Beaufort National Cemetery: Where heroes find rest

American flags adorn graves at the Beaufort National Cemetery on Memorial Day.
American flags adorn graves at the Beaufort National Cemetery on Memorial Day.

Rows of white grave markers jut from swaths of meticulously manicured green grass, each headstone a shrine to one of more than 20,000 American heroes buried behind a six-foot tall brick wall in Beaufort National Cemetery along Boundary Street.

"It's clearly an asset as a beautiful open space," said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling of the 147-year-old, 49-acre burial ground. "It is a special honor that we can give our veterans to bury them in such a beautiful place in this beautiful little town."

Beaufort became the first national cemetery in South Carolina when created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and remains one of only three in the state, along with Florence National Cemetery and Fort Jackson National Cemetery in Columbia.

Lincoln created 14 national cemeteries in 1862 and designated another six in 1863, including Beaufort, according to the National Cemetery Administration.

The first soldiers buried at the cemetery were men who died in nearby Union hospitals, as well as 117 Confederate soldiers.

More than 20,000 service members and their families from every American conflict are now entombed at the cemetery, including Charleston native Ralph Johnson, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon in 1968 for jumping on a live grenade to save a fellow Marine during the Vietnam War. The cemetery also is the final resting place of Col. Donald Conroy, father of novelist Pat Conroy, and 19 Union soldiers from the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, whose remains were discovered in May 1987 by souvenir hunters using metal detectors on Folly Island near Charleston.

"Beaufort National Cemetery is deeply embedded in the history and culture of our community," said Bernie Bowse, director of the cemetery. "The people who come here and our community leaders have a deep love and affection for the cemetery as part of our history."

The cemetery also serves as the backdrop for the Veterans Day and Memorial Day celebrations in northern Beaufort County each year.

Originally built on about 30 acres of land along Boundary Street, the cemetery grew by another 15 acres in 2006, 10 of which weredonated by the National Guard, which had built an armory next tothe site in 1963. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., has also introduced legislation this year to purchase a five-acre parcel adjacent to the cemetery to allow for future expansion. The cemetery has enough burial space through at least 2030, Bowse said.

Bowse said those who work at the cemetery see their job as "a privilege."

"Our job is really the mission of the entire National Cemetery Administration, which is to provide a respectful and dignified burial for all of our service members," Bowse said. "The way we look at it is that this cemetery is a national shrine to our veterans and each individual gravesite is a national shrine. It's the best job I've ever had."