Beaufort National Cemetery: Remembering Black Union Troops and Reconstruction This Memorial Day

Robert Bohrn fell in love with the Civil War when he was five on the centennial of the war’s outbreak. Since his early teens, he hunted relics around Charleston, South Carolina with a metal detector. Although he had searched the buried ruins of a Union camp on Folly Island before, the woods proved too thick with trees and underbrush for adequate artifact hunting. Then in 1987 a bulldozer opened the woods with a crude road to a new subdivision. He and Erik Croen set out to dig up the usual finds, such as bullets, belt buckles and coins. Croen touched Bohrn’s shoulder and held up a femur. The men went home to contemplate the discovery, returning the next morning. They found the previous night’s storm washed away enough soil to reveal fingers, toes and ribs. Believing they had unveiled the grave of one body, a Native American or a Civil War soldier, Bohrn took the towel-wrapped bones and began to dig a new burial spot for safety. The shovel hit a root and pulled up six intertwined vertebrae and a Union button. He called the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, which skeptically asked if he had uncovered cow bones. He responded that he had never seen a cow in a Yankee uniform.[1]

The institute directed the excavation, analysis and reburial of the bodies after Bohrn negotiated three terms. He wanted to participate in the dig, the remains buried with full military honors at Beaufort National Cemetery, and he and Croen to be acknowledged for the find. [2] The team found nineteen Union soldiers, including two full skeletons, across a two to three acre area. The two skulls present suggested the cemetery had been discovered at some point and looted. All but one of the men rested on their backs with hands placed across the abdomen. Some received protection from the elements by being placed in a wooden casket or rubber blanket. Strong and muscular, the men varied in age between sixteen and forty.[3] The institute believed the men served in the all-black 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, some of the first black enlistments in the Union army. Although they joined in Massachusetts, many of the men came as free blacks from the Old Northwest, places like Ohio and Illinois, and had been formerly enslaved. In 1863-1864, the 1000 man regiment built roads and fortifications under enemy fire in Folly Beach, saw artillery fire as a part of the siege of Charleston, and fought skirmishes on James Island and in the November 1864 Battle of Honey Hill, sustaining substantial causalities.[4] Disease and battle decimated the brigade. The regimental hospital most likely buried the nineteen men in its cemetery.[5] The institute later determined some remains came from the 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry, also deployed to Folly Island. Both groups fought with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was also at Honey Hill.[6]

Of the 180,000 black Union troops, the 54th remains the most well-known because of the film Glory depicting their fatal battle at Battery Wagner on Morris Island. The 54th spent time in Beaufort before seeing their first battle engagement on July 16, 1863 on James Island, which was meant to be a distraction from the primary goal of capturing Wagner. They held the line even though they were exposed on the right flank, garnering praise and the opportunity to participate in the main attack at Morris Island on July 18th. It failed. The 600 man regiment lost 270 men either killed, wounded or missing. However the brave assault turned the tide of public opinion in favor of black military participation in general. It also garnered support for the Port Royal Experiment in Beaufort, the dress rehearsal for Reconstruction during the Civil War.[7]

Bohrn, forever changed by both the discovery and helping remove the remains, thought about the men of the 55th often. The intense diarrhea from his own Crohn’s disease once reduced him to seventy-six pounds so he empathized with the way these men had suffered, slowly withering away from dysentery, malaria and typhoid prevalent in military camps. The remains showed no wounds from combat. He eventually paid for the construction of two bronze busts, measured precisely from the two recovered skulls. He wept the first time he saw the busts, representing the men who were nearly bulldozed away.

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

He displayed them at the dedication of the historical marker recognizing the Folly Island burial site, a personal campaign for him. Afterwards, he kept them in his foyer. As he requested, Beaufort National Cemetery also reinterred the fallen soldiers with full military honors. [8]

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

Beaufort National Cemetery sits on twenty-nine acres surrounded by a six-foot red brick wall. On February 10, 1863, Abraham Lincoln designated the site one of the first U.S. national cemeteries, with its formal dedication during the early years of Reconstruction in 1868. The federal government purchased the land, a former plantation called Jolly’s Grove, during the tax sale in Beaufort in 1863 for seventy-five dollars. This same sale of former plantations and abandoned land provided some black landownership during the Port Royal Experiment.[9] The wall did not appear until the end of Reconstruction in 1876 and inspired the local neighborhood’s nickname today, “The Bricks.”[10]

Photo by author

Photo by author

A crowd of nearly 4000 people, many singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” attended the 1989 reburial following a Memorial Day parade. They could hear drums and a fife as nearly fifty men from the recently-filmed Glory approached donning Union uniforms. They escorted the coffins, draped in flags with thirty-four stars. The ceremony included traditional memorial elements, such as “Taps” and a forty-gun salute, which may have been the joint salute by black Civil War reenactors from Boston and Confederate reenactors from Georgia.[11]

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

The 55th’s Massachusetts roots featured prominently into the services. Massachusetts officials placed small state flags next to each coffin. Women dropped a bit of Massachusetts soil into each grave. The state’s governor Michael Dukakis placed a wreath in front of the three rows of coffins and gave the keynote address.[12]

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

He praised both the 54th and 55th for “‘fighting for their own liberty, to grasp their own freedom and to ensure both for others of their own race.’”[13]  Finally, these nineteen men joined 7,500 of their Civil War brothers, including 4,019 unknown Union soldiers, 117 known Confederates, and 1,745 black troops, over half of which remain unidentified.[14] Twenty more comrades who died between in the winter of 1863-1864 may remain beneath the subdivision.[15]

