Friday, November 3, 2023

New marker on Hilton Head Island pays tribute to Black regiment that helped build Fort Howell to protect freedmen

Marker is unveiled at Fort Howell entrance (town of Hilton Head Island)
A new marker on Hilton Head Island, SC., highlights the role of the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry in the construction of Fort Howell, built to defend Mitchelville, a village populated by formerly enslaved people during the Civil War.

“This is a great day for Hilton Head Island because it shines a light on a piece of our past that needed to be explained more in depth and needed to be spotlighted properly,” Mayor Alan Perry said in prepared remarks for Wednesday’s ceremony at the well-preserved site. 

Much of coastal South Carolina fells into Union hands relatively early in the war and the Federal army needed to create camps for tens of thousands of newly freed families.

Mitchelville was the first such community in the area. (At left, a photo at Fort Howell of a metal figure depicting a 32nd USCT sergeant, courtesy of Hilton Head Island Land Trust)

While a previous sign at the well-preserved Fort Howell declared the earthen fortification's purpose and for whom it was named, the new marker lists the 32nd USCT and the 144th New York infantry as its builders in the latter half of 1864.

The army wanted to thwart any Confederate raids on Mitchelville. A large military encampment called Camp Baird was built near the fort.

The town worked with the Hilton Head Island Land Trust, which owns and maintains the site, and the South Carolina Department of Archives and History to create the new marker. 

George Banino, president of the land trust’s board, told the Picket the marker was changed in response to comments, especially the Gullah community, about telling the human story. 

“As the location of the U.S. headquarters for the Union's Department of the South from six months after the start of the war until a year after the end of the war, Hilton Head Island has an important history to tell,” Banino said.  

Bridge at entrance crosses remains of moat (Wikipedia photo)

Perry said the new marker "conveys a single cohesive narrative of our history."

The Picket also reached out to Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park for comment.

Historical records show 500 officers and men from the 32nd USCT worked a few months to create the 3-acre Fort Howell. It was designed to be manned by artillerymen and as many as 27 large weapons, according to a news release from the town.

New marker at left replaced one at right. (Town of Hilton Head and Mike Sroud,
USCT members faced discrimination within the U.S. Army and were not recognized as soldiers by the Confederacy, which threatened to execute or return them to slavery.

More than 180,000 men served in the USCT, about 10% of all Federal soldiers. More than 40,000 died of combat, illness and disease.

The post is named for Union Brig. Gen. Joshua B. Howell, who died in September 1864 after falling from his horse in Virginia.

Plan for the five-sided Fort Howell (National Archives)
Though Fort Howell never saw action, it is significant for its design and its structural integrity. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, according to the Historical Marker Database. 

“The fort, an essentially pentagonal enclosure constructed of built-up earth, is quite discernible despite natural erosion and the growth of trees and other vegetation,” says

Fort Howell is the best-preserved earthen Civil War fort in South Carolina, although erosion has taken away some fine features, the trust says.

Rendering of what the fort, surroundings may have looked like
 (Mary Ann Browning Ford for Hilton Head Island Land Trust)
Over the past 10 years or so, the park has been transformed from a site containing some low earthen mounds covered by dense vegetation to a learning center for all visitors, Banino said. Improvements include extensive signage and walking paths.

“A large portion of the vegetation has been removed to enable visitors to view the structure of the fort, although enough vegetation has been retained to provide protection from continued erosion,” he said.

Exterior wall of fort across from moat (Hilton Head Island Land Trust)
Fort Howell, at 160 Beach City Road near the island’s airport, is open to the public with adjacent areas for parking. It has several interpretive signs and metal figures represent soldiers and others. It is open from dawn to dusk, according to the trust.

The town says Fort Howell is a key site on the National Park Service's Network to Freedom, which encompasses the Underground Railroad and the Civil War Discovery Trail.

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