The story of Fort Pulaski goes beyond the white soldiers from the Civil War or the white officers who oversaw the fort’s construction. From the very beginning of Fort Pulaski’s history, African Americans have had a massive role to play, though that role has often been discarded and overlooked.
When construction began on the island in 1829, laborers had to be brought in to begin construction of the wharfs and the village they would live in. Ads were placed in local newspapers which read things like “Wanted to hire to work on the Fortifications at this place during the summer, six half grown black boys.”
During the eighteen years it took to build Fort Pulaski, the laborers were a mixture of white and black men and boys. Of those, a good number were enslaved and hired out from local rice plantations. Any wages earned by their labor more often then not went into the hands of the people who claimed ownership over them.
When Georgia militia took control of Fort Pulaski in January 1861, they brought with them more enslaved men to put the fort back into a habitable condition. A number of these men remained at Fort Pulaski throughout the year as cooks, carpenters, and general laborers. Among them was March Haynes, a stevedore and river pilot who was put to work carrying mail to and from Savannah.
After the battle of Fort Pulaski, Union soldiers occupied the island and the question arose of what to do with the enslaved men on the island. On April 13, 1862, Major General David Hunter issued General Orders Number 7 which stated that “All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States in Fort Pulaski and on Cockspur Island, Georgia, are herby confiscated and declared free, in conformity with law, and shall hereafter receive the fruits of their own labor.”
Though the men on Cockspur Island were now free, all of them left friends and family behind in slavery. They had their freedom, but slavery was never far away, and they soon took it upon themselves to do something about it. Under the leadership of March Haynes, expeditions soon began up the river and into Savannah and the surrounding area.
On these expeditions, Haynes and his men had a two-fold agenda. First, they were tasked by the Union army to scout out Confederate forces and strength and report back with that information. Second and most importantly, they took it upon themselves to ferry any enslaved person who wanted their freedom to Cockspur Island. Men, women, and children desperate for freedom actively sought out Cockspur Island and many, with the help of March Haynes and his men, found their freedom only a few miles away from where they had lived in bondage.
The old construction village was soon transformed into what became known as a contraband camp. Formerly enslaved men, women, and children began new lives right here. Lives of their own making, with the freedom of choice for the first time. While many chose to remain on the island some, like Susie King Taylor, chose to leave for other areas. For Susie King Taylor, Cockspur Island was only the start of a journey that ended in South Carolina with her teaching members of the 33rd United States Colored Troops how to read and write.
For those who remained on Cockspur Island, they soon found a way to take not only their own freedom, but to fight for the freedom of their loved ones still in slavery. By 1865, a recruitment center had been set up on the island to enlist black men in the United States Colored Troops. A number of men chose to enlist to fight for the destruction of a system that had kept them in bondage.
Following the Civil War, few chose to remain on Cockspur Island. Little by little, the old village was abandoned, and trees began to sprout. Today, little remains to tell of the hundreds of men, women, and children who took their liberty in their own hands and found their way to this place, to take their freedom for the very first time.