The monumental work of human decency survives

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2012 

Beaufort National Cemetery feels more like a park than a burial ground, with its green grass, live oaks, cedars and avenue of palmettos.

Its simple white tombstones form curving arcs in a graceful design created by Beaufort's Niels Christensen Sr.

A plaque of Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is most fitting because the cemetery was personally authorized by President Lincoln in a letter dated Feb. 10, 1863.

A recent documentary on PBS's "American Experience" helped our generation grasp a chilling reality of that time. The introduction to "Death and the Civil War" states:

"Woefully unprepared for the monumental work of burying and accounting for the dead, Northerners and Southerners alike had to find a way to deal with the hundreds of thousands of bodies, many of which were unidentified, and the grieving families who sought information on loved ones who, in the end, would never be found.

"Before the Civil War, America had no national cemeteries; no provisions for identifying or burying the dead, notifying the next of kin, or providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans; no federal relief organizations; no effective ambulance corps; no adequate federal hospitals."

More than 7,500 Civil War soldiers are interred in Beaufort. Of them, 4,019 are unknown.

Remains were disinterred throughout the region and brought to Beaufort for reburial -- 2,800 Union prisoners of war came from Georgia, almost 1,500 came from Hilton Head Island.

The cemetery is now the final resting place of more than 19,000 service members and their spouses, from every major American conflict, including Afghanistan.

Its dignity is a result of help, generation after generation, from the living. The Department of Veterans Affairs tends it meticulously, but private citizens and organizations also have contributed.

Charleston's Eliza McGuffin Potter, a native of England who risked her life to tend to the sick and imprisoned during the Civil War, and her husband, Lorenzo Tucker Potter, left us the Union Soldiers Monument she had promised the dying. They left another monument naming nearly 175 soldiers from 18 states whom they personally served.

Today on Hilton Head, a couple pores over burial records from the island's Union encampment. The work at the Heritage Library by Paul and Marty Anthony -- working with Isobel Bitner, John Griffin and others -- was honored this year during the private library's Volunteer Appreciation Day.

Their accurate index is like the toil of Lorenzo and Eliza Potter, and the Beaufort National Cemetery itself. It is an act of decency for time immemorial.

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