ANOTHER "GREAT FEATURE ARTICLE" FROM THE PAGES OF
ANTIQUE BOTTLE AND GLASS COLLECTOR MAGAZINE
THE MAGAZINE OF THE ANTIQUE BOTTLE COLLECTING HOBBY
The Civil War Battle of
Port Royal Sound
by Warren Zeiller
October 29, 1861 - The military and commercial value of Port
Royal Sound, located halfway between Charleston and Savannah,
South Carolina, has been recognized and fought over for centuries
by the English, Spanish, Scots and French. It is the
Confederacys finest natural port.
Veteran Union officers recognize that value as well. Islands on either side of the mouth of the Sound will provide bases from which to attack inland through Beaufort to sever the rails between Charleston and Savannah, thereby terminating all Confederate coastal transportation and communication. They plan a massive assault to take the prize.
November 6th and 7th, 1861 - Commodore Samuel Francis DuPonts attack fleet totaling seventy-seven vessels - frigates, gunboats, transports, tugs, steam ferry-boats, and schooners - carrying 500 surf boats to take ashore 13,000 troops and 1,500 horses, the largest amphibious assault force ever to assemble on the continent, arrives at the entrance to Port Royal Harbor.
The harbor entrance is bracketed by Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island to the north, and Fort Walker, about two and one-half miles south across the Sound on Hilton Head Island. Defense of Hilton Head and its earthwork fort are under command of General Thomas Drayton, whose family plantation is only a mile from the fort. One of the attacking Federal gunboats, Pocahontas, is commanded by Percival Drayton, brother of Thomas. Each brother will defend, to the death if necessary, his belief in his side of a sadly divided Union.
The fighting ships sail into Port Royal Sound and establish a long eliptical course between the forts, first bombarding Beauregard, reloading on the turn, then bombarding Walker on return. With each revolution the ellipse is enlarged, bringing them nearer the outgunned forts. Finally they heave to at short range and enfilade all opposition to dust. (photo 1.) After four and one-half hours of continuous bombardment surviving Confederates are forced to abandon their forts and the islands. 12,653 troops disembark from the Federal fleet in a massive amphibious landing and secure both Phillips and Hilton Head Islands. Fortunately, the Drayton brothers do survive the battle.
Soon the low country magic of Hilton Head Island infects Federal officers as well as their troops. They enjoy the soothing whisper of offshore breezes through Spanish moss festooned ancient giant oaks. Sun and sea, waves caressing miles of gently sloping sandy beach, magnificent sunsets over the marsh, abandoned plantations farmed now by freedmen providing fresh produce for purchase, and valuable sea island cotton for sale. Island sawmills are producing ample lumber for the Commandants headquarters and a multitude of ancillary military structures, including a large hospital and a bakery complex. With freedmens numbers swelling from those escaping the mainland to join those on the island, the Federals build them Mitchelville, their own community just west of Fort Walker, complete with adequate housing, communal kitchens, and wash-houses. Island life is too good. In time, several Union Commanders are transferred to lesser posts for lack of willingness to carry the war off paradise to the enemy.
East of the fort toward the heel of the boot-shaped island a number of civilian structures, appropriately referred to as Robbers Row, spring up along shore to serve every need of men of the encampment.
Almost a century and a half after the successful Federal assault my family and I, too, have fallen under the islands spell. On every vacation we visit dear friends in Port Royal Plantation. Daily at low tide, my wife, Chardy, and I walk the beach for several miles along what had been the seaward side of Robbers Row all the way past the site of old Fort Walker. We have studied island history, enjoyed informative tours, and cannot help notice artifacts eroding from the sand right beneath our feet. One of the first I collect is a fiber-tempered pottery shard, attesting to the fact the island was popular even with indigenous people at least 4,000 years ago when the shoreline was miles farther out in the Atlantic. (photo 2.) Mostly we pick up what must have been trash tossed out back of the bars and bawdyhouses of the Row. Shards of glass, colored and plain, some bearing embossed lettering proclaiming customers beverage of choice, old necks, and bottle bottoms with pontil scars or deep kick-ups seem to be everywhere. We pick up every piece, wondering why other beach walkers fail to notice the treasures beneath their feet. Over the years we fill vases and large snifters with our treasures (photo 3.) There, preserved in the sand is a brass .36 caliber pistol shell, another even larger .50 caliber. Both probably not fired in anger, as the fort was a mile or more down the beach. Here and there lead .45-70 rifled slugs, a mini-ball, and small metal trouser button are found to have survived corrosive forces of time, sand, and sea (photo 4.) I cannot help but daydream that some of the broken bottles were objects of slightly inebriated soldiers off-duty target practice.
