”Free at last, free at last . . .”
On Three Pines, the cotton plantation adjoining the hunting lodge which becomes Carter’s and Missma’s retreat, a family of slaves must decide what to do in the wake of their new freedom. Grace and Polk and their twin daughters, Sparrow and Lark, have lived and worked on the plantation for years.
As mentioned in prior blogs, the Battle of Port Royal Sound caused an exodus of Beaufort’s white population, which became known as the “Great Skedaddle.” The exact number of slaves freed by their departure is not known, but the best estimates put it at between 8,000 and 10,000, the overwhelming majority of whom worked in the fields to produce sea island cotton. That crop brought the highest price for cotton in the world and accounted for the town’s wealth and the wealth of much of the South.
This new “freedom” was not legal freedom--that would come on January 1, 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Until then, the former slaves were known as “contraband,” a term coined by Major Benjamin Butler, commander of Fortress Monroe in Virginia. When a Virginia slave owner named Mallory ordered his slaves to work on some Confederate fortifications, they sought refuge at Fortress Monroe. Mallory demanded that Butler return them pursuant to the Fugitive Slave Law in effect at the time. Butler refused on the grounds that because Virginia had declared its independence from the Union, the law no longer applied and the slaves within the fort’s confines were therefore contraband of war.
The arrival of Union forces in Beaufort produced dramatically different reactions among the contrabands. Some, under threats from their owners of dire consequences if they did otherwise, fled with those owners, but this was a very small minority. Many more, lacking food and adequate clothing, flocked to Hilton Head Island on the assumption that the Union army would feed and house them. But most, like Grace and Polk, stayed where they were, living in the same meager quarters they occupied when the Federal troops arrived. Many slave families maintained personal vegetable gardens for their own consumption, and the departure of overseers and owners gave them new freedom to work in those gardens.
White flight brought practical freedom to slaves, but it did not bring peace of mind. Rumors swirled for the duration of the war that Confederate forces were massing to retake the town, and when they did the retribution on their former slaves would be harsh. No such effort ever took place. Nor could the slaves be completely confident that their Union protectors would not abandon them, allowing the former owners to return to their homes and return the contraband to bondage. Fortunately, those fears also proved groundless.
The plight of thousands of contrabands was widely publicized in newspapers and magazines throughout the northeast, attracting sympathy and concern from missionaries and abolitionists. Among them many who responded by coming to Beaufort were a Pennsylvania mother and her fourteen-year-old daughter. In the next blog, we’ll meet them.