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Lowcountry unfiltered: A Civil War roadtrip through the backroads of Beaufort County

·7 min read

Are you a lover of history? Do you enjoy getting out on the quiet backroads of the Lowcountry or exploring fascinating corners of its small towns and communities? The Lowcountry region is world-renowned for its wide, sandy beaches and miles of delicate green marsh surrounding mysterious and beautiful Sea Islands. But underneath is a deep and fascinating history waiting to be discovered.

One thing that has helped shape the area as you see it today is the Civil War. Imagine warships with frowning cannons anchored in creeks and rivers and bombarding a town, such as when the Union fleet set fire to Bluffton on June 4, 1863. In the war of brother against brother, federal armies arrived in the Beaufort area early, occupying Hilton Head and surrounding islands and making Beaufort a base of operations.

All around the area, in fields where slaves had worked and toiled, freedom arrived in a blaze of hope. Along with liberation came battles to preserve liberty and the Union, and traces of these battles can be seen today in the woods and in the communities. If you have a day to spare or a few hours to get out and drive, here are some suggested stops:

Old Sheldon Church

The near-iconic ruins of Old Sheldon Church near Yemassee are a must see on a day dedicated to exploring history. Originally the Prince William Parish Church, this imposing colonial structure was first burned by the British in 1779 and then allegedly later by Union forces under General W.T. Sherman in 1865. It was not rebuilt, and the ruins stand today, lovingly preserved and cared for by St. Helena’s Church in Beaufort. The site is open for passive daylight visiting year-round, and you will not soon forget it. Directions: Take U.S. 21 from Beaufort to the intersection of Gardens Corner and U.S. 17. Go left on U.S. 17 and right on Old Sheldon Church Road.

Stoney Creek Battery Heritage Preserve

This small, earthwork Confederate fort was built in 1861-62 under the direction of Robert E. Lee as an effort to enhance coastal defenses against Union forces coming from Beaufort and Hilton Head Island. The fort was likely not continually manned. It was a place of defense, used when federal troops moved inland to strike railroads and on raids to free slaves. It is typical of hundreds of such forts that once dotted the landscape. Today it is a protected Heritage Preserve and is slowly being reclaimed by the Lowcountry woods that surround it. The site, near a causeway on U.S. 17 between Sheldon and Point South, is difficult to access but close to the road and easy to see.

The Battle of Honey Hill

Near Ridgeland on a picturesque bend of Old South Road stands a historical marker for the Battle of Honey Hill. Here, on Nov. 30, 1864, nearly 7,000 men clashed in a pitched battle that pitted a federal expedition against well-entrenched Confederates. Over 700 were killed, wounded or captured, and Union troops retreated to Hilton Head. Among the units were the famous 54th Massachusetts, the all-black regiment formed of free men and former slaves and made notable in the movie Glory. The battlefield is on private land and closed to the public, but efforts are being made to preserve the location as a historic park. For more information on the battle, visit the Morris Center in downtown Ridgeland, where exhibits have recalled the historic event. Call the Morris Center at 843-284-9227 for times and exhibit information.

Beaufort

The city of Beaufort is filled with sites and symbols of the Civil War, and it is not uncommon to see historical re-enactors in Civil War uniforms or antebellum hoop skirts strolling its sidewalks. Occupied early in the war by Union forces, Beaufort became a base of operations for military efforts to defeat the Confederacy and a haven for escaped and freed slaves. Historic homes were spared the torch and fires of war that engulfed nearby Charleston and other southern cities, and the island communities became the home of schools and sanctuaries where former slaves could seek a new life.

The John Mark Verdier House, 208 Scott St., served as Union headquarters and today is a museum dedicated to life in Beaufort before, during and after the Civil War. (Call 843-379-3331 for times and information.) The blond, stucco walls of the The Beaufort Arsenal stand like a crenelated castle at 713 Craven St. The property houses the Beaufort History Museum. Built in 1798, it provides a window into the past. For info visit https://beauforthistorymuseum.wildapricot.org.

Near the arsenal on Craven Street stands the Robert Smalls Monument. This son of Beaufort began life as a slave, and on May 13, 1862, during the Civil War, he commandeered the Confederate ship Stono and used it to free himself, his crew and all of their families. Smalls went on to serve in the Union Navy and after the war became a businessman, politician and advocate for equal rights. His monument stands on the grounds of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where he is buried.

