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.

All roads lead to Fort Walker? The Port Royal Battle, the Blockade, the Charleston Siege, and the first Gullah town (Hilton Head historic tour)

The Hilton Head Island history is rich and powerful, with the Civil War period as its most fascinating and nation-impacting act. We were lucky to experience it last summer, during the “Forts of Port Royal” tour provided by the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Things to know before you go
• The cost is $12 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-12 (subject to change check the museum website for latest prices). The tour lasts ~1:45 minutes, with the first half hour spent inside Westin Hotel, listening to a

Battle of Port Royal Civil War historic site

Here was fought the largest naval battle in US waters...


historic overview.

This part is the hardest to digest and enjoy by young kids. Amazingly, my then 4 years old, was happy to just doodle on the couch next to me.

• You are expected to drive your own car to Westin (where the tour starts) and the Fort Walker / Fort Sherman ruins inside Port Royal Plantation. Our guide courteously offered to drive us in his car, which we did.

• There is not much left of Fort Walker, just some earthen mounds surrounded by huge oak trees. The only visible ruins are from Fort Sherman (built on top on Fort Walker). However, the views of the Port Royal Sound are spectacular! Added bonus you can catch a glimpse of Ted Turner’s personal island…

• It gets very hot during summer. Bring a hat and water; wear sunscreen and insect repellent. Once on the fort grounds there is very little walk involved.

Incredible facts and funny trivia about the Port Royal Battle and Hilton Head
• Before the Civil War, South Carolina was one of the richest states. Thanks to its staple crop, the extra long and super fine Sea Island cotton, Hilton Head was believed to house the world’s most millionaires per square feet!

Port Royal forts ruins

Civil War Battle of Port Royal


• Fort Walker was the first fort built on the island, near the spot claimed by British Captain William Hilton during its famous expedition in 1663.

Erected in a hurry in 1861, the fort was meant to protect the South Carolina coast against Union attacks.

• On November 7, 1861, the “Battle of Port Royal” became the largest naval battle ever fought in American waters. 18 Union warships and 55 supporting craft led by Admiral S. F. DuPont, carrying 13,000 troops, 1500 horses, 500 surf boats, and 1,000 laborers, bombarded for over 4 hours Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard.

• The Battle of Port Royal established Hilton Head as the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, started the war-long attack on Charleston, and led to the creation of Mitchelville, the first town developed specifically for the newly freed slaves.

Mitchelville became the birth of the rich Gullah culture and was also the sight of the first mandatory education system in the United States!

A bloody family affair – The Confederate troops were under the command

Fish Hall Plantation design at Port Royal Sound

Modern day replica of Drayton-Pope Fish Hall Plantation home

of General Thomas F. Drayton, a prominent local plantation owner, politician, and president of the very profitable Charleston – Savannah railroad.

Amazingly, his brother Commander Percival Drayton will lead the Union Navy attack, including the USS Pocahontas, which was credited to have inflicted the most damage during the battle!

• Despite heavy bombardments there were less than 100 casualties, a significant low number by later Civil War battles standards.

• Following the battle, close to 50,000 Union troops were quartered on the island, more than the number of today’s residents!

• The U.S. Customs House on Robbers Row street, conducted enormous amounts of business as dozens of ships entered the port monthly from as far away as Boston. It is said that most of the goods were sold on the black market to the Confederates…

Here is the virtual tour of Fort Walker:

If you are really into Civil War fort battles, then drive 1 hour south to Savannah and visit the legendary Fort Pulaski. There are live cannon and musket firings in the weekends. Admission to the park is less then $5 (free for kids).

“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!

Family Fun on Tybee Island: Georgia’s oldest lighthouse, famous artillery batteries, entertainment pier, Marine Science Center and legendary Fort Pulaski

Tybee Island located 18 miles east of Savannah and about one drive from Hilton Head delights visitors with 3 miles of sandy beaches, an entertainment packed pavilion, Georgia’s oldest lighthouse, Civil War artillery batteries and the incredible Fort Pulaski National Monument.

GA\'s oldest lighthouse recently renovated to its 1700s look and feel

GA's oldest lighthouse recently renovated to its 1700s look and feel

Things to enjoy on Tybee Island:
1. The Tybee Lighthouse, the oldest and tallest lighthouse in Georgia and recently underwent major renovations to restore its 1700 era authenticity. Nearby is the Tybee Island Museum at Fort Screven with its famous artillery batteries Union troops used to conquer Fort Pulaski, in one of the most memorable bombardments in the U.S. history.

The lighthouse and museum are open daily except on Tuesday and holidays. Hours are 9 AM to 5:30 PM; beware the last ticket is sold at 4:30 PM. Admission to Tybee Lighthouse and Battery Museum is adults $6, children (6-17), seniors, military personnel and groups of at least 10 people is $5. FREE for kids less than 5 years.

Driving directions and parking: Take Hwy 80 East to Tybee Island. Once on the island take a left at the first stop light on Campbell Avenue then follow the brown Tybee Lighthouse signs. Public parking is available on the north side of the Light Station beside the gift shop. You can also park at the Beach Parking lot in front of the lighthouse. Parking fees is $1.50 per hour or $12 per day.

