In November 1861, only seven months into the Civil War, Union gunboats captured the sea islands around Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, including the city of Beaufort. The area remained in Union control through the war and the city became a naval station, army headquarters and hospital center. Despite the economic devastation that followed, many historic structures were spared from war’s destruction and today make the city a charming place to see the restored town homes of nineteenth century planters. But the city also boasts rich African American history, especially from the Reconstruction period post-Civil War. A visitor to Beaufort should walk the quiet streets edging tidal marshes and gawk at the beautiful architecture but be sure to soak in the bigger story of life in this sleepy yet complicated city.
I recently visited after work hours, so couldn’t access the city’s museums. Several sites caught my attention.
Beaufort National Cemetery was established in 1863. The Civil War propelled the need for a national cemetery system. President Lincoln approved fourteen national cemeteries by 1862. Cemetery sites were chosen based on where troops were concentrated. By 1872 there were 74 national cemeteries. At first only soldiers and sailors who died during the Civil War were allowed to be buried in these cemeteries.
Growing up near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the Civil War battle, I’d often stood in the national cemetery there where Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony. On my trip to Beaufort, I stood in a very different setting, thinking of Civil War soldiers but surrounded by trees weighed down with Spanish moss.
In a prominent spot in this cemetery in a southern town stands the Union Soldiers Monument, a 20-foot tall granite obelisk erected in 1870.
Among the soldiers buried in the cemetery are 1700 soldiers from United States Colored Troops regiments, begun in 1863. The remains of 19 soldiers from the all-black 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, were discovered in the 1980s on Folly Island near Charleston to the north. They were interred here with full military honors in 1989.
The First African Baptist Church, founded in 1865 was built by freed slaves on land they purchased within a few years after the Civil War. The church housed a school for former enslaved people for many years.
The Robert Smalls house is not currently open to the public but tells a fascinating story. Smalls was born enslaved in 1839. He grew up and lived in this house until he was hired out to work in the Charleston area and ended up working on the CSS Planter where he learned the skills necessary to pilot a ship. On May 13, 1862 he commandeered the ship, sailing it to the Union forces where he gained freedom for himself and the crew. Northern news coverage of his heroism brought him attention and a bill enacted by Congress and signed by President Lincoln gave him and his crew the prize money for capturing a Confederate ship. He moved back to Beaufort and purchased his boyhood home from his former master. He even allowed his master’s wife to live there in her declining years. He became a public servant, serving in the SC House and Senate and the US House and even as a major general in the state militia. He founded the Republican Party in SC, authored a bill giving SC the first free and compulsory public school system in the US, and was the second-longest serving African American in the US Congress. He is the first African American to have a US Army ship named for him and his funeral was the largest ever held in Beaufort.
In 2017 President Obama signed a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in the Beaufort area. There is a surprising lack of sites in the National Park Service system that interpret the Reconstruction period story. This is an important step in telling an important chapter in US history. In history, if you scratch past the surface, you often find more complexity and learn that the past holds secrets and tells stories that are almost always better than any fiction.