Beaufort’s son of war and freedom: Robert Smalls was born a slave and served as a skilled ship pilot. On May 13, 1862, during the Civil War, he commandeered the Confederate ship Stono and used it to free himself, his crew and all of their families. Smalls went on to serve in the Union Navy and after the war became a businessman, politician and advocate for equal rights. His monument stands on the grounds of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where he is buried.
Beaufort’s son of war and freedom: Robert Smalls was born a slave and served as a skilled ship pilot. On May 13, 1862, during the Civil War, he commandeered the Confederate ship Stono and used it to free himself, his crew and all of their families. Smalls went on to serve in the Union Navy and after the war became a businessman, politician and advocate for equal rights. His monument stands on the grounds of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where he is buried.

On St Helena Island, beneath massive live oaks and housed in a rambling, welcoming campus, is Penn Center. One of the locations where freed and escaped slaves gathered during the war, Penn Center became an important educational and cultural site for African Americans. Penn Center houses an informative museum and a host of programs and activities. It is located at 16 Penn Center Drive E. on St Helena Island. Call 843-838-2432 for more information.

Round out your visit to Beaufort with a quiet walk through the Beaufort National Cemetery on Boundary Street. Nearly 20,000 people are interred there, mostly veterans of all American wars, beginning with the Civil War. Soldiers of all ethnicities and races are buried here, including 100 Confederates. It is managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is open year-round during daylight hours.

Bluffton

During the Civil War, Bluffton was a quiet fishing village and a haven for gentry who built homes to catch the breeze on the high bluffs overlooking the May River. After the Battle of Port Royal Sound in 1861, the Union Fleet secured Hilton Head Island, and military operations began in the surrounding area. As planters and slaveholders fled, Confederate cavalry encamped in the Pritchardville area, keeping watch on the Union Navy and making raids. On June 4, 1863, warships of the U.S. Navy navigated up the May River and took Bluffton under fire. Many homes were burned by the cannon and by federal troops, who departed before Confederate defenders could show up.

The Heyward House Museum and Welcome Center is one of the few homes to have survived the burning. Today it is a fascinating museum, housing relics of the battle that include a mirror bearing graffiti from a Union soldier on that fateful day. The museum is at 70 Boundary St. and is open Monday-Saturday year-round. Go to historicbllufftonsc.com for more information.

Fort Howell and Mitchelville

Make your way south to Hilton Head Island, where you can explore an extensive Civil War era fort. Fort Howell, at 160 Beach City Road, features a walking trail and interpretive signs providing background on the fort and the impact of the war on the island. Built by black troops of the federal army, it protected the growing village of “Mitchelville.” This impromptu town was made up of freed and escaped slaves who fled to Hilton Head Island to seek refuge from the war and vengeful Confederate troops. The location of Mitchelville is remembered in nearby Mitchelville Beach Park and Fish Haul Beach Park, located a half-mile down Beach City Road. Here, you will find information kiosks and other displays reflecting the efforts of volunteer organizations working to preserve the memory of this unique settlement. Fort Howell is managed by the Hilton Head Land Trust Inc., and the parks are managed by the Town of Hilton Head Island. They are open year-round during daylight hours.

Fort Howell, an extensive earthwork fort on Hilton Head Island, is open to visitors and promises a quiet place to walk and learn and reflect. It has walking trails where visitors learn about the vital role role the island played during the American Civil War. The fort was built by Black federal troops to protect a Black town of freed and escaped slaves during a war for freedom.
Fort Howell, an extensive earthwork fort on Hilton Head Island, is open to visitors and promises a quiet place to walk and learn and reflect. It has walking trails where visitors learn about the vital role role the island played during the American Civil War. The fort was built by Black federal troops to protect a Black town of freed and escaped slaves during a war for freedom.

The fires of the Civil War have long been extinguished in the Lowcountry, and freedom for all has been preserved. When you take a day to explore the region, it is not difficult to imagine the boom of cannon or the songs of freed slaves that echo today. Doing this tour will give you appreciation for the efforts of many who work to preserve the memory of those who fought and gave all in the cause of freedom.

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