Nestled amidst Hilton Head's iconic resorts, golf courses, and pristine beaches lies a treasure trove of history, often overlooked by the island's bustling tourism scene. On a crisp November afternoon, representatives from the town, Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, and the Hilton Head Island Land Trust gathered to unveil a new historical marker, shedding light on the significant role played by Fort Howell in the island's rich history.
A Beacon of History The new historical marker aims to bring greater awareness to Fort Howell's historical significance. Overlooking Beach City Road on the island's northern tip, this earthen fort, constructed in 1864, holds a vital place in Hilton Head's past. Its primary mission was to safeguard the nearby Mitchelville, a pioneering community.
Mitchelville: A Beacon of Freedom Mitchelville was founded in 1863 and stands as the first self-governing community of formerly enslaved people in the United States. This thriving town boasted its own government and even implemented the state's inaugural compulsory education law, ensuring every child aged 6 to 15 received an education.
Protecting the Dream of Freedom During this tumultuous period, rumors circulated that Confederate troops might raid Mitchelville, potentially re-enslaving its residents. At that time, Union forces had landed in Beaufort County, and many landowners had abandoned the area, leaving behind thousands of enslaved individuals seeking safety with the U.S. military.
Union troop encampments initially provided protection to Mitchelville. However, as the war progressed, Union generals shifted their focus elsewhere, leaving the town vulnerable. Fort Howell emerged as a defensive measure to secure Mitchelville against possible raids.
Strategic Location and Silent Cannons Strategically positioned southwest of Mitchelville, Fort Howell's location was no accident. It lay between the only two roads leading into the village, rendering any raiding parties susceptible to fire from the fort's 27 cannons. This deterrent strategy proved effective as the cannons remained silent throughout the war.
Builders of Fort Howell The construction of Fort Howell was primarily carried out by the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry, a unit comprising free Black men recruited from Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Their arrival on Hilton Head in the spring of 1864 marked the beginning of the fort's construction.
Continuing Legacy and Preservation Today, Fort Howell stands as a testament to Hilton Head's historical legacy. Its site, once part of Palmetto Hall Golf and Country Club, was eventually placed under a conservation easement by Greenwood Development. Ownership was transferred to the Hilton Head Island Land Trust, which embarked on a mission to preserve and showcase this significant historical site.
Recent efforts have included clearing vegetation to reveal the fort's earthen walls and creating a visitor-friendly path around the site. Additionally, a comprehensive master plan has been developed to guide future enhancements.
A Tribute to the People While the fort had a historical marker in place, the community believed that it was essential to emphasize the human stories intertwined with its history. The new marker aims to shine a brighter light on the individuals who played a pivotal role in the fort's construction and the protection of Mitchelville.
Discover Hilton Head's Hidden History The unveiling of the historical marker at Fort Howell invites visitors and residents alike to explore the island's rich history. It serves as a reminder of the resilience, courage, and determination of those who once called this area home.
Join Us in Rediscovering Hilton Head's Past As you wander the island's beautiful landscapes, take a moment to visit Fort Howell and reflect on the remarkable history it represents. Discover the untold stories of those who stood for freedom and equality during challenging times.
For more information about Fort Howell and its historical significance, visit the Hilton Head Island Land Trust's website and plan your visit to this extraordinary piece of Hilton Head's history.