Historic figures Clara Barton, Harriett Tubman and Robert Smalls helped shape local history
Story by Luana M. Graves Sellars
Civil War legends
Sometimes the beauty of the Lowcountry masks its significance in American history. It might be well known that South Carolina played a major part in the foundational elements of the Civil War, but Beaufort County, and especially Hilton Head and Bluffton, were pivotal players in the Union’s victory.
As the Civil War progressed, the Union Army discovered that Hilton Head was a central and strategic location between Charleston, Beaufort and Savannah. Since those cities were military strongholds and crucial resupply areas for the Confederate Army, it was the perfect place for the Union Army headquarters of the South. From Hilton Head, operations, military campaigns and several daring missions were launched – some of which involved historic figures like Clara Barton, Harriett Tubman and Robert Smalls.
Hilton Head’s Civil War story began in November 1861, when Union troops entered Port Royal Sound and invaded the island. The sound of gunboats caused Confederate soldiers, white plantation owners and residents to flee. They left behind everything — including thousands of enslaved people.
When those first shots were fired, the enslaved island population seized its opportunity for freedom. Despite threats and deception by local plantation owners, freedom seekers bolted into the woods until the Union troops occupied the area. Under the protection of the Union and Fort Howell, the town of Mitchelville became the destination for waves of freedom seekers fleeing bondage from nearby Confederate territories of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Eventually Mitchelville was where the newly emancipated experienced freedom, emerging from enslavement into responsible citizens.
The town of Mitchelville, due to its oceanfront location, played an important part in the war effort. It was a fully functioning town with a retail center and a 500-bed hospital. The town provided essential troop support, goods, services and financial independence to the newly freed residents.
As the war continued, tens of thousands of injured Union soldiers were brought to Hilton Head. The overwhelming numbers and variety of medical issues were daunting, including the need to figure out how, as a result of wartime overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, to contain smallpox outbreaks among the troops and the formerly enslaved.
Civil War nurse and relief worker Clara Barton came to Hilton Head to care for soldiers infected with smallpox. Having survived smallpox, her immunity enabled her to work to combat the problem and inspect the military hospital boats to prevent the disease from weakening the Union fighters.
Just as her ship pulled into the dock on April 7, 1863, nine federal ironclads responded to an attack on forts Sumter and Moultrie as part of Union efforts to recapture Charleston. Barton later wrote about her experience that day, saying that the explosions made her afraid and that she feared that she would “sink through the deck…..I am no fatalist,” she wrote in her diary “but it is so singular.”
Despite her nerve-wracking arrival, Clara spent nine months on Hilton Head, along with her brother, Army Quartermaster Captain David Barton, and her nephew Steven, who served in the military telegraph office.
Her contributions to the military and time on the island are well documented. She wrote to her friend, Aimee, whom she told about her work with the troops and furnishing Fort Mitchel. Clara’s work delivering supplies, treating the wounded and compassion for the troops is legendary.
Her work in the Lowcountry and educating the enslaved eventually shaped her lifelong desire to support the national movement toward equal rights for women and abolishing slavery.
Hilton Head’s Civil War story could not be told without including Robert Smalls’ daring sail to freedom. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Smalls had considerable experience on the water, delivering supplies between forts on the Confederate supply ship, CSS Planter. A seasoned sailor, Smalls was observant and trusted by the ship’s officers.
Enslaved since childhood, Smalls was determined that his family be free.
On Tuesday morning May 13, 1862, while the captain and crew of the Planter slept on shore, Smalls and eight other slaves and their families piloted the ship through the Charleston Harbor. Disguised as the ship’s captain, Smalls mimicked his behavior, body movements and signals, gaining clearance for them to sail seven miles past five military checkpoints.
Once out of the range of the Confederacy, they faced a new challenge; entering Union-controlled waters. Close enough to be seen by the Union’s ship USS Onward, Smalls switched the Confederate flag with a bed sheet, signaling surrender.
