Learn the Story of Beaufort & The Emancipation Oak

On January 1, 1863, General Rufus Saxton assembled a large populace on the site of Smith Plantation for one of the earliest readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Smith Plantation, the site of one of the earliest readings of the Emancipation Proclamation • Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

After Fort Frederick was replaced by Fort Lyttleton in 1758, the property sat until Mr. John Joyner bought the property in 1785. His grandson, John Joyner Smith, (1790-1872), inherited the property upon his grandfathers death in 1796. Smith grew sea island cotton on the seven hundred acres of the property named Old Fort Plantation. In 1850, Smith harvested sixty-five bags of sea island cotton using the labor of 130 slaves.

During the Civil War, Old Fort Plantation was confiscated by the US Federal government. In 1862, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a unit of former slaves and freedmen under the command of Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson were stationed at the Old Fort Plantation. The Union forces referred to the camp of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers as Camp Saxton.

In a diary entry dated December 1, 1862 shortly after his arrival in South Carolina, Col. Higginson wrote: Yesterday was the first soft & relaxing Southern day, with a haze like ours in May. Gen. Saxton has lent me a house & I ride through the plantation to a strange old fort of which there are two here, like those in St Augustine built by a French explorer about the time of the Pilgrims. They are built of a curious combination of oyster shells & cement, called Lupia & are still hard & square, save where water worn. One is before this house & a mere low redoubt.

The First South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally-authorized black unit to fight for the Union during the Civil War, was camped at this site. On January 1, 1863, General Rufus Saxton assembled a large populace on this site for one of the earliest readings of the Emancipation Proclamation.

This is a wonderful excerpt from “The Complete Civil War Journal and Selected Letters of Thomas Wentworth Higginson,” describing that wonderful day on Jan 1st, 1863:

 “A happy new year to civilized people—mere white folks. Our festival has come & gone with perfect success, and our good Gen. Saxton has been altogether satisfied. Last night the great fires were kept smoldering in the pits & the beeves were cooked more or less, chiefly more; it does not really take more than 4 hours, during which time they are stretched on great stakes made of small trees, and turned by main force at intervals. Even the night before I carried a small piece to supper in my fingers, from the first cooked, & there is really nothing disagreeable about the looks of the thing, beyond the scale on which it is done.

The services begun at 11 ½—prayer by our chaplain—President’s proclamation read by Dr W H Brisbane, a thing infinitely appropriate, a South Carolinian addressing South Carolinians—he was reared on this very soil, and emancipated his own slaves here, years ago. Then the colors were presented to me by Rev Mr French, who received them in N.Y. for us, unknown to us & had that fact very conspicuously engraved on the standard—a fact which saves the need of saying anything more about the Rev Mr French. But whatever bad taste was left in the mouth by his remarks was quickly banished. There followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected & startling that I can scarcely believe it when I recall it, though it gave the key note to the whole day.

The very moment Mr. French had ceased speaking & just as I took & waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong but rather cracked & elderly male voice, into which two women’s voices immediately blended, singing as if by an impulse that can no more be quenched than the morning note of the song sparrow—the hymn ‘My country ’tis of thee Sweet land of Liberty’.


People looked at each other and then at the stage to see whence came this interruption, not down in the bills firmly & irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others around them joined; some on the platform sung, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap, it seemed the choked voice of a race, at last unloosed; nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it; & when I came to speak of it, after it was silent, tears were everywhere. If you could have heard how quaint & innocent it was! Old Tiff & his children might have sung it; & close before me was a little slave boy, almost white, who seemed to belong to the party, & even he must join in.

Just think of it; the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people,—& here while others stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words these simple souls burst out in their lay, as if they were squatting by their own hearths at home.

When they stopped there was nothing to do for it but to speak, & I went on; but the life of the whole day was in those unknown people’s song I spoke, receiving the flags & then gave them into the hands of two noble looking black men, as color guard, & they also spoke, very effectively, Prince Rivers & Robert Sutton.

The regiment sang Marching along & Gen. Saxton spoke in his own simple & manly way, & then Mrs F D Gage spoke to the women very sensibly & a Judge somebody from Florida & then some gentlemen sang an ode & the regiment the John Brown song & then they seemed to have a very gay time; most of the visitors dispersed before dress parade, though the band staid to enliven us. In the evening we had letters & so ended one of the most enthusiastic & happy gatherings I ever saw. The day perfect & nothing but success. Now I must stop—”

What remains on The Old Fort Plantation, also know as Camp Saxton and Smith Plantation, is a beautiful row of trees that lead up to the plantation house. The Emancipation Oak still remains and is considered hallowed ground. The reading of the Emancipation Proclamation is celebrated on the grounds every year.

The site is now the US Naval Hospital at Port Royal, SC.