SEABROOK — Beside a quiet Beaufort County highway in a field where patriot soldiers fought off a British invasion, budding archaeologists spent a recent Friday morning exploring the remains of a Civil War-era school that history almost forgot.

The Whale Branch Middle School Archaeology Club was just scraping the surface of the deep, multifaceted history in a place where few markers exist to offer hints about the past.

Archaeologists have taken an interest in the land off of Trask Parkway near Seabrook because it was the site of the Battle of Beaufort, also known as the Battle of Port Royal Island. On Feb. 3, 1779, British forces attempted a landing nearby, but Brig. Gen. William Moultrie and an American volunteer militia held them at bay with volleys of musket and cannon fire.

While surveying the land with a National Park Service grant, local archaeologist Dan Battle made another discovery he wanted to share with students from the nearby school: a freedmen's school built by occupying Union forces during the Civil War in February 1863 meant to train formerly enslaved African Americans in several trades.

Whale Branch Middle School

The Whale Branch Middle School Archaeology Club, in Beaufort County and archaeologist Dan Battle found a brass eagle head at a site of an old freedmen's farm school that was built during reconstruction. The object dates to the Civil War era. Brad Nettles/Staff

One of many such schools built across the South in that era, it was specifically mentioned in Abraham Lincoln's personal papers as Freedmen Experimental Farm School No. 26. Battle said descendants of those students might still be living today in and around Seabrook, but he has found no records that could prove it. 

Little remains visible to the naked eye but a faint outline of the school's foundation. At Battle's invitation, students from the Beaufort County school spent the morning listening, watching and conducting a bit of light metal detecting at the site.

"We were using metal detectors and putting them all over the ground. It was cool," said Genesis Grant, a sixth-grader in the Archaeology Club. "Since we weren't here when all this was going on, it was fun to find some stuff, the Civil War stuff."

"I love it because we find things and we learn about things we didn't know from the early ages," said Shaynia Albany, also a sixth-grader.

Whale Branch Middle School

Gene Brugger, an advisor for the Whale Branch Middle School Archaeology Club, in Beaufort County, helps Terrell Shaw with a metal detector, as Michael Lee marks a spot where the detector found a possible medal object in the ground at a site of an old freedmen's farm school that was built during reconstruction. Brad Nettles/Staff

The natural and social history of South Carolina are never far away at Whale Branch Middle. Classroom windows overlook fields that once grew indigo and cotton at Roupelmond Plantation, which predated the American Revolution.

For a rainy-day activity, the Archaeology Club scrutinized a map of Roupelmond and plotted out where the major features would stand on campus today. An old pecan grove still survives on the property. Leaving the stand of trees and walking through what is now the cafeteria, a person would eventually run into the old plantation house and slave quarters.

Few traces of Roupelmond's history are visible, but the students have scoured the property with metal detectors, picking up nails and other artifacts. With a recent $9,000 grant from the Beaufort-based Women in Philanthropy, the students plan to share their discoveries at a mini-museum inside their school.

Pamela Storey, a speech pathologist and sponsor of the Archaeology Club, said she wants the students to work as tour guides in the museum and tell the story of the land.

"Research shows that hands-on, experiential learning is very powerful," she said. "So, yes, you can learn things in books. But when you literally dig into the soil and the pinpointer finds the metal and it materializes in your hand, it's just very exciting. The kids were just amazed that under the dirt there was all this history."

Whale Branch Middle School

Dr. Pamela Storey, an advisor for the Whale Branch Middle School Archaeology Club, in Beaufort County, watches as Sha'Neil Washington uses a metal detector to find objects in the ground at a site of an old freedmen's farm school that was built during reconstruction. Brad Nettles/Staff

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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