A century and a half ago, thousands of former slaves, Union troops and area residents gathered at a Port Royal plantation for a celebration centered on the reading of the newly issued Emancipation Proclamation.
On Tuesday — the anniversary of the Jan. 1, 1863, proclamation — residents will gather again to remember and honor that moment.
“We are going to actually set foot on the site, and I imagine that some people who go out there will really relive that event and feel the spirit of the people who were there that day,” state Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, said. “When the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Beaufort County, those former slaves were freed that day.”
Hodges is the pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church, which is holding the anniversary celebration, and working with Naval Hospital Beaufort to provide tours of Camp Saxton. The camp was built during the Civil War on Smith’s Plantation, which is now part of the hospital grounds.
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About a year ago, hospital officials started giving tours of the camp site and Fort Frederick, which also is on the grounds. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places. Chief Hospital Corpsman Amanda Hughes, historian for the base, said old photographs were used to identify what is believed to be the Emancipation Tree, under which the proclamation was read. The camp’s history includes appearances by figures such as Harriet Tubman, who was probably at the proclamation festivities, she said.
Many people don’t realize it, Hodges said, but Beaufort played a critical role in Civil War history. Along with the reading of the proclamation, the First South Carolina Volunteers Infantry received its national and regimental colors and was officially accepted into the Union Army, becoming the first official black regiment.
“Beaufort County was really at the epicenter of the history of blacks in America and also what happened during the Civil War,” Hodges said.
The First South Carolina Volunteers was initiated Aug. 22, 1862, when Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton was granted authorization by the secretary of war, according to the National Register of Historic Places registration form for Camp Saxton. Despite initial resistance by former slaves who did not want to be involved or who had been drafted into an earlier, unauthorized regiment that was disbanded, the First South Carolina Volunteers ranks grew to several thousand.
Abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higgens was recruited to command the regiment, and he wrote it was “a vast experiment of indirect philanthropy, and one on which the result of the war and the destiny of the negro race might rest,” according to the registration form.
While the Emancipation Proclamation only addressed the freeing of slaves in areas not under federal army or government control, the symbolism of President Abraham Lincoln’s action was key to changing attitudes, according to the Register of Historic Places file.
“One major reason for this change of heart was undoubtedly the performance of those blacks who did enlist, marching, fighting, and dying in a cause which was more their own than most whites would have begun to understand,” the form said.
On Emancipation Day, preparations had been made for a party for 5,000 at Camp Saxton, including barrels of molasses, plugs of tobacco, hundreds of loaves of bread and 10 to 12 roasted oxen, according to records. Several firsthand accounts of the day exist, Hodges said, including one by Charlotte Forten, who taught at the Penn School on St. Helena Island and is believed to be the first black teacher to come to the area, Hodges said.
“Ah, what a grand and glorious day this has been,” Forten wrote. “The dawn of freedom which it heralds may not break upon us at once; but it will surely come, and sooner, I believe, than we have ever dare hope before. My soul is glad with an exceeding great gladness of the day.”