Lowcountry residents and visitors will have a chance to see Civil War history come to life in December on Hilton Head Island.
Historians, military scholars and re-enactors will revisit the first major amphibious assault in U.S. military history -- the Battle of Port Royal -- as part of a four-day commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The Coastal Discovery Museum and Lowcountry Civil War Round Table will present the "Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration" on Dec. 1 through 4.
In November 1861, as the first shots of the Civil War roared, Union forces eyed Port Royal Sound as a place to refuel ships and stage a blockade of 3,000 miles of Southern coast.
The sound's deep waters, wide channels and proximity to Charleston and Savannah harbors made it well-suited as an encampment and supply depot for Confederate forces, said Chris Clayton, president of the Lowcountry Civil War Roundtable.
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In less than half a day, Union forces snatched it from the Confederates, driving them out of Beaufort County with the blast of cannons and a haze of gun smoke.
Beaufort was the first Southern city to be captured by the Union.
"It was a major milestone that broke the Confederate hold on major areas," Clayton said.
Civil War buffs will get a chance to tour the sound where the battle took place and learn what made the Union forces so successful. Michael Coker, author of the "Battle of Port Royal," will lead a boat tour on Dec. 2 to take attendees through the battle.
"The Confederates faced huge odds. They were ill-equipped. They lacked fuses, cannons and had logistical problems. And they're outnumbered, working against the huge industrial might of the U.S. Navy," Coker said.
While Union vessels began preparing, Confederate leaders readied for defense of the sound by building Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island, largely with slave labor, according to Larry Rowland, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
Rowland wrote the book "A History of Beaufort County" along with Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers Jr.
"No more peck of corn for me, no more, no more," the slaves sang, according to his book. "No more pint of salt, no more drivers lash, no more mistress call, no more, no more."
"What followed, you had the formation of the nation's first freedman's village on Hilton Head and the Port Royal experiment -- introducing the whole concept of free labor, free land and free men," Rowland said. "It was not just a military victory, it was the beginning of the reconstruction of the old South. It was a turning point that laid the ground work for a major social and political movement. It was the precursor for the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves, the 14th Amendment granting all citizens civil rights and the 15th Amendment allowing former slaves to vote. All of that was the consequence of the social experiments that began here."
In late October, about 50 Union vessels -- 16 warships -- and nearly 12,000 soldiers set out to take Port Royal Sound. After a few days of testing each other, the battle began in earnest on the morning of Nov. 7, Coker said.
By that afternoon, the forts were in shambles, according to Rowland's book, with the Union counting eight casualties. The Confederates suffered about 60 deaths. A small fleet of converted tugboats used by the Confederates retreated to Skull Creek and into the Savannah River, Clayton said.
The volleys are said to have been heard from Coffin Point on St. Helena Island to Daufuskie Island and all the way to Lobeco.
The Union probably would have still won the war if it hadn't taken Port Royal Sound, but it would have hampered their efforts and would have resulted in more deaths, Coker said.
"The Union effectively strangled Savannah and Charleston and helped make the blockade crippling to the South," he said. "The battle is usually a short footnote in the war, but it was a much-needed victory for the Union that was a boost for morale and momentum."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.