The Port Royal Experiment, also called the Sea Island Experiment, was an early humanitarian effort to prepare the former slaves of the South Carolina Sea Islands for inclusion as free citizens in American public life. The Port Royal Experiment was made possible by the U.S. Navy’s conquest of the Sea Islands of Beaufort District after the naval victory at the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861. The islands remained in Union hands until the end of the war. The conquest was so swift that Beaufort District planters abandoned most of their property and hurriedly evacuated inland. Most importantly, nearly ten thousand slaves were abandoned on island plantations. Still not legally considered free, the abandoned slaves were declared “contraband of war” and placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase sent his friend Edward L. Pierce of Boston to Port Royal to recommend measures to the federal government for dealing with the Sea Island “contrabands.” Reverend Mansfield French was dispatched to Port Royal at the same time as agent of the New York–based American Missionary Association to ascertain what help was needed for the Sea Island blacks. Both men arrived at Port Royal in January 1862.
The combination of federal efforts to assist and employ the Sea Island blacks and the efforts of several philanthropic and missionary organizations to prepare the “contrabands” for emancipation led to the Port Royal Experiment. While the federal government concentrated on employing the “contrabands” to harvest and process the valuable Sea Island cotton, philanthropic organizations and religious missionaries assumed the task of providing education, which the Sea Island blacks eagerly sought. Both the government and private charities provided food, clothing, and medical assistance. In February 1862 Pierce returned to Boston and helped organize the Educational Commission and to seek volunteers for this “experiment” in the Sea Islands. At the same time, the National Freedmen’s Relief Association in New York was collecting donations and enlisting volunteers to assist as well.
In March 1862 the steamer Atlantic brought the first contingent of these Boston and New York volunteers and philanthropists to Port Royal. Dubbed “Gideonites” by contemptuous Union soldiers, the volunteers were a mixed group of missionaries intent on teaching, organizing, evangelizing, or doing whatever good they could at Port Royal. Although diverse in their makeup, they were united by their fervent opposition to slavery and determination to help guide the liberated slaves of the Sea Islands. In April 1862 a second contingent of “Gideonites” arrived from Philadelphia, sponsored by that city’s Port Royal Relief Committee. Prominent among this contingent was Laura Towne, who would found the Penn School on St. Helena Island. These groups were the vanguard of scores of missionaries who came to the Sea Islands of Beaufort District during the Civil War.
The partnership between the federal government and various philanthropic agencies to carry out humanitarian enterprises among the Sea Island blacks continued throughout the war. Notable among their achievements was the establishment of private freedmen’s schools that continued a century and a half after the Port Royal Experiment ended. The Mather School on Port Royal Island survived until the 1960s, and the Penn School on St. Helena Island continued into the twenty-first century as the Penn Community Center.
On January 1, 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect for the “contrabands” of the Sea Islands. Thereafter they were “freedmen” and entitled to many rights and responsibilities as citizens. This was the pinnacle of the Port Royal Experiment and a day of jubilation for Sea Island blacks.
Following emancipation, another effort of the Port Royal Experiment was the redistribution of abandoned plantation lands to the former slaves. Under the authority of the U.S. Direct Tax Act of 1862, most of the Sea Island plantations in Beaufort District were seized for nonpayment of taxes. Leaders of the Port Royal Experiment lobbied the federal government to distribute this land in small parcels to the freedmen. Of the 101,930 acres seized, approximately one-third was purchased on favorable terms by the freedmen. Much of Beaufort County retained the character of small black landholding into the twenty-first century.
On March 3, 1865, the federal government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands within the War Department to deal with the humanitarian problems across the South at the close of the Civil War. Better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, it was responsible for food, clothing, and medical relief as well as educational services for the freedmen. The first Freedmen’s Bureau office in South Carolina was opened in Beaufort in 1865, and many volunteers of the Port Royal Experiment became leaders of the agency. General Rufus Saxton, the military governor of the Sea Islands and a major supporter of the Port Royal Experiment, was the Freedman’s Bureau director for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The Freedman’s Bureau was the first humanitarian, or “welfare,” agency established by the U.S. government. The Freedman’s Bureau was officially disbanded in 1872, but the lingering influence of the Port Royal Experiment survived in Beaufort County’s unique landownership patterns and educational institutions.
Abbott, Martin. The Freedmen’s Bureau in South Carolina, 1865–1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.
Forten, Charlotte L. The Journal of Charlotte Forten: A Free Negro in the Slave Era. 1953. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1981.
Holland, Rupert Sargent, ed. Letters and Diary of Laura Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862–1884. 1912. Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Pearson, Elizabeth Ware, ed. Letters from Port Royal: Written at the Time of the Civil War. 1906. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1969.
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. 1964. Reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999.