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The Port Royal Experiment

Last week, I blogged about my Aunt Sue, who spoke to me from the grave by way of her memoir, Three Houses, the preface for which expressed the hope that a nephew like me would find material for a novel in the history she had so beautifully preserved.

It didn’t take me long to hone in on a number of passages I found helpful, but to explain how I was able to use them, I need to tell you about Beaufort. Beaufort, South Carolina lies midway between Charleston and Savannah. We moved there in 2005, drawn by its warmer climate, the proximity of the water, and old friends like Pat and Sandra Conroy and Scott and Susan Graber. Pat and Scott were both my classmates in The Citadel’s class of 1967.

Beaufort’s Civil War history is unique among Southern towns. In fact, it is so novel that I had to write a novel about it. The true history, in capsule form, is this: in November 1861, seven months after Ft. Sumter, the Union fleet anchored off Port Royal Sound, the water entrance to Beaufort from the Atlantic Ocean, and in a three hour naval bombardment reduced the two puny Confederate forts defending Beaufort. When word of the battle’s outcome reached town, 100% of Beaufort’s white population (generally estimated at 1500 people) fled inland, leaving utterly deserted what had been a prosperous enclave for the wealthy planters of Sea Island cotton. They left behind 10,000 slaves, who had worked in the fields to produce that prosperity.

In abandoning Beaufort and their slaves, the white population effectively (but not legally) freed those 10,000 slaves. But that freedom produced major headaches for the Union army sent to occupy the town. The blacks were ill clothed, their annual ration of newer clothes at the end of its cycle. They had no medical care, no ministers, no schools. Rumors persisted that the Confederates would retake the town and punish them. Many were hungry. They understandably viewed their liberators as saviors, hence followed the army for protection, for food, and for shelter. Any army saddled with thousands of lost souls has a logistical problem of epic proportions, and the Union simply did not anticipate the situation they inherited in Beaufort.

When word of the wretched situation of the blacks reached northern cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston, missionaries and abolitionists sprang into action, organizing relief committees to travel to South Carolina. Educators saw a unique opportunity to prove what many had long believed true: that given the same level of teaching and resources as whites enjoyed, blacks could achieve equal results. Thus was born what came to be known as the Port Royal Experiment.

To conduct the Port Royal Experiment, dozens of highly qualified teachers flocked to Beaufort and its surrounding islands. In shanties with dirt floors, they instructed those who had never in their lives received formal instruction in a place where, weeks before, it had been against the law for teachers to teach and blacks to learn.

New week I’ll related how this actual history came to be incorporated into a novel I call The Home Guard.

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