At the outset of the war, one of the North’s early successes was the conquest of the Sea Islands, off the coast of South Carolina. The region’s white slaveholders fled, leaving behind their plantations and thousands of slaves. The islands quickly became a magnet for Northern reformers, who traveled there to help the slaves become self-sufficient on the abandoned land.
Charlotte Forten, an educated young African American woman from a prosperous Philadelphia family, joined the project in 1862, moving to the island of St. Helena, where she served for two years as a teacher of former slaves. While there, she kept a detailed account of her experiences, which she sent to her friend, the activist and poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Deeming her observations worthy of wider attention, he passed them along to The Atlantic’s editor, James T. Fields, who published them in two installments in 1864.—Sage Stossel
to the editor of the “Atlantic Monthly.”—The following graceful and picturesque description of the new condition of things on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, originally written for private perusal, seems to me worthy of a place in the “Atlantic.” Its young author—herself akin to the long-suffering race whose Exodus she so pleasantly describes—is still engaged in her labor of love on St. Helena Island.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
It was on the afternoon of a warm, murky day late in October that our steamer, the United States, touched the landing at Hilton Head. A motley assemblage had collected on the wharf,—officers, soldiers, and “contrabands” of every size and hue: black was, however, the prevailing color. The first view of Hilton Head is desolate enough,—a long, low, sandy point, stretching out into the sea, with no visible dwellings upon it, except the rows of small white-roofed houses which have lately been built for the freed people.