This battle was the beginning step Sea Island blacks would take down the long road to freedom. Although no one realized it at the time, the fight for freedom and equality would eventually lead to places like Selma, Alabama and Little Rock, Arkansas. But to many slaves in the Port Royal area, the fall of Hilton Head was the single greatest event in their lives. Sam Mitchel, at the age of 87, remembered the event vividly:
Within two days of the Union victory on Hilton Head, Sea Island blacks began descending on the outpost. One Union soldier stationed on Hilton Head at the time recounted:
"negro slaves came flocking into our camp by the hundreds, escaping from their masters when they knew of the landing of "Linkum sojers," as they called us . . . many of them with no other clothing than gunny-sacks."
Although it is clear that the black slaves were convinced of the Union's role in securing their freedom, the Union Army was not nearly so sure. In fact, these former slaves were not yet free (or freedmen), but were considered by the Union Army to be "contraband of war." In some areas, Union generals even allowed Confederate owners to reclaim "their property" and take blacks back into slavery.
Hilton Head, however, was different. From the very beginning, General T.W. Sherman (no relationship to General William T. Sherman who marched through the South, ending the war) wrote to the War Department in Washington asking for humanitarian assistance. Many Union officers, however, complained that the blacks were a "burden and a nuisance." Some Union troops stole from the slaves and it is clear from the surviving records that the racial attitudes of some Union troops were no better than most Southerners of the period. General Ormsby M. Mitchel remarked that he found "a feeling prevailing among the officers and soldiers of prejudice against the blacks."
Regardless, the efforts by General Sherman opened the door for missionaries, known as Gideon's Band or Gideonites, to come to Hilton Head and begin teaching and helping the blacks. The Secretary of the Treasury Department, Salmon P. Chase, was a strong anti-slavery voice in the Lincoln cabinet and he sent Edward L. Pierce (an attorney and strong abolitionist) to Hilton Head to look into the "contraband negro" situation. Pierce, in February 1862, found 16 plantations on Hilton Head and at least 600 blacks on the island, many coming from other Sea Islands, including Pinckney, St. Helena, Port Royal, Spring, and Daufuskie.
As early as April 1862, a military order was issued freeing the blacks in the Sea Islands, and four months later Lincoln developed his own plan of emancipation - officially making the "contraband slaves" freedmen.The housing for the freed slaves was a problem from the very beginning. At first the Union army tried to establish military-like camps for the blacks at places on Bay Point and Otter Island. But these were little more than "holding areas" and were later in the Civil War called, "Freedmen's Home Colonies," providing "temporary shelter and care." A similar approach was first used on Hilton Head, where "commodious barracks" were built. This approach, however, was seen to be a failure by October 1862, when they were described as a "sty." Perhaps more importantly, this approach did nothing to help the escaped slaves learn about their new freedom.
One of the first accounts of the decision to change the way the Union Army dealt with the blacks was reported by the local newspaper, New South, on October 4, 1862:
Some wholesome changes are contemplated by the new regime [General Ormsby Mitchel, who assumed command on September 17, 1862], not the least of which is the removal of the negro quarters beyond the stockade . . . where they can at once have more comfort and freedom for improvement. . . . Accordingly, a spot has been selected near the Drayton Plantation for a Negro village. They are able to build their own houses, and will probably be encouraged to establish their own police. . . . A teacher, Ashbell Landon, has been appointed.
By March of 1863 the town was built and named in honor of General Mitchel. The village was divided into districts for the election of councilmen, charged with establishing police and sanitary regulations. The government of the village consisted of a supervisor and treasurer appointed by the military, as well as the freely elected council, a marshal, and a recorder. This government was to:
establish schools for the education of children and other persons. To prevent and punish vagrancy, idleness and crime. To punish licentious-ness, drunkenness, offenses against public decency and good order, and petty violation of the rights of property and person. To require due observance of the Lord's Day. To collect fines and penalties. To punish offenses against village ordinances. To settle and determine disputes concerning claims for wages, personal property, and controversies between debtor and creditor. To levy and collect taxes to defray the expenses of government, and for the support of schools. To lay out, regulate and clean the streets. To establish wholesale sanitary regula-tions for the prevention of disease. To appoint officers, places and times for the holding of elections. To compensate municipal officers, and to regulate all other matters affecting the well-being of the citizens, and good order of society....
In addition, "every child, between the ages of six and fifteen years, residing within" Mitchelville was required to attend school - the first compulsory education law in South Carolina! Early in the history of black freedom, the importance of education was recognized and the law made parents responsible for their children attending school.
By 1865 Mitchelville contained "about 1500 souls." The houses were often simply built (the blacks provided the labor, the military saw mills provided free lumber) and each had about a quarter of an acre for planting gardens. Photographs taken about this time also give us some idea of how these people were living. But, for the most part, historical records have left us with little information about their daily lives. Newspaper accounts suggest that religion was an important MainStay in their lives. One account tells that Abraham Murchinson, "a colored man in the employ of the Chief Quartermaster," was selected to be a minister in Mitchelville. and another story announced the construction of a new church in the village.
At least four stores were opened in Mitchelville, although several quickly closed down, perhaps for cheating the residents. Two, however, were operated for several years and lists of the merchandise being offered are still preserved at the National Archives. Goods included coffee pots, buckets, tin pie plates, tableware, frying pans, shovels, brooms and brushes, fish seines, shirts, pants, suspenders, cloth, cologne, hair combs, belts, thimbles, buttons, bonnets, bead necklaces, condensed milk, dried peaches, tobacco, pipes, flour, grits, butter, lard, rice, and soap.
One observer noted in 1863 that the blacks in Mitchelville were anxious to both work and acquire goods:
there is a great demand for plates, knives, forks, tin ware, and better clothing, including even hoop skirts. Negro cloth . . . [is] very generally rejected. But there is no article of household furniture or wearing apparel, used by persons of moderate means among us, which they will not purchase when they are allowed the opportunity of labor and earning wages.
Many freedmen living in Mitchelville were working for the Union Army, while others were working, for wages, on the plantations they once worked as slaves. Most blacks earned between $4 and $12 a month.
Most of the teachers for Mitchelville were supplied by the American Missionary Association (AMA), a group that obtained its funds from Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches in the North. These teachers taught school for about 4 hours a day. Attendance at the primary school might range from 52 to 108, while the high school typically had about 90 students.
"The Home" for these teachers in Mitchelville was at the edge of the shore and was described by one teacher as:
a little bit of a house with a single thickness of boards for sides and floors, not a bit of whitewash or plaster on the whole house and spaces between the boards on the sides wide enough so the birds fly through. Every house on the Island stands on posts so that the air can circulate under.... The garret [meaning here, the porch] is considered the coolest place. The houses here look like barns on stilts, but the teacher's home is so small and light that the slightest wind shakes it.