Abbie Holmes Christensen, 1864
From Anne Christensen Pollitzer
The story of my family in Beaufort began in 1864 when my great grandmother, Abbie Holmes, arrived by steamship from New York City with her parents Reuben and Rebeccah Holmes and her little sister, Georgina. Abbie was 12 years old and her sister was 4. The Civil War was still raging. The steamship was safe on its journey because the southern coast was blockaded by the American navy and all of Beaufort was held by the Union forces. They would not be fired on.
The family landed at Hilton Head Island where all newcomers had to check in and be processed. In fact, there was a hotel on the island for visitors and onlookers. After they were okayed, the family went in a smaller boat into the town of Beaufort, where soldiers were in the streets and lounging on the stairs of the big houses.
Abbie Christensen wrote her impressions and her deepest thoughts and feelings in her diaries, which she kept for the next 60 years. These diaries are now part of a collection in Columbia along with other papers, letters, and documents available for students who want to study this period in history.
She described how large numbers of freed slaves came in following the Northern armies, especially those of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. They were called “Contrabands” until they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. He sent several hundred to the commanding general in Beaufort, General Saxton, just before Christmas of that year with a note saying that this was his Christmas present.
So how did they survive, arriving in winter, barefoot with only the one set of clothes on their backs; men, women, and children? Many black families who had been in Beaufort for some time, took them in, allowed them to sleep on the floor of their homes, gave them meals as much as they could until they found some work and shelter of their own.
One section of the town became a village of freed slaves and it was located beside and behind the National Cemetery that was being built at the time. The location is now referred to as being “behind the bricks.”
One way these people earned money was to prepare meals for the soldiers and officers in the town. Abbie Christensen described the waiters who balanced trays of food on their heads and delivered these to army locations, often in the big houses that had been abandoned by their northern owners on “the Day of the Big Gun Shoot.” On that day, the Union navy took over Beaufort.
Abbie’s parents came to Beaufort to teach school to freed slaves and, when she was 16 years old, Abbie did the same, using the money she earned to pay for her education at Mount Holyoke college in Boston. Reuben Holmes had also helped to farm an abandoned plantation on Coosa Island so that the valuable cotton crop could be harvested and money for the war brought in.
Reuben Holmes later set up a grist mill on Carteret Street to grind corn into grits; he bought a large wooden house on Bay St. near the ferry boat dock to Lady’s Island and opened a boarding house. He then built a lumber mill on East St. The logs for the mill were cut on St. Helena Island and tied in large rafts. They were then floated to the mill on the tide, anchoring them when the tide turned, then floating again when it went the right way. There was a little shed on top of the logs for the workers’ shelter because it took several days to get to Beaufort.
Ten years later, Abbie Holmes met Capt. Niels Christensen, a Union officer who had been sent to Beaufort to manage the National Cemetery on Boundary Street.
Niels planted trees and flowers and it became a popular picnic area where he met Abbie and they were attracted to each other. They were married in 1875 and had six children who grew up in Beaufort.
This moment in Beaufort’s history is an excerpt from the book “Beaufort … Then and Now,” an anthology of memories compiled by Holly Kearns Lambert. Copies of this book may be purchased at Beaufort Book Store. For information or to contribute your memory, contact Holly at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.