Here's the first half of the lecture I delivered today at the Hilton Head Library. We had another great audience, full of questions and eager to read the book. Thanks, everyone.
This country’s first experiment with the abolition of slavery began right here on Hilton Head Island in 1861. The federal government put together an expedition to capture a safe harbor to be used by their blockading ships. At the end of October, 1861, 88 ships, carrying 12 regiments (12,000 soldiers), sailed for the coastline of South Carolina. In a terribly one-sided battle, they destroyed two confederate forts, manned by a total of 200 men equipped with 7 guns. From Charleston, General Robert E. Lee sent word that the Low Country of South Carolina could not be defended. Those left out of the original 200 men took flight and headed for the safety of Charleston. Right behind them were the white plantation owners who now had no one to defend their lives and property.
Left behind were some 10,000 slaves who had never been off their respective plantations. They had no one to direct their labor, no one to supply their usual food allowances and clothing allotments, no one to treat their illnesses or help them survive on islands now in the hands of Yankees.
The soldiers who had occupied the islands knew nothing about actual slavery or its conditions. In letters from those soldiers, we find complaint after complaint that went something like this. They had come to free the slaves. They had done so. Now why didn’t the slaves go on and leave? And of course, the slaves did not understand the question. Where were they supposed to go? And how would they get there? Their little cabins weren’t much but they were home. Their families had lived there for generations. They didn’t want to leave. But they did want someone to take care of them, because someone always had provided for their simple needs .
What was worse, no one in the Union army had expected to find freed slaves there, and there were no plans for dealing with them. Frantic letters flew back and forth to Washington DC. “We have 10,000 blacks, ill, hungry, and helpless, unable to care for themselves? What are we to do?” Lincoln had a quick answer. He turned to his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and said, “Handle it.”
Chase responded by hiring two gentlemen – William Reynolds to take charge of gathering the cotton crops and administering the plantations and Edward Pierce to provide humanitarian aid for the slaves. The cotton agents and their adventures would make a story on their own, but I want to concentrate on the Abolitionists hired by Pierce to do “something” about the slaves themselves.
To this day, when you try to find out what the abolitionists wanted, there’s only a single answer – to do away with all slavery. But nowhere will you find a clear explanation of what they thought would happen to the slaves. There were no plans. They were an odd bunch from the beginning, some 75-80 volunteers who for one reason or another were free to uproot their lives and travel into a war zone to provide for the needs of 10,000 slaves. Looking at some of their personalities will demonstrate the flaws in the abolitionist goals. We'll do that tomorrow.