Imagine it is November 7, 1861. You are General Thomas F. Drayton, commander of Confederate forces in the Port Royal District. You nervously pace your ramparts at Fort Walker on the northern tip of Hilton Head. Across the sound, at Fort Beauregard, other Confederate troops under your command also wait...wait for Federal gunboats to sail into range.
This is your moment.
Son of a South Carolina congressman who was a distinguished soldier in the War of 1812, Drayton attended West Point where he was a classmate and friend of Jefferson Davis, later President of the Confederate States of America.
Drayton was a lackluster student at West Point graduating 28th in his class of 33 students. He never took to army life and after several unhappy years as an army engineer, he resigned his commission to become a planter on Hilton Head Island and Palmetto Bluff.
Here he succeeded. Before long, Drayton managed 4,500 acres of rice and cotton worked by over 100 slaves making him one of the largest slaveholders in South Carolina. (Less than 2% of slave owners in South Carolina owned more than 100 slaves.)
Then, in December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. The Civil War was on. Drayton, Son of the South, was reluctant to enlist. He did not like the military; and his brother Percival (who joined the navy at 15) was fighting for the North as captain of the Union warship USS Pocahontas.
As a southern planter and slaveholder, however, pressure to support the Confederacy was relentless. Six months into the war, Drayton wrote:
“The claims of home and the pecuniary difficulties of the road have thus far kept me from military command; but if the war continues much longer, which I think it will, I too will follow in the footsteps of my father, do duty as a soldier on some active field, and leave consequence to God.”
By September 1861, Drayton could delay no longer and accepted a commission as a Brigadier General from his friend Jefferson Davis. Two months later, Drayton stood at Fort Walker awaiting union war ships.
It’s just before 9:30 a.m. Fifteen Union gunboats enter Port Royal Sound. You command your troops to open fire. The Federal fleet returns fire and keeps moving! They pass your fort, firing as they go, turn around and begin the assault all over again!
Your big guns cannot target the moving ships! Worse, the USS Mohican is pounding your position from a point out of range of your artillery and the USS Pocahontas, captained by your brother Percival, is enfilading your fortifications.
By early afternoon, it’s over. Your guns are destroyed. Your men exhausted. You order your troops to abandon the fort. Shortly after, Fort Beauregard also falls and the Union flag flies over Hilton Head, as it will for the remainder of the war.
Thomas Drayton, the reluctant soldier, went on to lead troops at Manassas and Sharpsburg where his brigades performed poorly. General Robert E. Lee quickly lost faith in Drayton’s ability to command and transferred him to Arkansas and Texas (where he could do no harm), and served the remainder of the war without incident.
After the Civil War, Drayton did not return to his antebellum life. The plantation system simply could not work without slaves. His holdings sold at public auction and Drayton became an insurance salesman. He died at his daughter’s home in Florence, South Carolina in 1891.
Rumor has it that General Drayton's house once stood near this very spot with fantastic views of the May River. In 1861, Drayton's view looked out over Port Royal as Federal Troops descended on the LowCountry.