People in the North were worried about the way the war was going. They had thought it would be easy to defeat the South, but here it was, six months into the war — the beginning of November 1861 — and the Confederates had won the three most important battles.
Now, though, exciting news gave hope to the North and shook the confidence of the South. The papers were full of stories about a huge fleet of Union ships heading south — not just warships but also ships carrying thousands of soldiers, ships full of supplies for the men, ships full of coal and a ship full of ammunition — 77 ships in all. Just one question was left unanswered: What part of the South would be invaded?
Some Confederate leaders were sure the enemy fleet would try to take over South Carolina’s Port Royal Sound, a wide inlet off the Atlantic near the state’s southern border. They were right. Union officials had been planning this expedition for months. They needed the harbor at Port Royal as a base for ships that patrolled the southern coast to keep the Confederacy from importing weapons and exporting cotton.
Two things happened when the Union fleet began to arrive outside the harbor. Plantation owners and people in the nearby town of Beaufort fled, leaving behind most of their belongings — including their slaves. And Confederate soldiers prepared to defend Southern territory, even though they had poor-quality weapons and were outnumbered more than 5 to 1.
The November 7 battle was over in a matter of hours. The Confederate forts, one on each side of the wide entry to Port Royal Sound, didn’t stand a chance against cannon fire from the Union warships that steamed past them. The forts’ defenders fired back, of course, and though hitting moving targets is hard, they did cause some damage. Soon, though, they were forced to lower their flags and retreat. The Union soldiers went ashore, took over the forts and the Sea Islands, which surrounded the sound, and then occupied Beaufort.
People in the North were overjoyed by the great naval victory at Port Royal Sound and the occupation of Southern territory. But the army soon realized it had a problem: what should they do with the slaves left behind by their owners — nearly 10,000 men, women and children who were making their way to the army camps. The solution? Hire them. Many stayed on the plantations, raising cotton and running the cotton gins — but now they earned wages paid by the U.S. government. Some lived in army camps and were paid for doing jobs for the military.
In the spring, missionaries arrived to set up schools, and within a year the government began building a town for former slaves. The town was called Mitchelville, named after the general whose idea it had been to give the former slaves living in the army camps a chance to live as free people did — in homes they built themselves in a town they governed themselves. It was a way to prepare them for life after the war.
“The Port Royal Experiment,” as it was called, showed that former slaves could live as free people. The experiment ended when the war did, however: After the army left the area, there were no more jobs — and that doomed the town of Mitchelville.