An Old Story

Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment

by Willie Lee Rose
Bobbs-Merrill, 442 pp., $6.50

A proper “case study” in history or the social sciences really should not be a “sample” of something; it should be a metaphor of something else. It should have not the abstractness of a construct, but the concreteness of a story; in it, the issues ought to be acted out, if not by ourselves at least by people we know. Willie Lee Rose knows all the people in her story, though it happened a hundred years ago. Some of them she loves; all of them she understands. She tells about them, or rather manages them, with such wonderful circumspection that the whole interlude takes on a life of its own.

The story is about what happened on the Sea Islands of South Carolina during their occupation by Federal troops following the Union naval bombardment of Port Royal in November, 1861. The military, which was to administer the Islands under a certain vagueness of jurisdiction for the remainder of the war, found when it arrived that all the great plantations had been abandoned during the attack; masters and families had fled to the mainland with what few slaves they could persuade or coerce into going with them; most of the slave population, some 10,000, had refused to move. Already, by their looting, foraging, and smashing of cotton gins, they had made something of a shambles.

Within three months—and before the start of the 1862 growing season—a carefully picked civilian contingent known as “Gideon’s Band” had arrived from the North to begin its work. There were fifty-three men and women in the first group, mostly from Massachusetts but some also from New York and Pennsylvania, a regular Peace Corps, as Henry Commager has called them: teachers, doctors, ministers, engineers, all willing and eager to begin. As agents of the Treasury Department, and on subsistence from the government, they would superintend the various abandoned plantations; as missionaries to the Sea Island Negroes, they would teach, minister, distribute supplies, and be paid a small salary by the private associations which had financed and organized their venture. The group was permeated by energy and intelligence. Most of the men were college graduates. All had strong antislavery backgrounds, which had been a prerequisite for their selection.

Despite a relationship between civilian and military that was somewhat ambiguous, the Port Royal experiment could in a hundred small ways be called a success. The shadowy legal status of abandoned slaves was not to be cleared up until 1863, with emancipation, and before that time the intermediate term “contrabands” had to serve. But from the very beginning there seems to have been a working presumption on the part of the Gideonites, the military, and the Negroes themselves, that the latter had somehow become a free people and that slavery, for them, was forever dead. Despite the disruptions that followed the owners’ departure and the many cross-purposes of those charged with picking up the pieces, the Negroes were persuaded to resume work—for wages—and after a fashion the plantations were put…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.