By Donna Perry | Three days after the fall of Fort Sumter in April of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of all Southern ports. In order to ensure that Lincoln’s blockade was a success and there was also success in the closing of the ports, the Union had to gain control over several waterways and coastlines of the confederacy. To sustain and strengthen its blockade of Southern ports, the U.S. Navy needed to have a supply station located somewhere on the southeast coast.
A good fit for this need seemed to be Port Royal Sound located perfectly between Charleston and Savannah.
Even better for the Northern forces, the Confederate earthworks were poorly guarded and known to not have much ammunition. In late October 1861, Union Flag Officer Samuel F. Du Pont assembled a fleet of 75 warships, with 12,000 troops in transport. Their aim was Port Royal Sound, which was guarded by an earthwork on either side of the harbour entrance; Fort Beaureguard at Bay Point and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island.
At 9:00am on November 7th, 1861, Du Pont led his naval squadron into Port Royal Sound, steaming straight in between the two forts. The Confederates had four vessels that could do very little to hold back the forces of the enormous Northern fleet. Traveling in an elliptical form, the elite pounded the earthworks of Fort Walker, and then of Fort Beaureguard. The ill prepared Southern gunners found it next to impossible to hit the moving ships, and the men of the U. S. Navy fired shots after shots into the forts. With Southern pride on their side, the Confederate troops stood ground for little more than 3 hours. Between 2:00 and 3:30pm, they found their supply of ammo to be all but gone, they began to evacuate their forts and head back up to the town of Beaufort.
The North was very successful in taking Port Royal Sound (with relative ease) and securing a perfect place for Naval restocking. Casualties were light, with 11Confederates killed 48 wounded, 3 captured and 4 missing. Among the federals, 8 were killed, 6 seriously wounded, and 17 slightly wounded. The federal vessels sustained no significant damage.
When the Union soldiers came onto shore, they found Beaufort to be deserted of all but slaves. The town was left for the Union soldiers to occupy. Many of the larger homes in the downtown Beaufort area became Union hospitals and the Union made Beaufort its home throughout the entire Civil War. It was a morale boost for the federal troops and a political victory for Lincoln. After Port Royal Sound, the Union Navy moved north by next taking St. Helena Sound. The northward expansion continued up to the rivers on the south side of Charleston, where it was halted. Thus, the siege of Charleston, which continued until the very last days of the war, can be said to have been initiated at Port Royal Sound.
The Union sent down many abolitionists and missionaries to help with the now contraband African Americans. The Port Royal experiment, as abolitionists called it, became a dress rehersal for Reconstruction. After the military victory, there was a problem defining the status of the refugee black population-they were neither slaves nor freemen. It became a project to educate former slaves. A school was built, Penn Center, to help teach reading, writing, and to gain many other skills. Beaufort, Hilton Head, and the Sea Islands would become a refugee for other former slaves from around the region.
As for the Confederate soldiers, they lost a valuable city. The plantations were of great worth and the sound of Port Royal was the deepest natural harbor on the East coast. The Confederacy would have a hard time regaining a foothold on the coastal area, ever again.