The Troops that Built Fort Howell
Construction of Fort Howell was begun by the 32nd U.S. Colored Infantry and completed by the 144th New York Infantry. The 500-man 32nd Colored Infantry was organized at Camp William Penn, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in March, 1864, and was made up of volunteers from Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Unlike many other U.S. Colored Troops, which were made up of mostly former slaves, the 32nd was almost entirely free blacks. The troops, under the command of Colonel George W. Baird, were ordered to Hilton Head in 1864. From August to mid-October they were responsible for building Fort Howell, with its 23- foot high earthen ramparts with picks, spades and axes.
As the Fort neared completion, the 32nd was redeployed to various locations on Hilton Head and throughout the Department of the South. The regiment was mustered out in Philadelphia in August, 1865.
The work on the Fort was completed in November, 1864, by fatigue details from the 144th New York Infantry, which had reported to Hilton Head in June, 1864. The 144th regiment, organized in Delhi, New York, in 1862, first saw duty in the defense of Washington, and later served on Folly Island during the siege of Charleston. There it suffered many casualties, both in battle and due to disease, which was a common
cause of casualties. After completed work on Fort Howell, the regiment saw duty elsewhere in South Carolina. It was mustered out on Hilton Head in June, 1865.
In August, 1864, Colonel George W. Baird was charged with setting up an encampment for his regiment, the 32nd near the site of Fort Howell, not far from Mitchelville. From this location work details reported each day to the engineer officer overseeing the project, which was under the overall supervision of Captain Charles Suter. This encampment was named Camp Baird and was located on what is now a golf course at Palmetto Hall. Before beginning development at Palmetto Hall in the 1990s, Greenwood Development commissioned an historical and archaeological investigation of the sites of Camp Baird and Fort Howell. As archaeologists excavated in the area of the camp they discovered the locations of tents, latrines and a garbage dump. They recovered many artifacts, such as buttons, jewelry, coin, marbles, buckles, pots and pans and inkwells, which provide an historic portrait of what life was like for these soldiers, who had been known to use their leisure time to read and improve their writing skills, skills they knew would be very important to them after the war ended.