In the letter we examined last week General Robert E. Lee mentions that “The enemy is quiet after his conquest of Port Royal.” He was referring to Port Royal Harbor in South Carolina where Union troops had liberated ten-thousand slaves from Confederate control. The harbor town was abandoned; only overgrown cotton fields, run down plantations, and ten-thousand recently freed black men, women, and children remained. Leaders from several private charity organizations traveled from the North to Port Royal and attempted something peculiar. The town became home to the “Port Royal Experiment” where the charity workers attempted to coax the recently freed men and women to go back to work growing and picking cotton on the plantations they had so recently been liberated from, only now they were to be paid for their work.
The results were mixed. The experiment ran from 1861 to 1865 when it was officially shut down by President Andrew Johnson. In that four year span there were fights, droughts leading to poor crop yields, and countless arguments waged by the former slaves for more pay. Although many at the time believed the experiment was a failure, certain letters collected from the charity workers suggest the opposite. For example, a letter written by one of the charity workers with the initials W. C. G. describes a very promising event late in the course of the “experiment.” In 1864 he writes,
“May 19. We had a queer scene here on Tuesday. It is probably the first time that the slaves—contrabands—freedmen—have asserted themselves our fellow-countrymen by claiming the right of voting. A meeting was called in Beaufort to elect delegates to the Baltimore convention. It was assumed that we could stand for the sovereign state of South Carolina, and so we sent her full complement of sixteen representatives, and furnished each with an alternate. There are hardly thirty-two decent men in the Department, it is commonly believed. A large half of the meeting consisted of blacks, and four black delegates were chosen, Robert Small among them; the others I believe were sergeants in the South Carolina regiment. At one time there was considerable excitement, and white paired off against black,—but on the whole both colors behaved very well.
The whole affair will be laughed at by the North, and it is hardly probable that the delegates will be received. I hope they will.
W. C. G.”
None of the chosen delegates were received by the North and the “Port Royal Experiment” was ended by Andrew Johnson who returned the land to the previous white owners in 1865. Not until 1870, six years after the events chronicled by W. C. G., the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified and black men were officially provided the right to vote.
(Letters provided by Project Gutenberg)