South Carolina was among the richest of States, and Hilton Head Island was responsible for several millionaires. South Carolina was the 1st State to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860. The Civil War began April 12, 1861, with Confederates firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. In January, 1861, General Robert E. Lee was assigned command of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida. By October of 1861, 77 Union ships sailed from Virginia to Port Royal. On board were 13,000 troops, 1500 horses, 500 surf boats, and 1,000 laborers to build a town and fortress for the blockade of the South.
In November, 1861, after surviving a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, the small armada circled Port Royal Sound, firing at all settlements in the area. By noon of that day, on November 7th, the Confederates knew the battle for the area was lost, and fled before the invading forces of the Union. Victory that day for the Union meant freedom for 1,000 slaves. The Yankees were here to stay until the War’s end. Fort Mitchel was built in 1862. It was named for General Ormsby Mitchel, a well-liked leader, who died of malaria that year.
Eventually, Union Forces reached 50,000 on the Island. The blockade of Savannah was accomplished, preventing the Confederacy from exporting cotton and importing supplies from Europe. Hilton Head was Headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Island became the transfer point for prisoners of war and the wounded as well as Union Soldiers on their way to battle and tons of supplies. Black males on the Island and in the surrounding area were pressed into service, becoming the first Black troops for the Union. The money they earned as soldiers enabled them, after the War, to buy land on Hilton Head Island. General Mitchel, before his death, began construction of adequate housing for several thousand homeless Blacks who had gathered on the island since the War began. Mitchelville was the first town developed specifically for the freedmen. It had almost 1,500 residents.
During this time, their children attended schools and they lived in this housing for the duration of the War. After Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, the Federal troops departed for the North. Only Mitchelville inhabitants remained. With the passage of time Mitchelville disappeared, and the island was left to nature and the freed slaves. Hilton Head Island was again forgotten. Small communities of former slaves sprang up on the island. These communities consisted of farmers, fishermen, basket weavers and fishnet makers. Summer was for farming, winter was for harvesting oysters and in the fall the “blue crab” was caught. Island navigators piloted boats between Savannah and the island.