Evacuation is a word that islanders dread. Most times, the word means that a hurricane is coming and for safety reasons residents should high-tail it off the island and away from their homes. But in 1861, when Edisto’s residents were told to evacuate it was for a much different reason.
The day was November 9, 1861 and Colonel Drummond told white residents that the Civil War had made its way to Edisto. The residents were told to gather their belongings (including their slaves) quickly, destroy any harvested cotton that they had not yet shipped off, burn the cotton crops and kill any livestock they could not take with them. All of this was done so that the encroaching enemy would not be able to take the belongings they left behind to use against the Edistonians.
Although many crops were destroyed, some planters disobeyed the orders and left their crops in tact hoping to come back and resume business after the war. Unfortunately, that never happened.
When the enemy came to Edisto, they burned cotton crops that remained and herded the abandoned cattle. Much of the cattle was also allowed to roam free, which resulted in numerous crops becoming eaten and trampled.
What was even more tragic was the fact that many of the slaves were left behind because the plantation owners and planters had no place to bring them. Many times the families were splintered due to the fact that some slave-owners selected certain slaves to bring along with them while leaving the others behind. However, these slaves were not without resources; many of them had their own gardens, homes, and access to whatever the plantation owners had left behind. In addition, with all of the whites gone from the island, it was the first time in Edisto’s history that these people were actually free. However, this freedom came with a price.
Confederate soldiers kept watch on Edisto and when slaves purportedly shot at the soldiers they risked being killed or re-enslaved. The story that has been told time and again on Edisto is that approximately 80 slaves who were left behind were removed from the island by Confederate soldiers, but there is nothing that documents what fate these people succumbed to.
Once the Union army made its way to Edisto in February of 1862 the former slaves no longer had to fear being re-enslaved. However, nearby Confederate soldiers often waged deadly attacks against the Union soldiers hoping to remove them from Edisto.
During this time, the former slaves were free to mix with the whites who now occupied Edisto. They worked for them and earned a living for the first time in their lives. By May of 1862, word had reached Edisto that all slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina had been emancipated.
As the months went by with the newly emancipated people working along with whites for the first time, more and more Northerners came to the island. It was their hope that they could get the crops going again and hire the former slaves to work the fields.
The federal government at that time offered a program so that meals, housing and protection for the former slaves working the fields would be provided as long as the farming of this land was successful. In addition, this program was intended to teach these people necessary skills for joining the workforce now that they were no longer slaves. By June of that year, the cotton, corn and potato crops were flourishing. But the good times did not last.
Union troops on Edisto using Point of Pines Plantation as a staging area were gearing up to launch an attack on Charleston. Many left on foot in the stifling summer heat to battle while others went aboard a steamer headed for Hilton Head.
The former slaves were once again the only people on the island, but this time, they faced the wrath of Confederate soldiers who wanted them dead.
To protect these people, General Hunter ordered close to 2,000 former slaves including women and children to load up their pigs and chickens and belongs and get on a barge heading for St. Helena Island where they stayed until the war ended.
It wasn’t until 1865 that the people ordered to evacuate the island four years earlier were able to return to what remained of their homes on Edisto.