By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Fort Howell was constructed in 1864 on Hilton Head Island to defend the nearby freedmen’s village of Mitchelville from possible Confederate raids. Mitchelville was established in 1862 to provide a community where freedom seekers could live and self-govern under their newfound freedom under the protection of the Union Army. Mitchelville was the clearest example of the Port Royal Experiment, whereby formerly enslaved people demonstrated their willingness to fight for freedom and their capacity to live independently.
By 1864, Union military units were being drawn from the Department of the South for operations further north. Military operations transitioned from offensive to defensive in the area. Three major new earthworks were constructed on Hilton Head, including Fort Howell, which was located to provide protection for Mitchelville. Fort Howell was constructed in part by the 32nd USCT Infantry unit of 500 officers and men. This unit, raised in Pennsylvania from volunteers coming from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, was comprised mostly of free blacks, rather than formerly enslaved men.
Built as a semi-permanent fort and designed to hold up to 27 guns, ultimately, Fort Howell didn’t receive any action. As one of three major earthwork forts on the island, its permanence and longevity represent impressive skills in military engineering of the time for a defensible fort.
Fort Howell is nominated as a military site. It also complements the commemoration of Mitchelville, a destination site for freedom seekers. For visitors, this site builds upon the history of the origin and activities of Mitchelville residents — i.e., service in the U.S. Navy and the formation of the first U.S. Colored Army, whose troops were instrumental in the Union’s overall victory. Fort Howell is an ideal site to serve as a future commemoration of the thousands of freedom seekers who served valiantly in the US military.
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