The Liberation of Port Royal

November 7, 1861, was a momentous day in the history of emancipation during the American Civil War. On that day, a combined Union naval and army amphibious force captured Port Royal, South Carolina. Roughly halfway between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, Port Royal Sound was one of the best natural anchorages on the Atlantic coast of the United States. It was an ideal location for the U.S. Navy to establish a base so it could tighten its blockade against the Confederacy.

What was new about Port Royal compared to other areas of the South occupied by Union forces was its exceptionally high concentration of slaves. Port Royal was part of the Sea Islands region of South Carolina and Georgia, an area dominated by large cotton and rice plantations. African Americans greatly outnumbered whites in the Sea Islands, so much so that many slaves in the Sea Islands spoke Gullah, a highly Africanized English dialect that was largely unintelligible to standard English speakers.

Union military leaders were aware of the nature of the Sea Islands and their initial plan for dealing with slavery there was to reassure the region’s white population that they did not intend to free their slaves. So Secretary of War Simon Cameron ordered the commander of the army portion of the expeditionary force, Gen. Thomas W. Sherman, to follow strictly the policies formulated during Benjamin Butler’s tenure at Fortress Monroe. Which meant seizing slaves as needed to serve the labor needs of Union forces, but keeping scrupulous work records so that loyal owners could later be compensated and their human property restored to them. Cameron’s letter to Sherman read:

In conducting military operations within States declared by the proclamation of the President to be in a state of insurrection you will govern yourself so far as persons held to service under the laws of such States are concerned by the principles of the letters addressed by me to Major-General Butler on the 30th of May and the 8th of August, copies of which are herewith furnished to you. As special directions adapted to special circumstances cannot be given much must be referred to your own discretion as commanding general of the expedition. You will, however, in general avail yourself of the services of any persons whether fugitives from labor or not who may offer them to the National Government; you will employ such persons in such services as they may be fitted for either as ordinary employés or if special circumstances seem to require it in any other capacity with such organization in squads, companies or otherwise as you deem most beneficial to the service. This, however, not to mean a general arming of them for military service. You will assure all loyal masters that Congress will provide just compensation to them for the loss of the services of the persons so employed. It is believed that the course thus indicated will best secure the substantial rights of loyal masters and the benefits to the United States of the services of all disposed to support the Government, while it avoids all interference with the social systems or local institutions of every State beyond that which insurrection makes unavoidable and which a restoration of peaceful relations to the Union under the Constitution will immediately remove.

Cameron’s orders, however, assumed the white population in the vicinity of Port Royal would be around during the Union occupation. The initial landing party from the invasion fleet found something quite different when they entered Beaufort, the only town in the Port Royal area. Naval Lieutenant J. Glendy Sprotson reported to his superior from Beaufort on November 8.

In obedience to your orders I landed in the town of Beaufort, and found the place deserted by every [white] inhabitant with the exception of two, one of whom I was conducted to by the Negroes who were rejoiced to see me crowding down in large numbers and cheering the flag. They told me that their masters had been firing at them and driving them back in the woods to prevent their communicating with United States Forces, and I judged from their manner that would commit any act of retaliation that opportunity offered. They also stated that the Forces, formerly occupying St Phillips Fortifications, with the Beaufort Artillery had retired to Port Royal Ferry, ten miles distant from the town.

Mr. Allen an old inhabitant of the place, but Northern by birth, met me at the entrance to his Store, much agitated and holding a flag of truce in his hand. He Said, and I witnessed its corroboration that the Negroes are perfectly wild, breaking into evry building and destroying or carrying off all portable property, and that the Light Boats had been burned immediately after the Surrender of the Batteries.

Mr. Wilcox, an other resident of the place was said to be in the town, but I did not find him, So brought Mr Allen on board —

An intelligent mulato boy dismounted from a horse he was riding and coming towards me said, “the whole County have left sir and all the soldiers gone to Port Royal Ferry,” they did not think that you could do it Sir.”

On close inquiry I judged that there must be at Port Royal Ferry at this time, or the time of the Negroes departure from there this morning, about a thousand troops and the Beaufort Artillery.

So when Confederate forces retreated in the face of the northern assault, virtually all of the white inhabitants fled with them. They evidently did not trust that the northern soldiers would protect them from their slaves, who they believed (as was common throughout the South) once freed from slave discipline would embark on an orgy of vengeance.

The Confederate flight from Port Royal left about 10,000 slaves in Union hands. They became contraband-of-war, presumably subject to the Confiscation Act but not formally free either. But effectively from November 7, 1861 forward the black population of Port Royal, South Carolina were no longer were slaves. For a time they would become wards of the federal government and its representatives in what became known as the “Port Royal Experiment,” as they contended with well-meaning Northerners over what their freedom would mean in practice, setting precedents that would help chart the course for Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Sources: 1); 2) Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Series I, Volume I: The Destruction of Slavery. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 115.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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3 Responses to The Liberation of Port Royal

  1. Chris Wise says:

    An important moment. Interesting that I was just at Hilton Head and this event has gone unmentioned at any of the tourist sites I visited.

  2. Doug didier says:

    Live on st Helena island..

    Battle of port royal covered in detail here..

    Hopefully the aftermath addressed in more detail in future..

    “the birth of freedom”.

  3. Doug didier says:

    Forgot to check notify box.. Sorry

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