulars, 1797–1910; Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s–1917; Record Group 94; National Archives.

[19] Colonel Serrell’s engineers ensured that, even at low tide, large vessels had at least twenty-two feet of draught. “Edward Wellman Serrell,” in Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, ed. James Grant Wilson and John Fiske (New York: D. Appleton, 1900).

[20] See Carse, Department of the South, 144–5.

[21] Eldredge, Third New Hampshire, 68. Eldredge’s volume was written in the late-nineteenth-century spirit of deploying historical memory of the Civil War as a weapon with which to engage in the struggle over political policy and as a means to sustain the social and racial order in the nation. For more on this phenomenon, see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). Blight carefully details how the memory-making apparatus worked in the South, although he does not engage the possibility of Northern complicity in this effort.

[22] Letter from Henry L. Stark to his sister, November 11, 1861, Goffstown Historical Society, Goffstown, New Hampshire.

[23] “Contraband Camps,” New York Times, October 8, 1862, 1; Carse, Department of the South, 122; and Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, especially 217–41. Rose provides an excellent introduction to the relief and education work in the contraband camps, focusing her analysis on the government-conducted experiment in freedom that took place on neighboring plantations. Her study, however, neglects to mention Mitchelville and the importance of the town.

[24] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Black Life in an Army Regiment (Boston: self-published, 1869); Susie King Taylor, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st SC Volunteers (Boston: self-published, 1902); Bennie J. McCrae, Jr., Curtis M. Miller, and Cheryl Trowbridge-Miller, Nineteenth Century Freedom Fighters: The 1st South Carolina Volunteers (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Press, 2007); and Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).

[25] The plans on file at the National Archives are for a number of structures, including laundress quarters. Similar barracks were used until the end of the war for the Provost Marshal General’s guard; the few white laborers in camp were put in smaller barracks. National Archives, Map103B, sheet 4 (laundress quarters); National Archives, Map103B, sheet 3 (barracks); and National Archives, Still Pictures Branch, 165-C-143 and 165-C-335 (white laborers’ barracks).

[26] Government Buildings for “Contrabands” Erected at Hilton Head, SC, in 1862, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 19, 1862.

[27] “Contraband Camps,” New York Times, October 8, 1862, 1. Concerns about sexual contact between freedwomen and white troops undoubtedly contributed to the end of barracks housing and the formation of Mitchelville. See Fred C. Ainsworth and Joseph W. Kirkley, eds., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 3rd series (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1900), 1029.

[28] Mitchelville did not receive its name until 1863, when residents of the new settlement appended “-ville” to the last name of General Ormsby M. Mitchel, commander of the Department of the South until his untimely death from yellow fever in October 1862. The suffix -ville denotes a settlement, which makes the name distinct from both the ordered but rudimentary barracks and the chaotic, temporary, male-dominated army camp and complex. Although several sources suggest that the town was laid out by military rules, no general or special order to this effect has been located.

[29] “Contraband Camps,” New York Times, October 8, 1862, 1.

[30] Eldredge, Third New Hampshire, 123.

[31] Edward L. Pierce, the government agent responsible for the oversight of the freedmen on the South Carolina Sea Islands, reported that the town plan consisted of these “neat and laid out streets,” which adhered to the military’s design. Edward L. Pierce, “The Freedmen at Port Royal,” Atlantic Monthly 12 (May–June 1864), 63.

[32] “Contraband Camps,” New York Times, October 8, 1862, 1. For more on the bridge connecting the army camp and Mitchelville, see Michael B. Trinkley, The Lifestyle of Freemen at Mitchelville, Hilton Head Island: Evidence of a Changing Pattern of Afro-American Archaeological Visibility (Columbia, SC: Chicora Foundation, Inc., Research Contribution 21, 1987); and Monica M. Tetzlaff, “Mitchelville: An Early Experiment in Self Governance,” in The Forgotten History: Hilton Head During the Civil War, ed. Charles C. McCracken and Faith M. McCracken (Hilton Head Island, SC: Time Again Publications, 1993), 81–90.

