Five hundred black soldiers worked tirelessly for four months in 1864 to build an earthen fort on Hilton Head Island. It would defend fellow African Americans just out of slavery who were not yet citizens.
Almost 150 years later, the fight to protect Mitchelville continues.
"Times haven't changed much," Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin told a crowd gathered Monday for the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating the fort's significance.
The Civil War fort named after Gen. Joshua Howell, who was killed in the battle of Richmond, was built by the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry and 144th N.Y. Infantry to defend the island and nearby Mitchelville from Confederate raids and expeditions.
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The village was created for freed slaves in the fall of 1862, before the Emancipation Proclamation and a year after Union ships drove Confederate troops from the sea islands along the state's southern coast.
Barracks were set up for "contraband" slaves left behind Union lines. When conditions there became intolerable, Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel ordered a plot set aside for the former slaves to build homes. They were allowed to govern and educate themselves and learn self-dependence before being granted citizenship.
Mitchel "was an ardent abolitionist. He hated slavery," said Tracy Power, coordinator of the S.C. Historical Marker Program. "He wanted a place where, as he put, 'They could begin the world for themselves.' "
Now, a group of islanders is fighting to preserve what remains of the area as a historic site and convey the American story of former slaves' struggle, perseverance and resiliency.
"The concept of black soldiers building a fort to protect an all-black town is a concept that is just unknown in American history," said Ben Williams, board member of the Mitchelville Preservation Project. "It's a huge story Hilton Head can, and must, tell about their contribution to the country's heritage of freedom."
The group developed plans and is raising money to create the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park at Fish Haul Creek Park that will interpret what happened in the village and include a memorial recognizing Mitchel.
Williams said the group hopes to tie Fort Howell and the freedom park together -- along with historic black churches and chimneys preserved from former slave houses -- to create a corridor along Beach City Road showing the history of slavery on the island.
The Hilton Head Island Land Trust purchased Fort Howell in 1993 to ensure its preservation as a historic site. It began the complex process of obtaining the historical designation in June 2010 from the S.C. Department of Archives and History and later the National Park Service.
Though Fort Howell never saw action, it is significant for its role in the history of Mitchelville, design and structural integrity, said Eric Emerson, director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History.
"It is one of the best examples of a Civil War earthen fort in the state," Emerson said.
The five-acre fort's ramparts and ditches can still be seen today. It is open to the public during daylight hours.
"I came to the island not knowing about it," said Jim Fannon, vice president of the Hilton Head Island Land Trust board. "Old refrigerators used to be tossed here. It wasn't until after the town started to grow that developers learned about the site and began digging up artifacts. We saw it as our mission to keep this site in its pristine state and preserve and protect a significant piece of this island and our country's history."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead
- Hilton Head Island Land Trust
- Mitchelville Preservation Project
- Civil War sesquicentennial: Remembering the Battle of Port Royal: Nov. 5, 2011
- St. James Baptist Church marks its faith: March 23, 2011
- Lack of historic knowledge, infrastructure among obstacles facing Mitchelville Preservation Project: Feb. 28, 2011