Even as Lee surrendered to Grant, scores of newly emancipated men and women were arriving at St. Catherine's in the Sea Islands of Georgia. Under Sherman's Field Order 15, these abandoned lands would be theirs.
Leading them was 53-year-old Tunis G. Campbell, from New Jersey. For years, Campbell had worked tirelessly as an abolitionist, a preacher, an educator, and political organizer. With the help of Secretary of War Stanton, Campbell got himself appointed superintendent for the Union-occupied islands in Georgia.
There were a lot of people in 1865 who were trying to tell blacks what freedom is, and tell them what they ought to be doing. Campbell reflects the impulse, "We should really determine ourselves what we're doing." Independence from white control -- that's critical to their definition of what freedom is. It just happens that on St. Catherine's Island you can create such a thing. The whites have all fled. Sherman has given out land. So the opportunity to create an independent black community exists.
"We left with rations and a few families and at Hilton Head got more," Campbell wrote, "and Savannah loaded us as deep as we could swim." These deserted lands had been at the heart of the South's rice-growing empire.
As Campbell arrived to the island and they put the gangplank down, the island was overgrown. It's been looted by Union naval forces. The sea grass is high. There are rattlesnakes. There are alligators. He can see the slave cabins. They're also in great disrepair. Immediately upon arriving and assessing the situation there, he writes to the American Missionary Association asking for seed, asking for plows, sweet potatoes to supplement the diet, marriage licenses for the people. And he calls a meeting of the people to explain to them: "This is our home." "Beginning next week, I will divide up the land into forty acres for each of you."
By June, the settlers had crops in the ground. "I have corn, watermelons, citron, onions, radishes and squash," wrote Campbell. "But the rebels have destroyed the sweet potatoes. Do not fail to send them. Send eight No. 11 plows, six cultivators -- get the improved ones."
Tunis Campbell sees the South as a kind of new political frontier. He sees himself as a kind of political pioneer, to go to that place where this new regime of black political liberty and civil liberty might flourish.
Campbell arrived at St. Catherine's with his own blueprint for a government. There would be a Congress with eight men in the Senate and twenty in the house of Representatives. A Supreme Court, and Campbell himself as President. He even established a 275-man militia. "Order," said Campbell, "is Heaven's first law."
So you've got this tiny little island, twelve miles long, three miles wide, and a government set up to resemble the United States government with a Supreme Court at the top. It's wonderful, beautiful, experiment in democracy; and people took to it very well. They liked the idea of having the power to select their leaders and remove them.
But at St. Catherine's, no one was going to remove Tunis Campbell.