I had a curious sense of déjà vu recently. It was almost as if I had run into myself — a much younger self — around a dark, metaphysical corner after many years. It has been strange to contemplate how much the world and I have changed in the last 22 years.
In the spring of 1989, I was writing for The State newspaper in Columbia when I volunteered for a special assignment. Two years earlier, the bones of 19 Civil War soldiers had been unearthed at Folly Beach. Two years of research by archaeologists and anthropologists had revealed that they were black soldiers, members of the Massachusetts 55th, who had died — apparently of natural causes — some time in 1863 or 1864. Any markers that may have once stood over their graves had disappeared long before. These were truly unknown soldiers, but they were no longer forgotten.
After the scientists were done with the bones, the plan was to bury them with full honors at the federal military cemetery in Beaufort, S.C. A number of re-enactor groups and others had gotten involved and this event had become a major production.
I drove down to Beaufort in May with a State photographer and spent a long afternoon watching the ceremonies and speeches. There were men in blue and gray, women in hooped skirts, caissons bearing coffins, infantry salutes, and speeches, speeches, speeches. The most notable guest that day was Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, still smarting from his loss to George H.W. Bush in the recent presidential election. I recall nothing any of them said.
In a day that was much too long and much too hot, the most memorable presence there were the extras who had been brought up from Georgia, where the movie Glory was in production. Over a hundred young black men in their blue uniforms and period weapons seemed like a living link to the past. I talked to one of them for my story. He was moved almost to tears as he told me what it meant for him to learn the role of black soldiers in the Civil War.
The wonderful Edward Zwick film told the story of the Massachusetts 54th, the legendary black infantry unit that made history in its ill-fated attack on Battery Wagner, just south of Charleston, in July 1863. The soldiers we were burying that day in Beaufort were not part of that historic action. As members of the Massachusetts 55th, they arrived on Folly Beach a month after the Battery Wagner assault and spent the next year slogging around on the jungle-choked, mosquito-infested island in their dark wool uniforms. Far more of them died from disease than from Confederate bullets. Among them were the 19 we honored that day.
Recently, more than 22 years after that ceremony in Beaufort, I stood in the park at Folly Beach observing another ceremony to honor the 19 members of the Massachusetts 55th. Mercifully, this event was not nearly as long and ponderous as the first. More than 200 hundred people were present for the unveiling of a historical marker telling the story of the Massachusetts 55th and the discovery of the bones a few hundred yards away.
There were re-enactors in blue and gray, of course, and infantry and artillery salutes. And of course, there were politicians — but not many.
In fact, this was somewhat of a sore spot with Folly Beach officials. The town had extended invitations to all the mayors in the county, as well as the entire Charleston County legislative delegation, Mayor Tim Goodwin told me later. Of those, only Rep. Peter McCoy and Sen. Chip Campsen — both of whom are white — showed up. McCoy and Campsen made brief and gracious remarks about the 19 soldiers and their role in saving the Union and ending slavery. They were right, of course, and the role of those soldiers is a powerful refutation to those who still insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery.
But it does seem that others should have been there to make that point. The only black speaker that afternoon was the church elder who delivered the benediction. Sen. Robert Ford and other black members of the county’s delegation apparently had more important things to do. And there was hardly more than a handful of blacks in the audience for the ceremony.
What a difference from the ceremony I remember at Beaufort in 1989. That ceremony was uplifting and unifying, bringing together blacks and whites in a special moment of remembrance.
It was a disappointing insight into the modern black community’s lack of commitment to their own history. The black people of Charleston County owed more to these 19 unknown soldiers. And they certainly deserved more.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.