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.


“B” is for butterfly! Enjoy Hilton Head’s newest free family attraction at Coastal Discovery Museum

Hurray for the new butterfly exhibit at the Coastal Discovery Museum on the Honey Horn plantation. Children of all ages will be delighted to walk around jolly butterflies and see them emerge from chrysalises.

The outdoor garden is a shutterbugs and green thumbs mecca. There are so many beautiful flowers, plants and trees butterfly love to visit.

Entrance to the Butterfly exhibit at Coastal Discovery Museum

Entrance to the Butterfly exhibit at Coastal Discovery Museum

You can tour the habitat for free at your own pace every day from 9AM to 4:30PM (11-3 on Sunday).

Through September the museum offers guided tours on Mondays at 10AM and Wednesdays at 3PM for $10 adults and $5 children 4-12 years old.

Amazing escape artists butterflies resort to all sorts of tricks to survive. Some, like the Monarch, parade bright color wings to advertise their are toxic to eat. Others, like the Viceroy, take the shortcut and just mimic butterflies who are toxic.

Most butterflies learn to blend in the surroundings resembling leaves, sticks and even bird droppings! My favorite is the Buckeye that has owl-like patterns to scare off small birds.

Butterfly Insights

The Black Swallowtail is very common in South Carolina. The large yellow striped caterpillars

Black Beauty Swalowtail, most common butterfly in the Lowcountry

Black Beauty Swalowtail, most common butterfly in the Lowcountry

are a common sight to herb gardeners, easily devouring entire plants once they start eating!

The Black Swallowtail is one of the earliest butterflies to hatch (mid-March), after spending the winter as chrysalises.

Host plants: Water Hemlock, Queen Anne’s Lace, cumin, parsley, carrot, cilantro and celery.

The Giant Swallowtail when disturbed it ejects stinking chemicals to repel small predators like ants and spiders.

Host plants: Toothache and Citrus family trees.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail winters on Hilton Head as a pupa. Males often patrol the treetops and swoop down to intercept females for mating. The caterpillars change their appearance with each molt: first looking like bird droppings, then turning green and showing two large eye spots, and finally, changing brown as they start to pupate.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is the state butterfly for Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, South Carolina and Virgina.

The Zebra Longwing males are attracted to both adult females and those still in their chrysalis, mating with them before they emerge.

Zebra Longwing warrior

Zebra Longwing warrior

Afterward they’ll deposit chemicals on the female abdomen that will repel other males!

Power in the numbers! The Zebra Longwing engage in communal night roosting when you can see up to 25 individuals hanging from a tree brunch.

Unlike other butterflies, the Longwing specie can also digest pollen from flowers. The amino-acids allow them to live much longer than the average 2-3 weeks butterfly life span.

Host plants: Maypop and Yellow Passionflower.

The Gulf Fritillary – Although the larvae are solitary feeders once in adult stage they can be seen congregating in large numbers, enough to completely defoliate a plant.

Stay Out! The larvae displays bright colors to advertise its toxicity to potential predators, thus it is mainly left alone.

Host plants: Maypop and Yellow Passionflower.

The Monarch is legendary due to its North American migration that takes five

The Mighty Monarch takes 5 generations to complete the annual North American migration

The Mighty Monarch takes 5 generations to complete the annual North American migration

generations to complete.

During the northward migration females deposit eggs for the next generation.

The 3rd and 4th generation will reach Canada by the late spring and in fall the last generation enters a non-reproductive stage lasting several months. They will migrate south and winter in California and Mexico.

Host plants: Milkweeds.

The Butterfly Life cycle (data from exhibits)

The adult butterfly lives around 2-3 weeks although there are few like the Monarch and Zebra Longwing that live for months. Butterflies spend their time eating, looking for mates, reproducing and in the case of females, laying eggs. At this point their life cycle is complete.

Butterfly eggs are about 2 mm in size and usually hatch out within a week, although for some species it happens the next spring.

Live metarmorphosis, see caterpillars and chrysalises develop before your eyes!

Live metarmorphosis, see caterpillars and chrysalises develop before your eyes!

Most butterflies lay about 100 to 300 eggs, yet the number varies wildly with each specie, from dozens to several thousands eggs.

The caterpillar is the only stage the butterfly grows in size. Most caterpillars grow for 2 to 4 weeks, yet some species will winter as caterpillars. Some even develop false eye spots to fend off potential predators!

The chrysalis stage can last from couple weeks to months. During metamorphosis tissues liquefy and change into the structure of an adult butterfly.

Amazing Butterfly Trivia

• A caterpillar grows 27 times larger than its original form. In human terms a 9 pound baby will end up weighing about 243 tons!
• Out of each 100 eggs laid only 2 will survive to become adult butterflies.
• Some male butterflies can detect a female up to a mile away based on pheromones emitted by her body.
• A butterfly can fly with half a wing.
• There are about 700 butterfly species in North America and about 28 thousands worldwide.
• Butterflies can see in all directions up, down, left, right, front and back all at once! They can also see in ultraviolet range light that’s invisible to humans.
• Some butterflies can drink fluids from tree sap, rotting fruit, bird droppings and even animal carcasses!

Now that you fell in love with butterflies drive to Columbia and visit Edventure children museum. It has a bigger facility featuring up to 10 species and over 200 butterflies.

Check out this list with my favorite things to do with young kids in and around Hilton Head.