“Beaufort is a microcosm” to understand America’s Reconstruction era
Near woods not far from a busy Beaufort County highway, a group of eight middle school students took turns sweeping the pine straw with metal detectors, calling out the numbers that flashed on the screen when the device indicated an object below.
With each find, a student moved in to mark the spot with a flag to be investigated later. The Whale Branch Middle School archaeology club was possibly on the forefront of a new historical discovery just down the road from their school off of Trask Parkway near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Daniel Battle, an archaeologist who has worked extensively on a Revolutionary War battlefield site in the area, believes he’s found another area of historical significance on the same property — what could be a Civil War-era freedmen school.
While researching the Revolutionary War site, Battle found a Civil War-era map showing a freedmen farm school on the site of the 18th century battlefield. Battle found a high concentration of iron where the map showed the farm. He noted the finding could mean anything, including the presence of a recent dump site.
But he found an artifact dating to 1870 and believes what he’s found so far is consistent with the footprint of a building, whether it’s a former barn, slave’s quarters or schoolhouse. On a map, there’s a building in the area described as freedmen experimental farmhouse No. 26.
“All we hope we’ve done here is say ‘Look, there’s something here,’” Battle said.
Numerous freedmen schools operated in the area — two on St. Helena Island, two on Parris Island, all over Port Royal Island, historian Larry Rowland said. Some were operated by missionaries who traveled south to Beaufort County early in the war, and teachers were paid after the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Civil War documents Battle found reference Union soldiers marching from Beaufort to the ferry and seeing freed Seabrook slaves working at the school, apparently learning to farm, Battle said.
The soldiers stopped off along the road to relax and drink water. The Whale Branch students found evidence of their presence last week.
Within the small grid marked off for the children to work, the group found an infantry button from a soldier’s cap, a pants button, an apothecary weight and a brass eagle or other animal that could have come from a sword or similar object.
Whale Branch teacher Gene Brugger helped students sweep back and forth with metal detectors as they called out numbers that indicated a strong signal.
Establishing the footprint of the actual building and confirming the structure was a freedmen school would require laying out a grid and systematically testing its squares using shovels and screens. The effort required more time and money than Battle could spare while working on the Revolutionary War site, but he hopes the prospect of another historical site on the battlefield prompts land preservationists to protect the property.
“There’s a lot about these freedmen houses we don’t know,” Battle told the group Friday. “That’s why we’re here.”