[1] Elizabeth Leland, “Discovery of Black Union Soldier’s Bones Stirs Man’s Mission for Marker,” The Herald, December 26, 2009, State 1st edition, sec. Local, 1B, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/12CD7587B97749D8?p=NewsBank; Elizabeth Leland, “Relic Hunter Salutes Union Troops – Discovery of Bones Adds to Legacy of Blacks in Civil War,” The Orlando Sentinel, January 10, 2010, Final edition, sec. A, A12, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/12D4230B625E5AE8?p=NewsBank; Elizabeth Leland, “Folly Marker Sought,” The State, January 2, 2010, sec. Weather, 18, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/12CFD27DF319DD08?p=NewsBank; Kevin Wheatley, “Marking a Historic Find – Relic Hunter Honors Black Civil War Soldiers,” Lexington Herald-Leader, July 25, 2011, sec. Main News, A7, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/138B771FE66FBCA8?p=NewsBank; Edward C. Fennell, “Marker Dedication Will Honor Members of Massachusetts 55th,” Island Packet, July 14, 2011, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/1387DC1E5E8BE2A0?p=NewsBank, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/1387DC1E5E8BE2A0?p=NewsBank.

[2] Norah E. Machia, “North Country Native Is Succeeding by Digging the Past,” Watertown Daily Times, August 31, 1996, Both edition, sec. Lifestyles and Leisure, 9, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB09D5E6E2A6A4B?p=NewsBank; Wheatley, “Making a Historic Find,” A7.

[3] Leland, “Discovery of Black Union Soldier’s Bones Stirs,” 1B; Leland, “Relic Hunter Salutes,” A–12; Leland, “Folly Marker Sought,” 18; Fennell, “Marker Dedication Will Honor.”

[4] Wheatley, “Making a Historic Find,” A7; Associated Press, “Black Soldiers to Be Buried in Beaufort,” The Charlotte Observer, February 11, 1989, Five edition, sec. Metro, 2B, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB6C40850651796?p=NewsBank; Associated Press, “S.C. National Cemetery Final Resting Place of Black War Dead,” The Charlotte Observer, May 30, 1989, 1 & 5 edition, sec. Metro, 2B, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB6C47E4D69F240?p=NewsBank; “Beauford Cemetery One of First National Cemeteries,” Greensboro News & Record, August 23, 1991, Rockingham edition, 2, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB1925622AFEB2E?p=NewsBank.

[5] Machia, “North Country Native Is Succeeding by Digging the Past,” 9; Associated Press, “Hurricane Unearths Civil War Artifacts,” The Seattle Times, April 9, 1990, Final edition, sec. News, E8, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB533E9108168B8?p=NewsBank.

[6] “National Cemeteries in S.C.,” The State, May 26, 2008, sec. Local, A; Fennell, “Marker Dedication Will Honor”; Associated Press, “S.C. National Cemetery Final Resting Place of Black War Dead,” 2B; United Press International, “U.S. War Dead Honored from Nation’s Capital to Pearl Harbor,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 29, 1989, Metro edition, sec. General, 3, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB4F791E5D299A5?p=NewsBank; United Press International, “War Dead Are Honored across U.S.,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 30, 1989, Final edition, sec. National, A08, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB95F55AF9C11E5?p=NewsBank; Leland, “Discovery of Black Union Soldier’s Bones Stirs,” 1B; Leland, “Folly Marker Sought,” 18.

[7] Leland, “Discovery of Black Union Soldier’s Bones Stirs,” 1B; Leland, “Folly Marker Sought,” 18; Fennell, “Marker Dedication Will Honor”; Willie Lee Nichols Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 248, 255, 257–258, 264.

[8] Leland, “Discovery of Black Union Soldier’s Bones Stirs,” 1B; Leland, “Relic Hunter Salutes,” A12; Leland, “Folly Marker Sought,” 18; Wheatley, “Making a Historic Find,” A7; Fennell, “Marker Dedication Will Honor.”

[9] “Beauford Cemetery,” 2; Lolita Huckaby, “National Cemetery Dates Back to Civil War – Memorial Day Ceremonies Just Part of Busy Facility’s Schedule.,” Carolina Morning News, May 28, 2001, CMN edition, sec. Generations, 3, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/1058B907F10A00A3?p=NewsBank; History 712, Historic Preservation Practicum, Public History Program, University of South Carolina et al., “The Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County: Local Initiative for National Designation: Report” (Columbia, S.C., Spring 2003), 19–21, 102, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

[10] Erin Moody, “‘The Bricks’ around National Cemetery to Get Polish,” Island Packet, October 14, 2011, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/13A632CE01BB4C60?p=NewsBank.

[11] Associated Press, “Black Soldiers,” 2B; Associated Press, “S.C. National Cemetery Final Resting Place of Black War Dead,” 2B; Compiled from News Services, “Homage – Tribute Is Paid to Those Killed in Nation’s Wars,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 30, 1989, 5* edition, 1A, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EB04C29087519BD?p=NewsBank; Machia, “North Country Native Is Succeeding by Digging the Past,” 9; United Press International, “U.S. War Dead,” 3; United Press International, “War Dead Are Honored,” A08; Huckaby, “National Cemetery Dates Back,” 3.

[12] Associated Press, “S.C. National Cemetery Final Resting Place of Black War Dead,” 2B; Compiled from News Services, “Homage,” 1A; United Press International, “U.S. War Dead,” 3; United Press International, “War Dead Are Honored,” A08; “Beauford Cemetery,” 2.

[13] Associated Press, “S.C. National Cemetery Final Resting Place of Black War Dead,” 2B.

[14] “National Cemeteries in S.C.,” A; “Beauford Cemetery,” 2; Huckaby, “National Cemetery Dates Back,” 3.

[15] Wheatley, “Making a Historic Find,” A7.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s