Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis




Public History

First Advisor

Bobby Donaldson


Soon after the Union Army took control of the Sea Islands along the southern coast of South Carolina, enslaved people there took their first steps towards freedom. The transition from slavery to freedom was most profound in Mitchelville, a town on Hilton Head Island. General Ormsby M. Mitchel founded Mitchelville in the spring of 1862. But its residents created the community that fostered and encouraged freedom among its members. Escaped slaves from the area and as far away as Florida congregated in the town and worked for wages, shopped in stores in Mitchelville, attended church, and reunited with family. They also voted on their laws and operated a police force and education system. The town was laid out with named streets, squares, and homes on half-acres lots.

Examining Mitchelville gives us a better understanding of Reconstruction efforts that began in earnest before the Civil War ended. It helps us see the opportunities freedmen had in communities along the periphery of Union army camps. The story of Mitchelville and Hilton Head Island also highlights the often-contentious relationships between formerly enslaved people, Union army, and the Northern missionaries who came south to civilize and educate the freedmen. Consequently, to draw a clear picture of Mitchelville requires an understanding of the racial ideas and attitudes blacks and whites formed about each other at that time.

A thriving community during the war, Mitchelville did not survive past the turn of the century. Although the Mitchelville experiment and its successes were largely forgotten in the aftermath of Reconstruction and the tumultuous era of segregation, residents of the town took their experiences and education with them as they created strong communities in other areas.


© 2012, JoAnn Livingston Zeise