It’s a few minutes before 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 27 as I focus on small groups of beach walkers striding the white sand of Hilton Head, SC from the fourth-floor balcony of the Hilton Grand’s Ocean Oak Resort with dark-blue ocean waves of the Atlantic massaging the shore -- the same seaboard that the Union army after the start of the Civil War (1861-1865) invaded with a vast armada blasting cannonballs toward shore to dispatch fleeing Confederate forces on Nov. 7, 1861 during the Battle of Port Royal.
And about 18 miles north of where I’m lodging with my wife Billie there’s a place called Mitchelville -- “the first self-governing community of freed slaves during the Civil War" that likely consisted of my newly-liberated ancestors -- that was established and protected with the help of a regiment of black soldiers, the 32nd United States Colored Troops (USCT), trained at Camp William Penn in what is today southeastern Pennsylvania’s Cheltenham Township.
Mitchelville was “a unique and at the time revolutionary experiment predating Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by several months,” notes Peter Jackson, on assignment for BBC News in a Feb. 2012 online article, “Mitchelville: The hidden town at dawn of freedom,” initially consisting of “150 acres complete with roads, and divided up individual districts for the election of councilmen to oversee its affairs,” backed by a system of taxes from blacks who were among the first to benefit from mandatory education and work wages that led to electoral and political empowerment known as the Port Royal Experiment.
“It was the humanitarian vision of one man -- triumphant Union Army General Ormsby Mitchel -- at a time when slaves were considered ‘“contraband of war,’” Jackson explained.
And although plagued with fatigue duty, similar to other black regiments during the Civil War, the 32nd was assigned to protect those thousands of ex-slaves flocking to Union lines on Hilton Head by way of initially establishing Fort Baird, primarily rudimentary earthworks named for their commander, Colonel George W. Baird, and soon after building a more permanent structure with major elements still standing today, Fort Howell, honoring Brigadier General Joshua B. Howell and finished by the 32nd in 1864.
Today, the remnants of Fort Howell are part of The Mitchelville Freedom Park that incorporates the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, featuring “an observation platform looking out toward Port Royal Sound, and kiosks telling the Mitchelville story through words and historical images,” says hiltonheadisland.org, a site that I drove to and visited with Billie later that day.
With temperatures hovering in the low-70s, we walked trails lined with replicas of quaint cabins, stores and even praise houses where the former enslaved blacks worshiped in their unique Gullah-Geechee dialect of African and English words chanting and dancing in a circling line called “the Shout.”
“By 1865 Mitchelville contained ‘about 1500 souls,’” read one of several storyboards that we encountered. “The houses were often simply built: the freed slaves themselves provided the labor; the military saw mill provided free lumber; and each family had about a quarter of an acre for planting gardens.”
But, back when the 32nd prepared to embark from Camp William Penn in April, 1864, the journey itself, perhaps, was an indication that the group certainly would face hardships, ultimately losing two officers and 35 enlisted men “killed and mortally wounded” with 113 enlistees dying “by disease,” for a total of about 150, according to statistics of the National Park Service.
“We left Camp William Penn April 23rd, and embarked on board the steamship Continental, for the seat of war,” wrote one soldier identified as B.W. in a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia-based newspaper, The Christian Recorder, published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“We went down river to Fort Delaware [in Delaware City, Delaware], and took on board two hundred and eighty prisoners (white) of the Union Army, which made the ship very uncomfortable, making, in all, fifteen hundred souls on board, which crowded us so, that we had not enough room to lie down. During the passage, we lost one man overboard. He was sea-sick and was leaning over the side to cast up his accounts, and lost his balance.”
After arriving on Hilton Head, about 500 soldiers of the 32nd commenced building forts Baird and Howell, sometimes enduring racism and inferior pay compared to white troops, according to complaints they made to their superiors and The Christian Recorder.
In addition to serving on Hilton Head, the 32nd garrisoned on Morris Island, S.C. where the well-known black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts of motion-picture Glory fame, had valiantly attacked the Confederate stronghold, Fort Wagner, in mid-July 1863 before the 32nd served in Charleston, S.C. until Nov. 1864, as well as Boyd’s Neck and the fierce Battle of Honey Hill on Nov 30. They’d move on to protecting the Savannah Railroad from Dec. 6 to 9, and venture to such places as James Island by Feb. 1865 before being mustered out in August on Hilton Head.
As the evening sun sinks west and vacationers from all walks of life simmer down on Hilton Head’s beach below my hotel suite, I marvel at how the 32nd persevered, despite so many obstacles while fighting to preserve the Union and liberating fellow African Americans that included my ancestors craving the fruits of freedom.