Upon delivering the Planter, to the astonishment of the Union army officers, Smalls reportedly said, “I am delivering this war materiel, including these cannons, and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use.”
The Planter was a significant Union intelligence asset. It was loaded with ammunition, supplies, military documents and a Captain’s Code Book that described shipping routes, mine locations and Confederate ship movements. In return Smalls was given $1,500, lauded as a war hero and became the Union Army’s first Black naval captain.
Smalls continued to pilot the Planter on 17 additional military missions that were launched from Hilton Head.
In 1862 Harriet Tubman was assigned to Beaufort to help teach and nurse the formerly enslaved on the surrounding sea islands. When the role of women in the military was minimal, both women were instrumental to the Union’s efforts and were granted special permission to travel with troops, including the infamous U.S. Colored Troop, the 54th of Massachusetts. Eventually Harriet made her way to Mitchelville and was embedded with the 2nd SC Infantry under Col. James Montgomery.
Even though most of her life was spent in the north, it’s her time and her work in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, including Hilton Head, that really deserves recognition.
Known as a human rights activist, humanitarian and women’s rights champion, she assumed several daring and incredible roles throughout her lifetime. Most people know her as one of the famous conductors on the Underground Railroad, but she also was a nurse, army spy and scout who was intricately involved in one of the most important raids in the Civil War.
By the time Harriett arrived in Beaufort, her work on the Underground Railroad was known. Her work and opinion were influential, providing her with significant stature and access to prominent circles among the military and government. Her level of importance, especially as a Black woman during those times was unprecedented.
As a fugitive she adapted to various environments, often altering her appearance and establishing trust with other enslaved people. Being able to blend in enabled her to gather detailed reconnaissance information about the Confederates.
Tubman couldn’t read, but with an incredible memory for details she could scout out escape routes throughout the South, which she shared with the military. Officers eventually recognized Harriet’s invaluable intelligence that gave them significant advantages in the war effort.
Harriet’s value to the Union was clearly expressed when Commander of the Department of the South, General David Hunter, said: “Pass the bearer, Harriett Tubman, to Beaufort and back to this place and wherever she wishes to go, and give her passage at all times on all government transports. Harriet is a valuable woman.”
While in Beaufort County Harriet’s most notable mission was in the intelligence-gathering, planning, strategy and participation in the Combahee River Raid. Considered one of the largest emancipation events of the Civil War, the raid rescued over 700 enslaved people.
Two days after the raid Major General David Hunter ordered 1,000 troops to burn down the Town of Bluffton because it was a confederate stronghold and hotbed for the secessionist movement.
The raid was richly detailed in a letter that a rat, who didn’t care about its historic significance, took a significant bite from. The letter described how 238 Confederate soldiers were no match against the Union’s significant military force, which burned down 75 percent of the town.
Weeks later, in an effort to further disrupt the Confederate’s food and supply lines, Montgomery led the USCT 2nd South Carolina along with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw’s 54th Massachusetts to Darien, Georgia. The town was an important shipping point for cotton, rice and lumber. The town was undefended and left in smoldering ruins. The flames were seen 15 miles away. Only two buildings within the town survived.
After the expeditions in South Carolina and Georgia, Montgomery and Col. Higginson’s 1st SC and the 33rd regiments moved into Jacksonville, Florida, in an effort to force the Confederates to draw their troops back to the area in order to defend the coastline.
Harriet continued to scout and accompany the troops during the mission, providing valuable intelligence to the Union which enabled them to take Jacksonville without firing a single shot.
Regardless of Harriet’s valuable military influence, and as the first woman of color in U.S. history to scout out, plan and participate in successful military raids, she was not paid for or fully recognized for her service until years later.
To supplement her income, the generals gave her permission to run an eating house in Beaufort. As if she didn’t have anything else to do, at night she made and sold baked goods, gingerbread and root beer to soldiers to support herself.