Live from Port Royal

Sometimes when I don’t have anything better to do (which isn’t very often), I wonder what the American Civil War might have been like in the era of 24-hour cable news. (No doubt Fox News would have had pro-Confederate coverage, but that is a post for another time and a different blog). Occasionally though, I come across a primary document with that “live-from-the-scene” feel to it. The New York Times published such an article on November 14, 1861, written by an unnamed correspondent who had rushed back north from Port Royal, South Carolina, aboard a U.S. Navy ship carrying dispatches. His article, although somewhat racist, captures the tumultuous atmosphere in the town of Beaufort following its fall to Union forces, especially the slaves’ excitement at their liberation. The relevant section of the piece reads:

The town of Beaufort, I am told, is a private watering-place. That is, the wealthy planters, for miles around, have erected commodious Summer residences there, and in the heighth of the season the town accommodates from 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants. The remainder of the year the white and colored population together does not exceed 500. When the reconnoitering party landed they found that extreme terror of an attack, consequent upon the defeat of their countrymen at the mouth of the bay, had prompted a stampede of all the white people, with one solitary exception, the day before. The exception was a man who doubtless would have gone also, but he was too drunk to move. He was taken on board the Pembina and questioned, but he was too stupid to give a coherent story. The negroes were then flocking in from the plantations and pillaging the houses. They told dreadful stories of how their owners had attempted to deter them from coming in by shooting a few-down; but they had heard that the “Yankees” would give them liberty, and for such a boon they took the risk of a bullet.

Before I left Hilton Head, I saw as many as one hundred negroes, who had come into our camps, and they were constantly arriving. At Bay Point I was informed there were as many more. As soon as they made their appearance they were huddled into a dilapidated building which was strongly guarded. All ages were represented, but only the male sex. Until I saw and conversed with the greater number of these persons I believed that the appearance and intelligence of Southern field hands were greatly libeled by the delineators of negro character at the concert saloons. Now I cannot but acknowledge that instead of gross exaggerations the “minstrels” give representations which are faithful to nature. There were the same grotesque dresses, awkward figures, and immense brogans which are to be seen every night at BRYANT’s or CHRISTYS. Some of them told me that they had heard the “Yankees” were coming down to set them free, as early as last July, and they appeared very happy at their prospects. One old man said he was willing to work at anything “Massa Yankees” gave him to do, but he never would go back to “dat ar rice fiel’ agin.” I asked him to whom he belonged. He replied that he once belonged to the widow PINCKNEY, who had four hundred “head o’ niggers,” but he was free now. The chief anxiety of most of them was to get their familes to join them. There was no difficulty in learning from these people that our arrival had been anxiously looked for with pleasant anticipations.

Some how, if a CNN reporter with a satellite link up had been in Beaufort, South Carolina, in November 1861 as Union troops entered the town, I cannot help but think they would have captured the atmosphere of the place something like this article.


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 Live from Port Royal

  1. Kurt Knierim says:

    Great Post! I am taking a US Readnig seminar this semester and have shared about your blog – this one will get some “talk time.” Back to you, Don…

  2. Doug didier says:

    This free book

    letters from port royal

    Click to access leport.pdf

    Pretty interesting..

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