Tunis G. Campbell was easily the most colorful and ineffective federal civilian administrator to come to Liberty County during the reconstruction period. Yet, not much was known about him until E. Merton Coulter, a Georgia historian, wrote an article titled "Tunis G. Campbell, Negro Reconstructionist in Georgia," which was published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, Volume LI, No. 4, at Athens, Georgia, in 1967.
Campbell was born April 1, 1812, in Bound Brook, Somerset County, New York, and was probably of West Indies ancestry. He had four sisters and five brothers, and received some education at a Long Island, New York, school where he was the only black student.
When he came to Liberty County, Campbell had been married for many years and had three children. There was a daughter, an adopted son named Edward E. Howard , and Tunis G. Campbell. Jr.
When the Civil War occurred, Campbell tried to enlist in the U.S. Army, but was rejected because he was black. He then went to work for a bakery in New York, New York. He wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln asking that he be assigned some role in the war effort, but received no reply. Sometime later he received a "War Department commission" which ordered him to report to Brigadier General Rufus Saxton at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Campbell reported as directed and was told to "take possession of abandoned plantations and put the Negroes to work raising crops, and to encourage them to acquire skills in agriculture and industrial pursuits." Campbell later claimed, however, that he was sent to the South by President Lincoln "to organize a civil government, to improve the colored people in the South wherever I could, to instruct and elevate the colored race."
Campbell claimed that he came to South Carolina with $3,000 or $4,000 of his own money. It is more than likely, however, that he came South with no money at all. Without specifying what Brigadier General Saxton had assigned him to do, he said, "I did whatever was entrusted to me, I think, to his satisfaction."
When federal troops occupied Charleston, South Carolina, in February 1865, Campbell requested that he be transferred to the Georgia Coast islands to engage in his work. His request was granted, and a short time later he reported to the freedmens bureau in Liberty County and announced, "I come down as the governor of the islands of Saint Catherines, Ossabaw, and other islands, and my authority extends to the mainland as far as I can reach within thirty miles."
The freedmens bureau "gave" Saint Catherines Island to Campbell to carry out his assigned mission. It was there that he and his family resided in a home which some, but certainly not all historians say was once the residence of Button Gwinnett. Campbell claimed that he was the religious overlord of Saint Catherines Island, and missionary to "the provinces of all Georgia and Florida for the Zion Methodist Episcopal Church."
There were several hundred former slaves, and no white people, on Saint Catherines Island when Campbell arrived there. He told them that he was their new "governor" and his son, Tunis G. Campbel, Jr., was their lieutenant governor. Many of the former slaves, however, simply addressed him as "tycoon."
Campbell appointed himself a cabinet and wrote an instrument of fundamental law providing for a senate with eight members, and a house of representatives with 20 members. Members of the house and senate were evenly divided between the upper and lower parts of Saint Catherines Island. He appointed one of his "subjects" his chief justice.
One of the first acts of the legislature was to pass a law forbidding any white person to set foot on Saint Catherines Island. This may have been, however, merely a proclamation by Campbell. since no governmental archives survived , if any ever existed.
To enforce his will, execute his decrees, and preserve order, Campbell raised an army of 275. He issued this proclamation.
"Whereas we, through the goodness of God, the Supreme Being, have prospered upon this island, and whereas we feel now the influence of the boon of freedom, which we believe emanated from God,
"Therefore L Tunis G. Campbell, Agent of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees, and Abandoned Lands for Saint Catherines and Ossabaw Islands, by virtue of the Authority vested in me by the President of the United States and Brigadier General Saxton, do issue this my proclamation that the people assemble on December 5, 1865, at their churches and invoke Divine aid and return thanks for His great mercy in delivering us from the bonds of slavery and all other mercies vouchsafed to us."
The document was signed by Campbell as "superintendent." His adopted son, Edward E. Howard, signed it as "secretary."
Campbell established two public schools on Saint Catherines Island. His wife, his son, and his adopted son were their teachers. There were 250 students in the schools in 1866, which Campbell said he operated at his own expense. There can be no doubt, however, that the schools were operated with funds supplied by the freedmans bureau branch office in Liberty County.
By 1866 there were about 600 former slaves on Saint Catherines Island. It appears that they were given land which Campbell and his family did not want and left pretty much to their own devices. Campbell, himself, was often absent from the island. He attended the Educational Convention of Freedmen of Georgia at Macon, Georgia, on May 1, 1866, and was elected its vice president and placed on several of its most important committees.
Brigadier General Tillson referred to Campbell as "a person of great plausibility and remarkable cunning." He said Campbell and his people cut wood and sold it to passing steamers. Campbell, he said, pocketed most of the money and gave a small amount of it to his people.
Campbell's people existed on U.S. government rations and spent much of their time hunting deer. fishing, and slaughtering cattle left behind by the island's owner. They sold some of the beef and venison for high prices in Savannah, Georgia.
Campbell replaced Alexander W. Daley as a state senator in 1867, when he was appointed by the Liberty County branch of the Freedmens Bureau. He was unseated by the General Assembly in September 1868, and reseated in 1870 and served in the position through 1872.
From "Sweet Land of Liberty, A History of Liberty County, Georgia" by Robert Long Groover; Page(s) 51-54; Used by the permission of the Liberty County Commissioners Office