Contesting the Casting of the First Black Votes at the Beaufort Arsenal

Beaufort Arsenal at 713 Craven Street. Photo by author.

Beaufort Arsenal at 713 Craven Street. Photo by author.

If you visit the Beaufort Arsenal today, the historical marker situated out front explains the site’s history during the early Republic and antebellum period. The marker reads:

Beaufort Arsenal market. Photo by author.

Beaufort Arsenal market. Photo by author.

“Erected in 1798 and rebuilt in 1852, the Beaufort Arsenal was the home of the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery, commissioned in 1802, which had its roots in an earlier company organized in 1776 and served valiantly in the Revolutionary War. The BVA was stationed at Fort Beauregard during the Battle of Port Royal on November 7, 1861.”[1]

The Arsenal’s history ends with Beaufort’s capture by Union troops in 1861. Visitors may journey inside to view a more comprehensive exhibit of the city’s history at the Beaufort History Museum, an interpretation I will discuss in future posts. Still, a question that looms is whether the first black men to vote in Beaufort did so at the Arsenal during Reconstruction.

The Beaufort, South Carolina Study Act of 2002 and 2003 called for a study of Reconstruction related sites in the region, with the hope that one day some of these sites could be incorporated in the National Park Service. One of the locations at the top of the list was the Beaufort Arsenal.[2] South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said in his statement of support before Congress, “The Beaufort Arsenal was where freedmen voted for the first time.”[3] The local press published similar, one sentence statements about the Arsenal’s connection to the first black votes cast in Beaufort.[4]

Hollings’ comments as well as those of local newspapers illustrated the need for sites devoted to telling Beaufort’s Reconstruction history because so much misinformation existed. Dr. Page Putnam Miller’s public history students in their study of Beaufort’s significance to Reconstruction found that the first freedmen voted in the building next to the Arsenal, which was the original location of Beaufort’s Freedmen’s Bureau before it moved to what is today the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus. Fire destroyed the original building in 1907. Five-hundred and thirteen men voted on November 19, 1867 in the “hall of justice.” They elected three white delegates to the 1868 state convention: Reuben G. Holmes, Francis E. Wilder, and James D. Bell. More influential to history and the period, they also sent four black delegates: J.J. Wright, Robert Smalls, W.J. Whipper, and Landen S. Langley.[5] The polling place “most likely was located” next to the Arsenal at 701 Craven Street.[6] Miller’s students uncovered photographic evidence at Historic Beaufort Foundation that showed the building next to the Arsenal was used as an early Freedmen’s Office in 1864. Its function within the federal bureaucracy suggested the building would be a natural choice for a polling place three years later. The students also cited the journal of Rev. George Newcomb for additional support.[7] On November 18th, Newcomb wrote: “‘considerable interest and excitement on the street, in reference to politics with the colored people.  They will vote tomorrow. It is the first time since they have been free.’” The following day he noted the election “’passed quietly.’” In his two or three trips to the polls on election day, he witnessed “‘perfect order’” and people who “‘enjoyed their new privilege with interest.’”[8] He remarked, “‘How changed from a few short years ago!  Then the very building in which they met to vote was used as a hall of justice as administered by master to slave.’”[9]

Miller’s students captured the tension Craven Street must have created for both former slaves and Confederates. It represented the federal government’s commitment to freed men, women and children. America’s newest citizens welcomed the federal presence. To Confederates, it “symbolized a dangerous and unjust extension of federal power over a defeated nation.”[10] This tension remained 140 years later. Although Miller’s class put forward some convincing evidence that suggests the first black polling place was not at the Arsenal, Confederate descendants also believed the interpretation newspapers and Hollings offered. In late March of 2003, the commanders of two SCV camps in Beaufort and Fairfax sent Hollings’ office an official resolution of their opposition to the Beaufort, South Carolina Study Act. One of the SCV’s concerns was that new interpretation of the Arsenal would exclude the organization’s own history with the site. The SCV chartered the Beaufort camp there in 1898 and continued to hold meetings there in the twenty-first century.[11]

Evidence suggests that the first freedmen voted near the Arsenal but not within its walls. Although the building no longer exists, this significant achievement merits some acknowledgement, especially given the polling place served as an early Freedmen’s Bureau office before the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction formally began. And perhaps it is worth noting that the SCV Beaufort Camp was formed at the Arsenal. This illustrates the tremendous change and backlash that Reconstruction brought. How powerful might it be to tourists and residents to know that the first votes cast by freed black men happened right next door to where the SCV worked so hard to create a narrative that would take those rights away?

[1] Jennifer Taylor, Image of the Beaufort Arsenal Marker, Digital Image, July 8, 2014.

[2] Addison Graves (Joe) Wilson, 107 H.R. 4747 Introduced in the House, May 15, 2002, 2–5, http://congressional.proquest.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/congressional/result/pqpresultpage.gispdfhitspanel.pdflink/http%3A$2f$2fprod.cosmos.dc4.bowker-dmz.com$2fapp-bin$2fgis-billtext$2f8$2f0$2f0$2f0$2fbills-107hr4747ih.pdf/entitlementkeys=1234|app-gis|billtext|107_hr_4747_ih.

[3] U.S. Congress. Senate. Theme Study to Identify Sites of Cold War; Study Sites in Beaufort, SC; Mcloughlin House in Oregon City, Or; Boundary of Glen Canyon Recreation Area; and San Gabriel River Watershed Resource Study, May 13, 2003, 108th Cong., 1st sess., (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 2003), 5, http://congressional.proquest.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/congressional/result/pqpresultpage.gispdfhitspanel.pdflink/http%3A$2f$2fprod.cosmos.dc4.bowker-dmz.com$2fapp-bin$2fgis-hearing$2fa$2fb$2f5$2f8$2fhrg-2003-nar-0031_from_1_to_31.pdf/entitlementkeys=1234|app-gis|hearing|hrg-2003-nar-0031.

[4] “Forums Highlight Reconstruction Era Heritage – Effort Under Way for National Recognition for Nearly 50 Sites,” Carolina Morning News, January 20, 2003, CMN edition, sec. Generations, 3, http://docs.newsbank.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/1058FEDC51A8EF65/0D0CB61A15FF3EC0?s_lang; Forrest Valdiviez, “Reconstruction Redux,” Island Packet, February 24, 2003, sec. News, Local, http://docs.newsbank.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/14527C144A544598/0D0CB61A15FF3EC0?s_lang; “National Support in Order for County Historical Effort,” Island Packet, March 3, 2003, sec. Editorial, http://docs.newsbank.com.pallas2.tcl.sc.edu/s/InfoWeb/aggdocs/NewsBank/14527D96EBC34EE0/0D0CB61A15FF3EC0?s_lang

[5] History 712, Historic Preservation Practicum, Public History Program, University of South Carolina et al., “The Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County: Local Initiative for National Designation: Report” (Columbia, S.C., Spring 2003), 66–67, 78–79, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid., 78–79.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 78–79.

[10] Ibid., 66.

[11] J.V. Braxton II to Ernest F. Hollings, March 28, 2003, Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings Collection Senate Papers, Legislative Files and Constituent Correspondence, 1997-2004, Box 566, Folder Top. 108th, Int., NPS, Beaufort, SC Study Act of 2002, South Carolina Political Collection, University of South Carolina; Don G. Carlson to Ernest F. Hollings, March 28, 2003, Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings Collection Senate Papers, Legislative Files and Constituent Correspondence, 1997-2004, Box 566, Folder Top. 108th, Int., NPS, Beaufort, SC Study Act of 2002, SCPC, USC.

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