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

Port Royal 1861
Sea Islands on an 1861 map.

In late October of 1861, the Union Naval fleet set sail for Port Royal, South Carolina, hoping to advance Winfield Scott’s plan to blockade the Confederate ports and prevent trade with European countries. Similar to the Chesapeake Bay, Port Royal was a strategic supply route into South Carolina and Georgia, as well as one of the wealthiest Confederate ports because of its sea-islands cotton. The brief naval battle at Port Royal that took place in November 1861 unsettled the Confederate hold on the islands, and led to a hasty retreat for both the Confederate troops and the plantation owners, abandoning all property and possessions. The question soon became about what to do with the 10,000 slaves left behind. Through the efforts of Edward Pierce, Laura Towne, Charlotte Forten, and other Northern missionaries, the initial model used to reintegrate a large African Americans population into society at Port Royal served as the national example for Reconstruction prior to Lincoln’s death.

Soon after the Union gained control over the Sea Islands, slaves from surrounding plantations flocked to Beaufort and Port Royal, looking for their freedom. Several months prior, General Butler at Fort Monroe in Virginia, declared the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 null and void in the Union, resolving that all “property of traitors is…forfeit,” after three slaves escaped to the fort in the cover of night.[i] This progressive decision set the stage for a larger movement of slaves migrating toward the North throughout the rest of the war.

The U.S. Treasurer assigned Edward Pierce, who had worked with the contraband at Fort Monroe, to “visit this district for the purpose of reporting upon the condition of the negroes who had been abandoned by the white population, and [to] suggest some plan for the organization of their labor and the promotion of their general well-being.”[ii] In his initial report, Pierce surveyed 200 plantations within a 15 island radius, counting between 8,000 and 10,000 abandoned slaves. His task was two-fold: to devise a plan to make the area profitable for the Union, and to manage the transition of African Americans from slavery to freedom.

Photograph taken by Timothy O'Sullivan at Smith's Plantation in the Sea Islands.
Photograph taken by Timothy O’Sullivan at Smith’s Plantation in the Sea Islands.

[i] Edward Pierce, “The Contrabands of Fort Monroe,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1861.

[ii] Edward Pierce, “The Freedmen at Port Royal,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1863.



Pierce, Edward L. “The Contrabands of Fort Monroe.” Atlantic Monthly, November 1861.

Pierce, Edward L. “ The Freedmen at Port Royal.” Atlantic Monthly, September 1863.

“The Negroes at Port Royal.” New York Daily Tribune, February 19 1862.

Pierce, Edward L. “Light on the Slavery Question; Negroes in South Carolina: Report of the Government Agent.” New York Daily Tribune, February 19 1862.

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