Ebb Tide: The Port Royal Experiment

This is the first post in a three-part series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ebb Tide, the third book in my Ella Wood trilogy.

Early in the Civil War, in November of 1861, the Union navy captured Port Royal and liberated South Carolina’s Sea Islands from Hilton Head all the way to Charleston. When the White landowners fled the islands ahead of the Yankee troops, ten thousand slaves were left behind. The slaves were promptly declared contraband of war and granted their freedom. Then somebody had to figure out what to do with them. Secretary of Treasury Salmon Chase and Massachusetts attorney Edward L. Pierce spearheaded what would come to be called the Port Royal Experiment.

The goal of the experiment was to prepare former slaves for free citizenship at the war’s end. They would be paid for growing cotton (which the government would sell to finance the war effort), educated, and given the opportunity to purchase land on which to support themselves, thereby silencing critics of emancipation who claimed free Blacks would be a financial liability. If successful, it was to be a model for emancipation throughout the South.

African Americans Preparing Cotton for Gin at Port Royal, 1862.

Scores of missionaries, doctors, ministers, and humanitarians flocked to the island to oversee the plantations and care for the minds, souls, and bodies of these former slaves. Schools, churches, and hospitals were set up and land from confiscated plantations was made available for purchase.

The situation wasn’t perfect. There were shortages of food, clothing, and medical care; local vendors charged outrageous prices for goods; and conflicting interests remained between slaves and government on the issue of cotton. But in general, the experiment was a success. Readers of Ebb Tide will get a close peek at this significant chapter in history.

Unfortunately, the Port Royal Experiment died along with Abraham Lincoln. President Johnson allowed individual states to determine integration of freed slaves (which resulted in Black Codes) and reinstated land to Confederates who swore an oath of loyalty to the Union.

For those interested in learning a bit more, I found this excellent 6-minute documentary about the Port Royal Experiment.  It’s part of the Time-Life series Voices of the Civil War and is very well done.

4 thoughts on “Ebb Tide: The Port Royal Experiment

  1. I really enjoyed learning about this period of history and how you go about researching what to include in your historical fiction! This is a great example. Look forward to learning more.

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