Tybee Island Museum and Coastal Artillery Batteries

Tybee Island Museum and Coastal Artillery Batteries

Tybee Lighthouse historic facts:
• The first lighthouse on Tybee Island, built in 1736, was one of the first public structures in Georgia, and at 90 feet, one of the tallest in America.
• In 1742 another lighthouse was built to replace the old one destroyed by a storm. In 1773 a 3rd lighthouse was built on a different site. This forms the base of the present structure.
• In 1791 Georgia ceded it to the Federal Govt and in 1948 the U.S. Coast Guard took over the operation and maintenance of the lighthouse
• The Tybee Lighthouse had to be repaired after damages inflicted during the Civil War.
• The current light station displays its 1916 day mark with 178 stairs and a first order 9 foot tall Fresnel lens.

2. Kids will have a blast at the Marine Science Center where they can learn about barrier islands, see the aquarium and dozens of exhibits with all kinds of reptiles, corals and interesting sea creatures. Among the highlights: feel a shark skin, shake hands with a hermit crab, and touch whale bones. The Marine Science Center is open daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. Admission is $4 for adults and $3 for children (under 3 get in for FREE).

3. While on the island you can shop for one of kind art crafts and gifts. Tybee is a thriving art community where little art shops and street-side colorful displays sprung at every step.

Dragon fly art studio on Tybee Island

Dragon fly art studio on Tybee Island

4. Stroll on the pier where there’s always something fun going on. The original Tybrisa Pavilion, built in 1891 had an open dance floor amid a breath-taking coastal setting. It soon became a South Atlantic Ocean landmark and a legendary stop on the “Big Band” tour. Unfortunately fire destroyed it in 1967.
Upcoming Tybee Island events:
• August 31st – Labor Day Beach Bash – live music and fireworks at the pier, from 7 to 11 PM.
• October 10 and 11 – be a pirate at the Pirate Fest.

Getting around Savannah and Tybee Island
Historic Savannah trolley tours: $25 to get on/off anytime, $22 one complete loop, $10 children 4-12, under 4 years is Free. Get tickets at the Savannah Visitors Center located at the end of the Savannah River Bridge right as you enter the city. Trolleys arrive at stops every 20 minutes. They operate daily from 9 AM to 4:30 PM and offer free courtesy shuttle from hotels in the Savannah Historic District.

Savannah Trolley Tour

Savannah Trolley Tour

Here is a custom Google Map with some of Tybee Island’s family attractions. Speed limit on Tybee Island is 35 mph and parking is a quarter for every 10 minutes from 8 AM to 8 PM year-round. There are bike lanes on Hwy 80 all the way to the Bull River Resort.

Fort Pulaski awesome cannon firing and its fascinating history (memorable weekend things to do around Savannah and Hilton Head)

On April 11, 1862 Union troops struck with fury. 30 hours and 1,142 shells later the “indestructible” Fort Pulaski surrendered. The damage was so deep it will take 1,000 Union troops 6 weeks to repair it.

Facts and Trivia

The breached wall and broken Confederate cannon at Fort Pulaski

The breached wall and broken Confederate cannon at Fort Pulaski


• In 1837 with its 8 foot thick brick walls the fort was considered invincible. No cannon could inflict significant damage from more than a mile away (the closest spot where you could fire at it). New technology proved them wrong.
• The battle at Fort Pulaski marked a new warfare milestone: the end of masonry style fortifications.
• Germans volunteers of the 46 N.Y, Regiment manned the parrot riffles shooting from the batteries along Tybee and McQueens islands. Following the war the guns were taken to Cockspur Island. In mid-1960s the guns were recovered and brought to Fort Pulaski.
• The Demilune was added in 1872 to protect the fort entrance. During the Civil War the area was flat covered with gun platforms, a mess room, storage area and a guard house.
• When the Confederates seized Fort Pulaski from the US forces (in anticipation of Civil War hostilities) only 2 persons where guarding it.

Learn more about the Fort Pulaski history like the Immortal 600, the Waving Girl, and John Wesley (Founder of Methodist Church) and the awesome kids activities you can enjoy there.

Critical steps to fire the Confederates cannons
There were 5 to 9 men on the cannon fire crew, one of the earliest examples of team-work. Each person performed a specific task yet all men were cross-trained on all operations. If needed just 2 persons can safely fire the cannon.

1. Sponge the barrel and clean any leftovers (this was most important safety procedure)
2. Cover the air hole with the thumb to prevent air going inside the barrel – stumping
3. Put the projectile inside the barrel. The old cannon used by Confederates had a ball-like shell that didn’t fit tightly inside the barrel. It wiggled when it came out thus being less accurate and damaging.
4. Point the gun (during those time you didn’t “aim” another hint about the target firing guessing game) then put your arms up to signal the gun is pointed.
5. Insert the friction primer (piece of wire) to seal in the gunpowder. The primer and the projectile were poor quality and main culprit for the lame results defending the fort.
6. Fire! It was very loud. There were no ear plugs and most of the crewmen couldn’t cover their ears….you can image over time most of them were deaf.

New shells still stuck in the wall hundreds of years later!

New shells still stuck in the wall hundreds of years later!


Firing the new cannons (Parrot Riffles) required identical steps. It took a little longer because the cannon and all instruments were much bigger and heavier. The new aerodynamic projectile was longer and fitted perfectly inside the barrel. The shots were extremely powerful and very accurate even from over a mile away.

Fort Pulaski Admission and Cannon Firing Schedule
There is only $3 fee to get inside the park (children under 15 get in for free). The firing demos are held in the weekend as following:
• Sunday: noon, 1:30 and 3:30 PM
• Saturday: 11, noon, 2 and 3:30 PM

Bring your family to Fort Pulaski for an inspirational family experience!