Fort Howell Civil War historic site, a Hilton Head free family attraction

Hilton Head Island was captured by Union forces on November 7, 1861 after the Battle of Port Royal. The enormous amphibious invasion force, the largest until World War II, consisted of 77 ships (15 warships), 13,000 troops, 1,500 horses and tons of materials needed to establish the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

Three years later Fort Howell was built by black Union Army troops to protect Mitchelville, the first town in the South developed specifically for the thousands of newly freed slaves.

Fort Howell historic site is located near the intersection of Beach City Road and Dillon, right across from Hilton Head Airport. Admission is free, the site is open daily from dawn to dusk and it takes about 15-20 minutes to cover all the grounds.

Built by U.S. Troops to protect Mitcheville the first freedmen town in the South

Fort Howell full layout



Fort Howell historic highlights:

• The earthen fort was named after Gen. Joshua Howell, who was killed in the battle of Richmond.
• The newly arrived 500 members of the 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment from Pennsylvania, under the command of Col. Baird and the 144th New York Infantry, were assigned the task of building the fort.
• Fort Howell was built in the middle of a large cotton field near the Port Royal Sound, on 3 acres of land once part of the Fish Hall Plantation of William Pope.
• It was designed for 27 guns, 11 field pieces and 16 siege guns.

After building the fort, the 32nd U.S. Colored Regiment participated in the Battle of Honey Hill, on November 30, 1864, sustain 51 casualties.

Bridge over moat at Fort Howell built in 1864

Traverse and moat

The first black troops in the Union Army enlisted on Hilton Head Island in 1862. Initially, men were reluctant to join the army, not wanting to leave their families and risk being captured by the Confederates which meant a return to slavery and death. Also, many Union troops were openly hostile to escaped slaves. To encourage recruits Gen. Hunter issued a pass to those joining the army:

“Now, be it known to all that, agreeable to the laws, I declare the said person free and forever absolved from all claims to its services. Both he and his wife and his children have full right to go North, South, East, West as they may decide.” D. Hunter Major General Commanding. April 19, 1862.

At the top of the North Bastion

North Bastion location

The unit was disbanded months later. Congress did not allow black men to serve until 1863, when the unit was officially organized as the South Carolina First Regiment. The men in the unit were former slaves from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

By the end of the Civil War, 179,000 blacks in the Union Army and 20,000 in the Navy have fought for freedom and the end of slavery.

Whats left of Fort Howell at Port Royal sound

What remains from Fort Howell’s earthen fortifications

Moss covered trees at Fort Howell Hilton Head

Peaceful trail withing Fort Howell historic site

More historic sites in the area (data and map from Historical Markers Database website)
• Mitchelville site
• St. James Baptist Church
Battle of Port Royal
• Fish Hall Plantation
• Thomas Fenwick Drayton
• Two Gallant Gentlemen from South Carolina

Here is the map, all markers are within 1 mile from Fort Howell and have free admission.

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