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The Day of the Big Gun Shoot

You think your neighborhood's got problems? Mine is the site of the largest naval battle ever fought in U.S. waters.

Protecting the Sound

Hilton Head Island may be the ideal spot for rest and relaxation today, but in the fall of 1861? Not so much. The Civil War had begun the previous April just up the Atlantic coast in Charleston, and by autumn the Sea Islands were ready for battle, or so they thought. The Union army was looking for a new headquarters in the South, and rumor was it had its eye on the Port Royal Sound area. With its deep waters, wide mouth, and access to interior railroads, the sound would make an ideal spot for the North to train and supply its own troops while cutting off supplies to the South.

To prevent this from happening, the Confederate army constructed (or, rather, had the area's enslaved population construct) a fort of logs and sod on earthwork mounds at either side of the entrance to Port Royal Sound. Fort Beauregard stood to the north on Phillips Island, while Hilton Head's Fort Walker (see 1861 photo above) guarded the southern side of the sound. Armed and staffed, the forts were ready to protect their region under the direction of Brigadier-General Thomas Drayton, a local cotton planter.

Arrival of the Fleet

In late October of 1861, nearly 80 Union-controlled steam-powered ships left port in Hampton Roads, Virginia to great fanfare--so great, in fact, that news quickly reached Confederate troops in the Carolina Sea Islands that trouble was on its way. Could the fleet be heading for Port Royal Sound? Just in case, every plantation owner on Hilton Head (except for Thomas Drayton) evacuated the island for the mainland, leaving their slaves behind. On the opposite side of the sound, the women and children of Beaufort left for safety, as well. Confident in the South's imminent victory, though, their menfolk chose to stick around, gathering on the waterfront porch of a St. Helena Island home to watch the expected excitement like spectators at a sporting event.

On the 7th of November, 77 of the original 80 Union ships were waiting at the mouth of Port Royal Sound, three having succumbed to heavy storms in transit. At 9 a.m. on that calm, clear morning--which area slaves dubbed "the Day of the Big Gun Shoot"-- General Drayton commanded his troops at Fort Walker to fire the first shot of the Battle of Port Royal (not to be confused with a Revolutionary War battle of the same name, which took place on the mainland near Beaufort nearly a century prior). Troops at the two forts quickly realized, however, that they were heavily outgunned. The Union ships boasted 157 big guns (cannons), while Walker and Beauregard only had 36 guns between them, with only one of them powerful enough to hit a target at great distance. Making matters even worse for the South, the armada took a circular route through the sound, forcing the forts to shoot at continuously moving targets while being bombarded by an entire fleet of ships (see inset on image above). By noon, nearly all of the Confederate guns were disabled and the Beaufort men were fleeing the porch for safer ground.

Brother Versus Brother

By mid-afternoon, Thomas Drayton had evacuated his men from Fort Walker to the mainland, leaving his own Fish Haul plantation behind as he left. There had been 8 Union fatalities, although reports varied from 12-80 losses for the Confederate soldiers during the morning-long battle. As Union troops raised the U.S. flag from the top of Drayton's former headquarters, the General was perhaps unaware that one of the ships causing his downfall that day was helmed by his own brother. Like so many families of that era, the Draytons were divided in their loyalties. While Thomas chose to serve the Confederacy, his brother Percival fought for the Union. On that fateful day in November, 1861, Commodore Percival Drayton was in command of the U.S.S. Pocahontas, one of the 77 ships bound and determined to defeat General Thomas Drayton and his men at Fort Walker. While Percival proved victorious that day, it is said that neither brother held hard feelings toward the other either then or later. It was simply a matter of war.

Remains of the Day

Today the Fort Walker site is a small historic park within the gates of the Port Royal Plantation residential community, but little is left of the fort itself. The log and sod walls are long gone, and even the earthwork mounds on which the walls once stood are now mostly eroded into the crashing waves of Port Royal Sound (see photo at left). Multiple placards explain the history of the battle and the thriving Union and freed slave communities that replaced the Confederate troops immediately afterward. Picnic tables dot the oak-shaded lawns, while wooden porch swings overlook the waters that were once at the center of the Big Gun Shoot. To visit the site yourself, come as a guest of a Port Royal Plantation resident or book a historical tour via the Smithsonian-affiliated Coastal Discovery Museum.

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