On November 7, 1861 the waters off Hilton Head Island became the sight of the largest naval battle ever fought in American waters. As the “War of Northern Aggression” began to escalate, Hilton Head was invaded by over 12,000 federal troops who, in less than five hours, captured Fort Walker and forced the populace of Hilton Head to evacuate the island. Eventually more than 40,000 union troops would be quartered on the island; making the number of full time inhabitants more than today’s.
Federal Troops continued to occupy the island until well after the wars end, overseeing the beginning of the “Reconstruction” and the founding of “Mitchellville”, which was not only the first community built by freed slaves, but also the sight of the first mandatory education system in the United States. Many of the ancestors of the original Mitchellville founders still call Hilton Head home today. Eventually becoming known as “Gullahs”, these freed slaves developed their own culture and language; mixing their African heritage and religion with new world customs, the English language and Christianity. Today the Gullah culture is a special part of low country society, with many groups, businesses and organizations devoted to preserving this special heritage.
At Shelter Cove, a specialty shop sells Gullah Art, handmade “sweet grass’ baskets, books and a plethora of other items related to the culture. During the summer, Coligny Plaza’s outdoor stage is the sight of a weekly performance; called “The Gullah Experience”, the show is entertaining and educational, teaching visitors about the Gullah people, with music, song, dance and story telling. The Gullah heritage tour escorts the curious to Mitchellville and other historic sites around the island, important to the Gullah people and their customs and history. A fleet of passenger ferries depart from practically almost every port on Hilton Head, to transport locals and visitors to nearby Daufuskie Island; where the Gullah dialect is still very much in use and visitors can tour cemeteries, the “First African Church”, and the “Gullah Heritage Museum”, learning first hand, from native tour guides and Daufuskie residents.