Beneath the boughs of moss-draped live oaks in the heart of Beaufort County, the Beaufort National Cemetery is one of the Lowcountry’s historic gems. White headstones form a semicircle fanning out from the ornate entrance gate, with peaceful avenues dividing the property like the spokes on a wheel.
President Lincoln originally established the site in 1863 as one of six national cemeteries for the interment of fallen soldiers and sailors during the Civil War. Today, the 33-acre site has more than 18,500 burials, including veterans from every major American conflict, from the Spanish American War to the Gulf War.
Beaufort was an early target for the Union Army during the Civil War. Its position on the coast between Savannah and Charleston made it a prime location to set up a blockade and cut off the Confederacy’s access to the ocean and trade with European countries. In November 1861, the Union fleet overwhelmed Confederate defenders at Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island and Fort Beauregard on Phillips Island. This victory along the mouth of the Beaufort River cemented the Union’s control of the region, and their occupation of Beaufort.
The original residents of the cemetery were soldiers who died in the nearby Union hospitals during the occupation. Their remains were recovered and moved to the cemetery in Beaufort from several places, including east Florida and Hilton Head. About 2,800 remains were removed from cemeteries in Millen and Lawton, Georgia, and reinterred in the national cemetery; 117 Confederate soldiers are also interred there.
There are several notable persons interred at Beaufort. Master Sergeant Joseph Simmons was part of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers, one of four African-American regiments created as a part of the U.S. Regular Army after the Civil War. He fought on three French fronts in World War I and World War II and received the Légion d’honneur by the Republic of France in 1999. Simmons died shortly after the medal ceremony, 21 days prior to his 100th birthday.
Other significant burials include Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, subject of the movie “Glory,” Colonel Donald Conroy, John N. McLaughlin, Chuck Taliano, General Edwin Pollock and General William G. Thrash, among many others.
In May 1987, the remains of 19 Union soldiers were discovered on Folly Island near Charleston. The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology identified the remains as members of the 55th Regiment and the 1st North Carolina Infantry. Both units were composed of black troops who fought side-by-side with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment and had been missing in action since 1863.
The 1989 Memorial Day program at Beaufort National Cemetery featured the reinternment of those 19 soldiers with full military honors. The cast of “Glory,” Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis and descendants of African-American Civil War veterans attended the ceremony. One of the cemetery’s four monuments—two granite blocks affixed with bronze plaques—is dedicated to these soldiers.
Additional monuments include a 20-foot granite obelisk erected in 1870 to honor those who died for the Union. Also constructed in 1870 is a marble and brick box tomb inscribed with the names of 175 soldiers from 18 states. A memorial to Confederate soldiers was officially dedicated in 1997.
The Beaufort National Cemetery, located at 1601 Boundary St., is open for visitors daily from 8 a.m. until sunset. The cemetery office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and is closed on major federal holidays, with the exception of Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Visitors are asked to be respectful at all times while on site.
More information about the cemetery is available at www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/beaufort.asp or by calling (843) 524-3925.
Article written by Amanda Surowitz.