The People of Mitchelville, 1862-1868
The success of Union forces in the Battle of Port Royal on Nov. 7, 1861, gave the Union control over Hilton Head Island, Beaufort, and the Atlantic coastline south to Jacksonville. It also opened the door to freedom for slaves in the Sea Islands.
By the hundreds, African Americans sought refuge from former masters by fleeing to Union-held territory. Hilton Head Island, the headquarters of the Department of the South, initially attracted those slaves left behind on the Island when southern planters fled and subsequently provided a haven to slaves from the surrounding area, including Georgia and Florida, as well.
Referred to as “contrabands,” these runaway slaves found work, shelter, food and clothing at the Union garrison. By late 1862 nearly 1,000 African Americans lived on the outskirts of the garrison, mostly in barracks. Tensions grew between them and the Union soldiers and conditions in the barracks were poor. When General Ormsby Mitchel assumed command of Department of the South in September 1862, he immediately proposed construction of a village for the freedmen adjacent to the stockade on Fish Haul (Drayton) Plantation. By March 1863 the town was established and named in honor of the general, who had died of fever some six weeks after his arrival.
Mitchelville was designed as a full town, with streets laid out in regular patterns and with quarter-acre plots. Houses were constructed by the residents with materials supplied by the army. The town elected its own government and created a body of laws, a church, schools run by missionary teachers, and stores. Residence was restricted to blacks; white visitors needed passes.
By October 1864 some 3,000 people lived in Mitchelville; the number dropped to 1,500 after the end of the war in 1865. Many residents probably returned to their former home areas; others left when the Army and its jobs departed in 1868. By the 1870s the town had dwindled to what has been referred to as a “kinship-based community.”
Unfortunately, very few military records for Mitchelville exist and the search for the identities of the residents is difficult. Records of the army’s General Hospital still exist and contain the names of some residents. Names have been located in the Freedman’s Bank records, Army Lists of the Destitutes, and applications for Civil War pensions. Scattered references have also been found in contemporary newspapers, diaries and histories. Those names are presented in this database.
This database was compiled by volunteers at the Heritage Library including Nancy Burke, Carol Ells, Pre Moore, Linda Piekut and Patti Smith.
- Bogguess, Charles. The Mitchelville Preservation Project: The Town of Mitchelville and The Port Royal Experiments. Prepared for the National Park Service, Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, 2013.
- Chicora Foundation. Mitchelville: Experiment in Freedom. Columbia, SC, Chicora Foundation, 1995.
- Zeiss, JoAnn L. “Dawn of Freedom: The Freedmen’s Town of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island, S.C.” Master’s thesis, 2012.