In Search of Robber's Row
Don't let the quiet winding lanes, shaded by twisting live oaks dripping with spanish moss, fool you. Long before a bridge connected it to the mainland, one Hilton Head Island neighborhood was once a bustling town of 40,000 soldiers, merchants, reporters, and entertainers. Now, more than 150 years later, what remains of this busy port, and just where was it located?
Immediately following their rousing victory at the Battle of Port Royal on Nov. 7, 1861, 13,000 Union forces swarmed the beaches on the north end of Hilton Head Island and set about converting it to their new Department of the South. Promptly claiming the Confederate's Fort Walker (in modern-day Port Royal Plantation) and renaming it Fort Welles after one of their own officers, they repurposed the former headquarters of the Confederate troops on the island as home to the Union's Chief Quartermaster and Signal Office (see photo above). But these structures were just the beginning.
First, a second fort, positioned a mile or so further inland, was quickly erected to house the island's thousands of new residents. Called Fort Sherman (after the site's first Union Commander, Gen. Thomas W. Sherman), it consisted of two miles of earthworks enclosing a 14-acre area filled to capacity with buildings and tents. Next, a long pier was constructed adjacent to the Quartermaster's house. Reaching out into the deep waters of Port Royal Sound, the pier simplified arrivals to the new headquarters, drawing even more visitors and residents. It soon became clear that the huge Fort Sherman was not nearly large enough to house the area's exploding population. You see, while literal boat-loads of Union forces continued to arrive at the new Hilton Head port, the population was no longer limited to the military and the thousands of formerly enslaved persons who had worked on the island's plantations prior to the battle.
Enter the Suttlers
As officers' quarters and a 16,000 square foot hospital spread along the beachfront of what is now Port Royal Plantation, a massive tented military encampment spread behind it. These men required goods and services, and merchants were happy to arrive to meet that need. These "suttlers" (civilian provisioners to a military post) arrived by the droves and set up a thriving town of stores, restaurants, blacksmith shops, carpenters, a post office, numerous saloons, two newspapers, a baseball diamond, and a popular 800-seat theatre that featured traveling acting troupes. Several fine hotels (some beachfront) were reported to rival similar
establishments in posh Newport, Rhode Island. Given the profit-mindedness of the merchants along "Suttler's Row," soldiers soon dubbed the area "Robber's Row." This lively town thrived for the next four years, both for its residents and the thousands of Union soldiers and officers who visited its port on leave.
By 1864, 40,000 people called the northeastern corner of the island home. (Initially considered "contraband" of the war, the formerly enslaved persons established their own community, Mitchellville, just across Fish Haul Creek from Robber's Row. A fascinating story for another day....) When the war ended a year later, though, the military headed back north, while the suttlers boxed up their wares and headed home. The town's once-grand buildings were reduced to rubble as the few local residents left behind scavenged for building materials for their own homes and businesses. The town of "Hilton Head"/"Port Royal"/"Robber's Row" (used interchangeably) was no more.
Robber's Row Today
So, is anything left of Robber's Row? Today there are a few vestiges of the thriving town that was--all within the boundaries of the Port Royal Plantation gated community on the "heel" of shoe-shaped Hilton Head Island. Earthwork ruins of both Fort Sherman and Fort Welles (curiously referred to these days by its Confederate name: Fort Walker) are still visible and are now registered historic sites. In addition, a modern home now built on the site of the old
Quartermaster House--more commonly known today as the Squire Pope House, its antebellum identity--has been constructed to resemble the original structure (see photo at left). Residents of "Suttler's Row" and "Robber's Row" (two streets in the neighborhood) like to believe they live on the original site of the old main street, but signage on the community's Robber's Row Golf Course claims that the "real" Robber's Row stood along the course's Holes 9 and 10 (see photo at top). Adding even more confusion, the 1964 Union Army map shown above depicts Robber's Row in an area now occupied by stately homes overlooking the marsh of Fish Haul Creek. Aside from the occasional discovery of a Civil War artifact in someone's manicured garden, the actual locations remain hidden and, for most Lowcountry residents and visitors, a town forgotten.
To visit the Fort Walker and Fort Sherman sites, sign up for a local history tour through Hilton Head's Smithsonian-affiliated Coastal Discovery Museum.