Beaufort's Arsenal has long been a symbol of area's strength, uniqueness

The Beaufort-Port Royal Convention and Visitors Bureau want to turn the Arsenal and Carnegie Buildings into a visitors center with office space and meeting rooms.
The Beaufort-Port Royal Convention and Visitors Bureau want to turn the Arsenal and Carnegie Buildings into a visitors center with office space and meeting rooms. JONATHAN DYER | The Beaufort Gazette

Long before Marines trainedon Parris Island, Beaufort established itself as the home of one of the nation's oldest military organizations.

The Arsenal on Craven Street was built in 1798 to house the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery after it fought with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

The National Guard in Beaufort traces its roots to the local militia, recognized as the fifth-oldest unit in the United States, said Major Scott Bell, a historian for the S.C. National Guard.

Now, Main Street Beaufort, USA, is recommending the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce house a visitor's center in the recently restored Arsenal. City Council would have to approve the plan.

The Arsenal has served many public purposes over several decades and has been occupied by family courts, city offices and, most recently, the Beaufort Museum and offices for the Historic Beaufort Foundation. The Arsenal housed National Guard soldiers in parts of the building until the early 1990s, Bell said.

The 211-year-old, yellowish building has come a long way since 1798.

The Arsenal was built on the original city square to serve as headquarters and store weapons for the volunteer artillery, a militia of prominent citizens who protected the city and ports in times of war and hosted elite social events, said Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum.

Although not officially recognized as the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery until 1776, the group formed decades earlier to fight warring Indians. Beaufort men participated in local skirmishes against Indians, Spaniards and pirates, Bell said.

During the Revolutionary War, Beaufort men fought in battles up and down the coast. The local unit was adopted by the Continental Army as one of the state's best-outfitted and best-manned militias, Bell said. Beaufort men helped drive the British off Port Royal Island in 1779 and pushed them back to Savannah, he said.

The unit was captured at Charleston after Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln's surrender of the Southern Army on May 12, 1780.

Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the volunteer artillery became an aristocratic social institution, and its 50 to 100 soldiers hosted banquets inside The Arsenal, historian and University of South Carolina Beaufort professor Larry Rowland said.

Men who would be considered millionaires by today's standards comprised the unit, and the names of many of the families that served -- such as Elliotts, Samses and Barnwells --are still heard in Beaufort today, Wise said.

Their celebrations and balls involved copious alcohol and big meals.

"It was mostly a stag event so they could misbehave better," Rowland said.

In times of war, however, the unit grew.

"It was a very distinguished company of men between the wars," Rowland said. " ... But during the wars they needed everyone they could and took anyone who wanted to join."

In the 1850s, agitated secessionists in the deep South began expanding and strengthening their militias, Wise said. Local secessionists expanded the Beaufort Arsenal and rebuilt the original tabby structure with brick, Wise said. Only a small corner of the original tabby material remains, he said.

Members of the artillery became a type of informal slave patrol thatpoliced the city and ensuredslaves in the area were documented, Wise said. Robert Smalls spoke of seeing slaves punished in The Arsenal, Wise said.

When the Civil War began, the volunteer artillery fought for the Confederate Army. They fought at Fort Beauregard during the Battle of Port Royal and took part in the battles of Pocotaligo, Honey Hill and Coosawatchie, among others, Bell said.

After the Civil War, the Republican government disband the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery and took control of The Arsenal. Two new militias -- one for black men and another for white men -- were formed.

Those groups were disbanded after Democrats regained control and the volunteer artillery was reinstated in the late 1870s. About 20 years later, the group became part of the state's naval militia.

The National Guard and a sister organization of the Beaufort County Historical Society began maintaining a museum in The Arsenal in the 1920s, Wise said. The building was again renovated in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration.

Another armory was built for the National Guard in 1966, and keys to The Arsenal have changed hands among several organizations since, Wise said.

Beaufort's Arsenal is one of few in the state that dates to the 1700s, Wise said.

"It's one of the few that is still left," he said. "I hope somehow they can retain some sort of exhibits there."