Beaufort County counted some of South Carolina’s most ardent secessionists among its residents as the War Between the States began. Its landscape was dotted with large cotton plantations featuring sizable slave populations until Union troops came ashore at Port Royal in November 1861 and took control, of the area, freeing thousands of enslaved blacks.
While Northern forces weren’t able to venture far inland from their beachhead in the southern part of the state until close to the end of the war, it served as a staging point for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and as a destination for escaped slaves looking for sanctuary.
Many of those former slaves would go on to serve in the Union Army, as members of US Colored Troop units.
In 1896, the post constructed the Grand Army Hall, on Beaufort’s Newcastle Street. Today, the structure, located in the Beaufort Historic District, is believed to be the only surviving building in South Carolina associated with the Grand Army of the Republic, or GAR.
The GAR was a fraternal organization made up of men who had served the Union cause. At its peak, it boasted nearly 500,000 members nationwide.
The Beaufort post was named for Hunter (1802-1886), who rose to the rank of major general and was a strong proponent of arming blacks to assist the Union effort.
Hunter ran into problems from some within the Union Army after the April 1862 Battle of Fort Pulaski (Ga.) when he began enlisting black soldiers from the occupied districts of South Carolina, forming the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Regiment. The 1st South Carolina was initially ordered to disband, but eventually received approval by Congress.
Later, Hunter caught flak for issuing General Order No. 11, which emancipated slaves in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Hunter’s order was rescinded by President Abraham Lincoln, who was anxious about the political effect the move would have in the border states.
For decades Grand Army Hall was a place for Civil War veterans to talk and reminisce.
Among its members was war hero and Reconstruction-era Congressman Robert Smalls, a former slave and Beaufort native who gained fame in May 1862 by freeing himself, his crew and their families by commandeering the Confederate transport ship CSS Planter in Charleston harbor and piloted it to freedom.
Smalls would serve was an officer of Grand Army Hall.
The structure had other uses, as well.
“It was home to the Commandment Keeper Church in 1940, when a colleague of Margaret Mead and noted author Zora Neale Hurston stepped inside to film a documentary on the Gullah culture,” according to the Hilton Head Island Packet.
Beaufort’s Decoration Day annual parade used to start from the white clapboard structure, wending approximately a miles across town to Beaufort National Cemetery, where thousands of Civil War veterans rest.
Today, the structure is used for weddings, talks and seminars. Fish fries and prize drawings are held to pay for maintenance. The historical marker in front of the building was dedicated in 2013 by the Beaufort County Historical Society.
Grand Army Hall is operated by several different organizations, including the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
(Top: Grand Army Hall, Beaufort, SC.)