Monument's chiseled words tell Lowcountry Civil War story

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 5, 2011 

Monument to a man who served on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War 150 years ago will soon find its way back to Union Cemetery Road.

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A monument to a man who served on Hilton Head Island during the Civil War blends like a chameleon into the shade of the Zion Chapel of Ease cemetery.

But it doesn't belong there with the tombs of the Revolutionary and antebellum landed gentry.

The monument will soon be moved back to the vicinity from which it came on Union Cemetery Road, where it can better tell the often hidden story of Beaufort County's role in the Civil War.

On Nov. 7, 1861 -- 150 years ago Monday -- a large Union armada blasted small Confederate forts on Hilton Head and Bay Point. The defeated Confederates fled as 12,000 Union troops swarmed ashore. The Union reported eight dead and 23 wounded in the short battle. The Confederates reported 11 dead, 48 wounded, three captured and four missing.

But over the next five years, as the island served as headquarters for the Union's Department of the South, some 1,500 souls were buried in "the old government burying grounds" near what we know today as Union Cemetery.

Several years after the war ended, the bodies were dug up and taken to the Beaufort National Cemetery. It is one of six national cemeteries established in 1863 for the reinterment of Union soldiers and sailors who died in the region. A number were reinterred as unknowns.

Today, two volunteers at the Heritage Foundation Library on Hilton Head spend hours each week poring over old government documents and a modern computer in search of new tidbits to positively identify all who were buried here by the government.

The 10-foot granite monument was never a tombstone. It is said to have been brought here by colleagues of the man it honors, and placed along the road to the old fort, where they believed the burial grounds were located.

"In memory of John M. Smith," say its chiseled words from fellow carpenters of the Quartermaster Department. "Born September 9, 1842. Died at Hilton Head, South Carolina June 3, 1865.

"It is not through age that here I lie.

So, friends, prepare yourselves to die.

Repent in time, make no delay.

I in my youth was called away."

'The sick and lonely'

It's not easy to track down a John M. Smith, or anyone else who may have died or been buried here during the war.

Volunteers Paul and Marty Anthony work with John Griffin Sr. at the Heritage Foundation Library in a search that has been going on for years. They use government burial records, hospital records and the "Roll of Honor" that attempts to list all military dead. They use ancestry.com and other tools. They have discovered that one of the dead soldiers was only 16. They found another record that called for a 3-foot casket, apparently for an officer's little girl named Mary Elizabeth.

The records often conflict, and names come with multiple spellings. Thus the detective work they hope will enable the private library to provide important clues for family members searching for ancestors who were here during the war.

The causes of death are rarely bullets, as this was not a place for the storied battles of the war. Typhoid, cholera, chronic diarrhea, fever and sometimes smallpox are more common.

In his 1961 book, "Hilton Head Island in the Civil War," Robert Carse writes of the General Hospital that served an encampment of 40,000 people in what is today Port Royal Plantation. The wooden structure of 60,000 square feet was built to catch the "cooling, cleansing" ocean breezes.

But, Carse writes, "So many men had died there that the death march was forbidden when the funeral cortèges moved to the cemetery."

From a post up the shoreline on Morris Island, a volunteer from New England gives an inside look at what it was like. In "A Woman Doctor's Civil War: Esther Hill Hawks' Diary," Gerald Schwartz records her words:

"Had a funeral in Camp yesterday -- one of the men died of pneumonia -- went to the burial. This island, in going over it a little back from the beach, is just one great graveyard! How many a poor fellow, who with hopeful, patriotic hearts, have left their homes; burning with zeal to do something for their Country -- has found a grave in these marshes and sands! It must be a sad spot to the sick and lonely soldier."

A century and a half later, library volunteer Marty Anthony looks up from her Excel spreadsheet and says, "When we can give them a first name, that's like honoring them."

'A new life'

Perry White of Hilton Head says he has been working for almost 30 years to get the John M. Smith monument back to Union Cemetery. He said he was challenged by the former Hilton Head Historical Society to prove it belonged there. He had only his memory, and the memory of his father, the late Johnny White, to make a case he thought did not need to be made.

Then one day an old book showed up at the Gullah Flea Market he used to operate on William Hilton Parkway. It was "Hilton Head: A Sea Island Chronicle," written in 1959 by Virginia C. Holmgren. He says it was by the grace of God that he found the smoking gun on Page 62. In detailing island cemeteries, Holmgren wrote: "Yankee soldier graves were all supposedly moved to the National Cemetery in Beaufort. One shaft remains forgotten among the thickets along the road to Fort Walker." It was the John M. Smith monument.

Bill Altstaetter, a board member of the Heritage Foundation Library, which now owns the Zion Chapel of Ease cemetery site as successor to the Hilton Head Historical Society, said the library has agreed that the monument can be moved back to Union Cemetery Road.

He guessed that more than 50 years ago the developer of Port Royal Plantation wanted the monument moved for some reason, and it was.

White said St. James Baptist Church, which owns 1.49 acres at the Union Cemetery site, will accept the monument for that site, which includes a traditional active cemetery used by native island African American families, including the Whites. White is a deacon at St. James Baptist, and said the church is working on plans for a ceremony to mark the monument's return, as well as long-term plans for a more modern cemetery there.

Union Cemetery, the old government burial grounds and the John M. Smith monument are just as much a part of the island's history as the Zion Chapel of Ease cemetery, White says.

Library volunteer John Griffin agrees.

"It's a great story of American soldiers," he said

"When the monument moves, it's going to have a new life, and a new history."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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