[33] Angus Konstam, American Civil War Fortifications: Coastal Brick and Stone Forts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); and Martha H. Hocutt, J. Tracy Powers, and James B. Legg, “Fort Howell,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (April 2011): 3,

[34] Connecticut photographer Samuel Cooley, who initially traveled to the South to photograph the 10th Army, was responsible for the six extant photographs of Mitchelville. There is evidence to suggest that at some time in the 1860s Cooley was the official photographer of the Department of the South; this position empowered him to photograph views of occupied regions of the department, including St. Augustine, Florida, and Beaufort and Hilton Head, South Carolina. See the Hartford Daily Courant, June 4, 1866, and February 1, 1871. In addition to working as a photographer, Cooley also served as a sutler in the military camps during the war. See Harvey S. Teal, Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840–1940 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001); Michelle Lamunière, “The Principle of Liberation: Henry P. Moore’s Civil War Photographs of African Americans,” Southern Historian 22 (Spring 2001): 5–34; and Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 77 and 124–25.

[35] Michael Trinkley, ed., Indian and Freemen Occupation at the Fish Haul Site (38BU805), Beaufort County, South Carolina, Chicora Foundation Research Series 7 (Columbia, SC: Chicora Foundation, 1986).

[36] William S. Pollitzer contends that extended families rather than nuclear families prevailed on the antebellum Sea Islands; see his The Gullah People and Their African Heritage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005). This postwar development is to be distinguished from the community life of enslaved people; see Charles W. Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

[37] The best example of this argument is Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

[38] Bernard L. Herman, “Slave Quarters in Virginia: The Persona behind the Historical Artifacts,” in The Scope of Historical Archaeology: Essays in Honor of John L. Cotter, ed. David Gerald Orr and Daniel G. Crozier, Occasional Publication of the Department of Anthropology (Philadelphia: Temple University, 1984), 277.

[39] There are 464 buildings on the 1864–65 map, a number that corresponds with reports from December 1864, which shows the town of almost three thousand residents contained 456 completed houses, with more than twenty new houses under construction. Esther H. Hawks, Freedmen’s Journal, December 1864.

[40] Letter from Sarah P. Lillie, Freedmen’s Record, December 6, 1864.

[41] Letter sent to the Freedmen’s Record by an unknown author, December 6, 1864. The school cost $350 to build. Mr. Anders pooled his money along with that of local freedmen, and the 32nd Regiment supplied the balance. Mrs. A. F. Pillsbury, “Northampton School at Mitchell, Hilton Head,” Freedmen's Journal, January 1865; and William Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865–1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995), 93.

[42] Primary sources from the National Archives were found in Greaves’s Civil War pension file (Case of R. F. Greaves, alias Renty Cruel, No. 823054) and the pension file for his widow, Elizabeth Greaves (Records of the Veterans Administration, RG 15); in the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company records (Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, RG 101); and in the 1880 and 1900 federal census and the 1890 veterans census (Records of the Bureau of the Census, RG 29). Accounts of his employment history in patronage positions were found in Records of the US Coast Guard (RG 26) and Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior (RG 48).

[43] Cotton was cultivated on small parcels of plantation land during the war. The difference: former slaves organized their own working groups and were paid a fair wage. See Ochiai, “The Port Royal Experiment Revisited,” 94–117; Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, 320–22 and 324; and William S. McFeely, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984).

[44] The Drayton family eventually redeemed the land on which Mitchelville was located. See the Mitchelville Preservation Project, http://www.mitchelvillepreservationproject.comnew-win-icon.

[45] Carse, Hilton Head, 64.

[46] Kenneth E. Lewis, “Plantation Layout and Function in the South Carolina Lowcountry,” in The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life, ed. Theresa A. Singleton (Orlando: Academic Press, 1985): 35–64; and Charles W. Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

[47] Margaret Greer, The Sands of Time: A History of Hilton Head Island (Hilton Head, SC: Heritage Library Press, 1989), 201–21.

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