Hilton Head Island’s Rich History

Before the first bridge connected the mainland to the Island (1956), before Charles Fraser began development of the Sea Pines Plantation and famously walked alongside an alligator (1956) and before the PGA called Hilton Head Island home to the Heritage Golf Classic where the iconic red & white striped lighthouse served as a recognizable backdrop (1969), the Island played a critical role in, wait for it…the Civil War.

Black and white photo of people in tent

With little action after their initial invasion, Union soldiers stationed on Hilton Head Island had a lot of down time

Shortly after the start of the Civil War, Confederate troops built and occupied Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island at the entrance to the Port Royal Sound to help fend off Union attacks. Realizing they needed to stop the movement of supplies and weapons from Europe to the South (who at the time relied solely on agriculture and did not have the manufacturing capabilities of the North), the Union put a plan into motion to bombard, invade and occupy Fort Walker and the surrounding areas in order to create a blockade of the Southern ports.

On the morning of November 7, 1861, a day the Gullah refer to as “the day of the big gun shoot,” the Union began their attack from sea. Canon fire could be heard as far away as Beaufort and, after only a matter of a few hours, the Confederate soldiers had abandoned Fort Walker and the nearby Fort Beauregard on the other side of the Sound, allowing Union troops to take over the Fort and, very quickly, the entire Island.

Canons positioned to overlook Skull Creek

Canons positioned to overlook Skull Creek

A number of these spots that played a part in the Union’s success in building the blockade and, eventually, winning the Civil War, can still be visited today.

  • Fort Mitchel
    An earthworks fort designed by General Quincy Adams Gillmore and built by Union troops to protect against Confederate gunboat attacks was equipped with 5 canons, 2 sentry booths, a guard booth and a stove. Never fired on, the fort still remains today with walkways lined with educational signs and vintage canons reminiscent of that time. With tours offered by The Heritage Library in conjunction with the Coastal Discovery Museum, visitors can get a real feel for what the life of a Union soldier was like at Fort Mitchel.
  • Fort Howell
    Situated on 3 acres of land, this earthworks fort constructed by Union forces was built to protect Mitchelville, the country’s first Freedmen (former black slaves) community. Located on Beach City Road, the Fort is free and open to the public.
  • Fort Walker
    The first sight of Civil War action on Hilton Head Island, the fort is located in Port Royal Plantation. To access Fort Walker, contact the Coastal Discovery Museum. Tours on the ‘Forts of Port Royal’ are offered once a week on Wednesdays.
  • Stoney-Baynard Ruins
    These remnants mark the location of a grand antebellum plantation home built 1793-1810 by Captain John “Saucy Jack” Stoney. The house, built of timber and tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, lime and sand), became the headquarters for Union forces during the Civil War. Shortly after the war ended, the home burned down, leaving the ruins that are visible today in The Sea Pines Resort.

Want more history? Hilton Head Island has history dating as far back as 8000 B.C. when Archaic Period Native Americans visited this area seasonally. You can learn more about Hilton Head Island at The Heritage Library, one of the most comprehensive in the region, or the Coastal Discovery Museum which was established to teach about the natural history and cultural heritage of the “Lowcountry.”


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Hilton Head is America’s favorite island, offering 12 miles of pristine beaches and everything you need for the ultimate retreat. Enjoy easy days relaxing in the sun, sand and surf on some of the best beaches in the country.
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