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.


Wilmington during Civil War: blockade running bonanza, yellow fever, despair and profits

The Cape Fear Museum downtown Wilmington features an extensive Civil War exhibit. There are hundreds of original weapons, model blockade ships, artifacts recovered from the battlefield, photographs, news articles, letters and more. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors, military and students, and $3 for children 3-17.

Civil War photos Confederate Army Wilmington

North Carolina Confederate soldiers ready for duty

Wilmington played a key role during Civil War. It was a major arms, food and materials supply hub, and by 1865, the only lifeline to Confederate troops fighting on the Eastern front.

It was the largest producer of salt, a critical ingredient that helped the population deal with chronic food shortages.

Once Fort Fisher was captured, Wilmington surrendered and the supply line of the Confederacy was severed. The Civil War was soon over.

This post highlights what life was like in the city during the blockade. There are also some remarkable statements from several Confederate soldiers. Historic data and quotes are from the museum exhibit and The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner, by John Wilkinson.

The Gibraltar of the South
“After the Capital of the Confederacy , there was not in the South a more important place than the little town of Wilmington, North Carolina…

John Railey and Lionel Forrest model of Wilmington Harbor Civil War

Wilmington was the only remaining blockade runner port late into the Civil War

Through the port were brought all the stores and materials needed, cannon, muskets, and every munition of war, and with medicines, cloth, shoes, bacon, etc.” – John Johns, Confederate officer stationed in Wilmington, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

The Union navy found Wilmington a difficult port to blockade. Two entrances to the Cape Fear River allowed blockade runners to enter the port.

The Union had to position its navy along a 50 mile arc to guard against ships trying to enter the river.

“From Smithville…both blockading fleets could be distinctly seen, and the outward bound blockade-runners could take their choice through which of them to run the gauntlet…the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blockade-running. It was, indeed, impossible to do so;” – John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner

Medicine cabinet home remedies Civil War fever

What people used to treat the yellow fever epidemic in1862

The yellow fever epidemic

In 1862, hundreds of Wilmington’s residents died of yellow fever.

The disease was brought in by the crew of the blockade runner Kate.

Lacking proper medicine people resorted to old home remedies like castor oil, foot baths in salt water, mustard plasters and wrapping the sick in warm blankets.

“Medecine does little for the yellow fever. Nursing does much.

Not fussing and disturbing a patient, but skilful care to do what is right, and to avoid what is wrong…”

Taking on salt
Once the Union blockade cut off the South’s supply, during the first year of the war

Residents fighting to keep preserve food during Civil War blockade

Using salt to preserve perishable food at the end of Civil War

the Wilmington Journal urged citizens to “make Salt…by evaporating sea water…To cure beef, pork and so forth.” People built salt works along the coast to provide “the necessary article”.

Men of every age and race were recruited to transport salt from the salt marsh to town.

In 1863 the Wilmington saltworks made 5,000 bushels of salt while the price for a two-bushel sack of salt increased from $12 to $100!

David G. Worth, the state salt commissioner complained that “the present workforce is hardly sufficient to carry on the whole of the works…are always more or less unavoidable absent – some on account of sickness – while others, especially married men…have families entirely dependent on them for support.”

As few get rich the life in the city deteriorates
By the war’s end Wilmington became the only major port on the East Coast still open to blockade runners. The town’s 3 railroads, especially the Wilmington & Weldon, carried supplies to troops in the field. Blockade runners made hundreds of successful trips into Wilmington, more than any other Southern port.

One Five Twenty Hundred Confederate dollar bills

Dollar bills issued by the Confederacy fom 1861 to 1864

With a busy trade between New York, Philadelphia, and the Caribbean islands, Wilmington emerged as one of the most important cities in the Confederacy.

The slow pace, quaint small city lifestyle changed for the worse…

“The staid old town of Wilmington was turned “topsy turvy” during the war. Here resorted the speculators from all parts of the South, to attend the weekly auctions of imported cargoes; and the town was infested with rogues and desperadoes, who made a livelihood by robbery and murder.

Civil War brought hunger despair poverty and social chaos in Carolina

People lining up for rations during a brutal Civil War blockade

It was unsafe to venture into the suburbs at night, and even in daylight, there were frequent conflicts in the public streets, between the crews of the steamers in port and the soldiers stationed in the town, in which knives and pistols would be freely used; and not unfrequently a dead body would rise to the surface of the water in one of the docks with marks of violence upon it. The civil authorities were powerless to prevent crime.”
– John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner

Letters from soldiers…Homesick, hungry and courageous

How Civil War soldiers passed time bible tobacco cards family photos

The few but cherished possessions of a soldier

“Your company is better than all the company there is in the world. We have preaching and fiddling and card playing but all that doesn’t satisfy me like being with you.”

“I have a good pair of English shoes minus a sole”

“I had nothing to eat for two days. Finally I got a piece of pickled beef, and I had small piece of tobacco in my pocket, which I traded for bread and mighty glad to get it.”

“I want them to give me some thing to eat if they are going to try to keep me here.”

“I shall stand to my post and go wherever duty calls me.”

Learn about Carolina’s history at Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington!

“March to the Sea” meets Fort Jackson, Georgia’s oldest brick fort (must see historic sites near Savannah and Hilton Head)

As you delight yourself strolling the romantic streets of Savannah, the “Paris of the South” go visit Fort Jackson, Georgia oldest still standing brick fort. Pay tribute to our country’s Revolutionary and Civil War heroes such as James Jackson (the fort is named after him) whose last words were: “If you cut my heart out, you will find Georgia engraved on it”.

Old Fort Jackson entrance

Old Fort Jackson entrance

In 1807 President Jefferson authorized the development of a national defense system of fortifications. One such construction was the wharf lot at Five Fathom Hole on the Savannah River that will become Fort James Jackson.

The museum is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Days). Admission is $4.25 for adults, $3.75 for students, seniors, military, and AAA members. Children 6 and under get in FREE.

Interesting historic facts:

• James Jackson, “The Prince of Duelists”, was the first person to hold all major political offices in a state: U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative and Governor.

• Fort Jackson started as a brick fortification over an old earthen battery, called “Mud Fort”. First active duty by local militia and Federal troupes took place in the War of 1812. The moat, drawbridge, barracks, privies and powder magazine were added in the 1840 – 1850s

• Capt. William McRee Supervising engineer was just 21 years old when he started construction of Fort Jackson.

1800s soldiers uniforms

1800s soldiers uniforms

In a letter to McRee General Thomas Pinckney wrote: “You will proceed with all possible dispatch to complete the fortifications of Fort Jackson…P.S. I have just received official notification of the declaration of war which had taken place on June 18 and took nearly six days for the news to reach Savannah.”

• During Civil War, Fort Jackson served as the Confederacy headquarters for the Savannah River defenses which also included underwater “torpedoes” mines and the ironclads C.S.S Atlanta, Savannah and Georgia (this can still be seen floating in the river).

•The entrance to the museum and the gift shop are in the former Tybee Depot, built in 1888 to mark the beginning of the train line between Savannah and Tybee Island. It had to be hauled by truck then moved down Savannah River by barge to its present location at Fort Jackson.

Tybee Depot

Tybee Depot

• Fort Jackson is currently the only historic fort in the United States delivering cannon salutes to passing military vessels.

Family attractions near Fort Jackson (and the custom Google Map)

Tybee Island Lighthouse (tallest and oldest in Georgia) ($6 admission includes access to Tybee Island Museum)

• Fort Pulaski, site of the most memorable Civil War bombardments ($3 admission)

Be a proud American at historic Sea Islands forts!