On one walk Chardys keen eyes spotted a bit of brown glazed pottery projecting just above the dark wet sand. Her careful excavation with an oyster shell (thus preserving m-ladys nails) revealed a perfect, small, cone-shaped, crockery ink. Another day was mine. An aqua, sheared lip of something showed as nothing more than a tiny, crude ring projecting above the tidal wash. I brushed the sand from around it, carefully exposing a dome to which the lip and its neck were attached. I finger traced a circle around the circumference of the dome, then carefully withdrew an unpaneled, igloo-shaped inkwell, around the base of which was embossed JM & S. It had become completely sand impacted, which probably accounted for the frail glass survival for 150 years. I emptied it. Not a scratch or crack, just an opalescent surface, of which I am quite fond, from being buried in the saline environment for so long. Sitting on the beach I daydream of who among the innkeepers, Confederate or Federal troops, perhaps one of the ladies had dipped nib to ink in these very wells to transcribe records or write folks or friends at home. Flush with the pleasure of one-upmanship, I turned to show my prize to Chardy. Smiling, she held out a piece she had just found, a perfect, tall, black/amber, three piece mold, shoulder embossed PATENT, with a concentric circles bullseye centered with two dots on the base. Its long neck bore the heavy tapered lip that seems common on many bourbon bottles of the time. No doubt some damned Yankees emptied that! Outdone again I happily would have joined the boys in blue for a hefty snort.
A few years ago I noticed a lady walking the beach holding a small, aqua, long necked liquor bottle, unembossed, slug plate front, very whittly, and crude, ring pontiled bottom. Not monetarily, valuable, but kind of neat. She had found it down the beach. Would not sell it, so naturally I wanted one all the more. Several vacations later my eyes followed a flock of sandpipers skittering busily ahead of our footfalls in the receding tide. As the sea foam dissipated, there one was in the wash, exact duplicate of that ladys, lying ahead of me plain as day. Chardy shared my pleasure in that silly little dream fulfilled. To top that off, farther down the beach toward Fort Walker we shared a find of finds. We worked together around a bit of glass reflecting cobalt blue in the warm Carolina sun. Maybe another shard, but you never know. Slowly we extracted a handsome John Ryan 1856 from those sands of time. Ryan operated his Savannah Bottling Works from 1852 through the 1870s (photo 5.) Had it been smuggled to the island during the war as contraband for which thirsty Yankees had paid a hefty price? Well never know, but its an interesting supposition. Ryans sodas and mineral waters now are highly prized. I have purchased many variants at Savannah shops and annual October antique bottle shows, but finding one and having at least an inkling of how it came to be where we found it makes it all the more precious.
Today there is little in the way of artifacts to find along that beach. A multimillion-dollar beach replenishment project has carpeted our treasure hunting area with four or more feet of lovely soft tan material dredged from the bank miles offshore. (6.) A half century down the road inevitable erosion again will have taken its toll; perhaps other will be as lucky as we were to find fascinating remnants of ancient cultures and a long ago bitterly fought war right beneath their feet in those sands of time.....
Baab, Bill; Feb. 1999, Tommy Mitchiner:
King of the John Ryan Soda Bottle Collectors, AB & GC, East Greenville, PA, 10-11.
Carse, Robert; 1987, Hilton Head Island in the Civil War: Department of the South, Hilton Head Island Historical Society, Hilton Head Island, S.C., 3-32.
Greer, Margaret; 1989, The Sands of Time: A History of Hilton Head Island, South Art, Inc., Hilton Head Island, S.C., 35-53.
Russell, Mike; 1992, The Collectors Guide to Civil War Period Bottles and Jars, 2nd Edition, Russell Publications, Herndon, VA.
Johnson, Rossiter, 1894, Campfire and Battlefield, Bryan, Taylor & Co., New York, 69-71, 185, 219, 289.
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