Saint Simon? Simon Cameron at Mitchelville

Written by Michael Cassidy

While vacationing in Hilton Head, SC, and taking time to visit a small historical site called Mitchelville, we were surprised to find a connection to Maytown.

Simon Cameron, born in Maytown in 1799, is largely known as a powerful U.S. Senator, businessman, political boss, and early member of Lincoln’s cabinet. Charges of corruption and profiteering plagued him in his day and in the history books. Thaddeus Stevens, congressman for Lancaster and fellow Republican, once quipped: “I do not believe that he (Cameron) would steal a red-hot stove.” When Cameron demanded a retraction, Stevens agreed to retract, reportedly saying that he was in error, Cameron might steal a red-hot stove.

More recent scholarship, however, tempers that impression of Cameron. His business ventures and political power made him wealthy, but by all accounts he was personally affable, generous, and loyal. He was Pennsylvania’s “favorite son” candidate for president in 1860 until he threw his support behind Lincoln. Initially, Lincoln appointed him as Secretary of War but had him removed from the cabinet in 1862, giving him an appointment as Ambassador to Russia. His enemies claimed the demotion was rightly due to corruption and profiteering. However, many at the time feared his removal was to placate politicians in the border states. Cameron was a vocal, early supporter of arming escaped slaves and the ending of slavery as a legitimate war aim. He also supported actions taken by generals in the field, like John Fremont and Benjamin Butler, who moved to free slaves in their territories. His anti-slavery sentiments were amplified by the death of his younger brother, James Cameron, killed at the battle of First Bull Run. James was the Colonel of the New York 79th Infantry “Highlanders.”

Cameron and Mitchelville

Union forces captured Port Royal and Hilton Head early in the Civil War in 1861. Slaves streamed into the Union camps. Major General Ormsby M. Mitchel decided to develop a plan for a self-governing town for the former slaves, including schools and churches. Homes were built by the new residents using Army-supplied lumber. The town was established in 1862, though General Mitchel died of yellow fever and did not live to see its completion. The town had 1500 residents by 1865 who supported themselves by fishing, working for the Army, or working on surrounding plantations. The venture, known as the Port Royal Experiment, attracted visits from prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and members of Congress.

One of several wayside exhibits at the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park celebrates a visit from Senator Cameron (reelected to the Senate in 1867 as a Radical Republican.)

“Sen. Simon Cameron, Secretary of War for Lincoln from 1861 to 1862, visited Mitchelville as a part of a Congressional visit to the South after the war. He attended church with the freedmen and contributed money towards a new chapel that the grateful church named St. Simons in his honor.”

The new chapel was presumably dedicated to Simon the Zealot, one of the Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:4, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13). In naming the chapel, the freedmen probably assumed that the Senator from Pennsylvania was the namesake of the great saint, clearly, the nicest thing ever said about Senator Cameron.

Simon Cameron resigned his Senate seat in 1877 and was replaced by his son, Donald. Simon died at his farm at Donegal Springs near Maytown at the age of ninety. In addition to the chapel at Mitchelville, Cameron Parish in Louisiana, and Cameron County in Pennsylvania, are named for him. Mitchelville did not survive the end of the Reconstruction Era and the loss of federal protection.

For more information about Simon Cameron, read Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War by Paul Kahan. See also