Civil War buff tries to honor Mass. soldiers
Wants S.C. monument where many from black Bay State regiment died
Palmetto trees and other vegetation covered the stretch of sand Robert E. Bohrn longed to sweep with his metal detector, but then bulldozers came and uprooted the wild growth and scraped away several feet of sand, unearthing a neatly combed relic hunter’s dream.
The year was 1987, and the development of a subdivision was underway on Folly Island, S.C. Bohrn, a Civil War buff, visited the cleared space with Eric Croen, another relic hunter, and they began finding corroded Union buttons and other fragments of the country’s volatile past.
And then Croen found something bordering on macabre: a human femur. Bohrn dug deeper and found more bones and other indicators that the remnants and skeletal remains had belonged to Civil War soldiers who were part of a regiment from Massachusetts.
Twenty-three years later, Bohrn is raising money to bring recognition to the men of the 55th, an all-black volunteer regiment that fought for the Union. He is attempting to have a monument placed on Folly Island, where the men served and died in the early 1860s.
“It’s one thing to find the artifacts; it’s another thing to find the men who wore them,’’ Bohrn said during a recent telephone interview.
The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology excavated the remains of 19 African-American soldiers from the wartime burial site. They determined the soldiers had been members of the 55th Regiment from Massachusetts, part of the overflow unit of the famed all-black volunteer 54th, portrayed in the movie “Glory.’’ Both regiments, made up of free-born African-Americans, were assembled in Massachusetts and trained in the Readville section of Boston before heading south to fight the Confederacy.
Bohrn is working with officials in his state to erect a monument at the site. Specialists believe the soldiers died mostly of disease, particularly dysentery. Their remains were reburied in 1989 at Beaufort National Cemetery in South Carolina, an event attended by Michael S. Dukakis, then the governor of Massachusetts.
“This is something that is extremely personal to me. When I found those bones, it changed my life,’’ said Bohrn, of Rock Hill, S.C. Trained as a chef, he owned and operated a Civil War-period tavern. Disabled by Crohn’s disease, Bohrn has been divorced for eight years and is raising two daughters.
Tracy Power, coordinator of the South Carolina Historical Marker Program, said there were few African-American units in the war, so “the fact that there was a camp on Folly Island, discovered by accident, is certainly significant and unusual. “This find and the work of Mr. Bohrn allows for the knowledge of what happened there to be shared for future generations.’’
But the site has been lost to development - as have many in the Charleston area - so the chance of having it recognized as a National Historical Place, like famous Civil War battlefields, has been lost, said Power, a Civil War historian. “There is no site any more; the context has been lost,’’ he said.
The state requires historical markers to be privately funded, and while Bohrn has raised more than half of the $1,830 needed for the monument, he would like to see some donations come from Massachusetts. “It would be very poignant for the citizens of the Commonwealth to donate to this,’’ he said.
Bohrn, 52, said he would have tried to bring the monument to Folly Island earlier, but he has been slowed by his medical condition. Earlier this year, he found a website, www.thetreasuredepot.com, for people who search for artifacts, and in a meeting with some members, decided now is the time to see the project through.
Bohrn is working on the text for a 42-by-32-inch marker, which he plans to send to Power for revision. Once the text is finalized and approved, an order will be placed at Sewah Studios in Marietta, Ohio, a maker of historical markers. Bohrn hopes that on May 8, 2010, on the 23d anniversary of the discovery of the graves, the monument will be erected on Folly Island.
Hari Jones, curator of the African-American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., said members of the 55th served in the shadows of those in the 54th.
The latter was composed of men who passed a rigorous physical training program and who were sons or relatives of well-known abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass. Some of the volunteers were already well-trained soldiers, having belonged to private militias, Jones said. “They were the cream of the crop.’’
The 55th was composed of men who did not meet the standard of the 54th,’’ Jones said.
After the 54th’s assault on Fort Wagner, in which many of the regiment’s soldiers were killed, the 55th answered the Union’s call for reinforcements. But they mostly did detail duty, such as building entrenchments and unloading shipments.
The 55th, with roughly 1,000 soldiers, saw action in 1864 on James Island near Charleston and fought in the Battle of Honey Hill, south of Charleston, joining ranks with the 54th and other black regiments.
About 64 men from the 55th were killed or mortally wounded in battle and approximately 128 died from diseases. Some of their remains wound up on Folly Island.
Jones said: “This really would be a memorial to the quintessential American Freedom Fighter. These men fought to extend the blessings of liberty to everyone in this country, and all Americans are indebted.’’
Beverly Hector Smith’s great-great-grandfather, Charles Henry Tyler, was a member of the all-black Fifth Regiment, which also trained at Camp Meigs in Readville. In a telephone interview from her home in Natick, she applauded the fund-raising effort. “I know how proud I am of my ancestor, and I think it is wonderful what is being done to commemorate the sacrifice that the soldiers of the 55th gave for this country.’’
Smith, 72, said Tyler joined the Fifth in 1864 and served for about 18 months, seeing battle in Richmond. “Many of these soldiers had been forgotten in history, but lately, it seems like they’re slowly getting the attention they deserve.’’