The Port Royal Experiment – Setting the Stage for Reconstruction, Part 3

Because of Edward Pierce’s thorough report on the African American population in Port Royal, South Carolina, and his success with the growing contraband population at Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Virginia, President Lincoln and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Sea Island SchoolChase quickly approved Pierce’s proposal. Widely published throughout the Union, the report garnered positive attention from abolitionists, missionaries, and the public alike.   Even those who didn’t agree with Pierce’s view grudgingly admitted that something should be done, as the Federal troops in Port Royal were not there to manage the abandoned plantations or the slaves. Although the government supported Pierce’s plan, they were not quite ready to tackle the emancipation of the slaves or the abolition of slavery altogether. Instead they chose to focus on the labor, production, and import of the goods that came from the Port Royal plantations for the benefit of the Union, leaving the educational aspect of the plan to the philanthropic societies.

Pierce enlisted the help of Reverend Mansfield French and Reverend Jacob Manning to recruit “persons of an excellent sense and humanity” [i] for an “expedition to propagate industry, religion, and education.”[ii] Three societies were created to help fund this venture: the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, the Boston Education Commission, and the Port Royal Relief Committee. In March of 1862, forty-one men and twelve women arrived in Port Royal. The following month, an additional twenty missionaries arrived.

The local soldiers gave the missionaries the nickname ‘Gideonites,’ and thought their task hopeless, as did those Northerners who didn’t understand the abolitionist and evangelical sentiment of their cause. Charlotte Forten, one of the few women enlisted to help educate the former slaves, commented on the negativity from the soldiers upon her arrival in Hilton Head:

“They talked flippantly, and sneeringly of the negroes, whom they found we had come down to teach, using an epithet more offensive than gentlemanly. They assured us that there was great danger of Rebel attacks, that the yellow fever prevailed to an alarming extent, and that, indeed, the manufacture of coffins was the only business that was at all flourishing at present.”[iii]

The missionaries’ main jobs were to take charge of the abandoned estates, directing the slaves in the cultivation of cotton, as well as providing social, moral, religious, and educational support. Most importantly, the Gideonites pursued their cause with ardent abolitionist fervor, and realized that the success of their experiment to ‘bring civilization’ to the former slaves would reverberate to the other four million slaves throughout the South after the abolition of slavery. Regardless of the government’s sentiments concerning the emancipation of the slaves and what would happen after, the Gideonites plotted their course and did what they could to help.

Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, and Charlotte Forten's Penn School.
Laura Towne, Ellen Murray, and Charlotte Forten’s Penn School.

The Penn School is one of the most well-known schools to develop out of the Port Royal Experiment. Co-founded by Laura Towne and her friend Ellen Murray, the school focused on education for young children, but added night classes for the older generations. Laura Towne arrived with the first shipment of missionaries in March 1862 and worked as a doctor, housekeeper, and plantation distributor before her friend Ellen arrived in June. She sat in on Ellen’s first class of adult education, but continued to work as a doctor and plantation distributor until August, in which she began shouldering some of the many classes the Penn school offered a day.

In October of 1862, Charlotte Forten, a free African American from Philadelphia, arrived in the Sea Islands to volunteer with the Penn School. When she arrived, she was pleasantly surprised. She wrote, “We went into the school, and heard the children read and spell. The teachers tell us that they have made great improvement in a very short time, and I noticed with pleasure how bright, how eager to learn many of them seem.”[iv] In December of 1862, the school’s attendance peaked at 150 students.

Education was one small step in the process of becoming free. The Penn School, even after slavery had been abolished, continued as a school for African Americans until 1948. In the early 1900s, it served as a trade school, teaching African Americans the occupations needed to pursue careers outside of farming. Although the school closed in 1948, Martin Luther King Jr. conducted several retreats in the 1960s for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Penn Center. It’s long reaching roots helped thousands of former slaves and their children establish a place outside the system of slavery, and provided new opportunities well into the early 1900s.

Stay tuned for the last installment in this series!


[i] Edward Pierce to Reverend Jacob Manning, January 19 1862, Edward Atkinson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Massachusetts.

[ii] Frank Moore, The Rebellion Record, A Diary of American Events and Documents, New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864, 224.

[iii] Charlotte Forten, “Life on the Sea Islands,” The Atlantic, May 1864.

[iv] Forten, Charlotte, Journal, published in the Journal of Negro History, 35 no. 3 (July 1950): 233-264.


Burton, Orville Vernon and Wilbur Cross. Penn Center: A History Preserved. Athens: University of Georgia, 2014.

Forten, Charlotte. “Life on the Sea Islands.” The Atlantic, May 1864.

Forten, Charlotte. “Journal.” Journal of Negro History, 35 no. 3 (July 1950): 233-264.

Moore, Frank. The Rebellion Record, A Diary of American Events and Documents. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1864.

Ochiai, Akiko. The Port Royal Experiment Revisited: Northern Visions of Reconstruction and the Land Question. The New England Quaterly, Inc., 74, no. 1 (March 2001): 94-117.

Pierce, Edward. Edward Pierce to Reverend Jacob Manning, January 19 1862. Edward Atkinson Manuscripts. Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

Rachal, John R. “Gideonites and Freedmen: Adult Literacy Education at Port Royal, 1862-1865.” The Journal of Negro Education 55, No. 4 (1986): 453-469.

Towne, Laura M. Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne. Rupert Sargent Holland, ed. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1912.

Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1964.


2 Responses to The Port Royal Experiment – Setting the Stage for Reconstruction, Part 3

    1. Thanks so much, Meg! Reconstruction and it’s failure in the years just after the war are extremely important when thinking about all of the race problems we continue to have today. I hope to do more articles on Reconstruction…if I find the time! 🙂

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