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The find of a lifetime - Franklin County man unearthed Civil War graves

Robert Bohrn knows a little about the two men behind the bronze busts in his foyer. One thing he’s sure of is that this year’s Civil War sesquicentennial adds to their historical worth.

He knows they served in the Union’s all black 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment. That they built roads and fortifications, often under Confederate fire, in Folly Beach, S.C., from 1863-1864 and that they died from typhoid, dysentery and other ailments common in military encampments then.

black civil war soldierblack civil war soldierBohrn also knows the men were among the first blacks who could enlist in the U.S. military, fighting to keep the seams of the Union from bursting during a time of racial strife. A sister regiment, also made up of black soldiers, has been memorialized in a movie.

Bohrn, a 54-year-old Charleston, S.C.-born hunter of Civil War relics who now lives in Franklin County, helped unearth 19 skeletons of the men in the 55th. 

He was searching an area with a metal detector in 1987 on Folly Beach, about 12 miles south of Charleston on the coast.

The spot had been picked for a new subdivision, and Bohrn, who grew up looking for pieces left behind from the Civil War, combed the recently cleared ground for a hidden bullet or belt buckle.

Instead, he found a number of corroded buttons attached to pieces of Union uniforms. 

Bohrn’s friend, Erik Croen, tapped him on the shoulder and told him they may have found a grave.

“I was like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Bohrn told The State Journal in a recent interview.

“And he pulled out from behind his back a femur.”

The two stopped searching that day and went home to collect their thoughts over a case of beer, Bohrn said. They figured the femur belonged to either a Native American or a Civil War soldier.

Bohrn and Croen went back the next morning. 

“We got there, and there were bits and pieces on top of the ground,” Bohrn said. A storm the night before had washed away some of the sandy soil.

Bones from fingers, toes and ribs poked through the ground.

“I remember picking up a patella,” Bohrn says. 

He wrapped the bones in a towel and tried to bury them nearby for safekeeping, but his shovel hit something solid.

Bohrn pried the shovel loose. There were six vertebrae with roots holding them together on the blade’s tip. A Union button lay on top.

“At that point I knew that it was a soldier, and I stuck the metal detector in the ground and of course could hear more artifacts,” Bohrn said. 

“So we filled it in and we’re like, ‘Well, I guess it’s over. We’re not going to be metal detecting out here anymore,’ because that would’ve been the wrong thing to do.”

Bohrn called the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and told someone there that he’d found the bones of a Union soldier.

They didn’t believe him and asked if he’d found cow bones by mistake.

“I said, ‘I’ve never seen a cow wear a Yankee uniform,’” Bohrn said. “… It got real quiet on the other end of the phone.”

USC sent a team of archaeologists to Folly Beach, and Bohrn released the site under three conditions: 

>He could help in the dig

>The remains would be buried with full military honors at nearby Beauford National Cemetery

>He and Croen would get some credit for the find.

The team searched a two- or three-acre area of Folly Beach and found the bones of 19 Union soldiers, including two full skeletons. Planks of a wooden casket were still visible on one.

Bohrn, who describes himself as an “emotional relic hunter,” says each find brings a thrill, whether it’s a uniform button or spent ammunition.

But those trinkets don’t compare to the remains of a Union soldier. Bohrn helped move bones from the site.

“I won’t call it eerie because it wasn’t; it was extremely personal,” Bohrn said. “I mean, it’s about as personal as you can get with a soldier from the Civil War.

“… To actually hold their remains in my hands is something that I will never be able to… there aren’t words for it, obviously.”

Bohrn remembers handling the skulls of the men in the bronze busts. 

“To know that I’ve held both of those gentleman’s skulls in my hands and to actually see them now as human as I’m ever going to see them on this side of whatever plane we’re on, so to speak, to me is just… how’s it going to get any better for me?

“How am I going to top this? I can’t.” 

Dr. Ted Rathburn, a retired USC anthropologist, found the remains likely belonged to black solders in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, Bohrn said. The men apparently died from ills associated with military encampments at the time.

KPA news content serviceKPA news content serviceThe team also uncovered a Kentucky link at the gravesite – an identification stencil for Pvt. Harrison Pearl, a freed slave from Mason County who enlisted with the 55th in 1863 and died in Ohio in 1915, Bohrn said.

The remains were buried with full military honors at Beauford National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 1989. Morgan Freeman and other cast members of “Glory,” a 1989 film based on the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and its battle at St. James Island in South Carolina, attended the service, Bohrn said.

Bohrn raised roughly $1,900 for a national historic marker honoring the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Folly River Park. 

He moved to Frankfort after he reconnected with a childhood friend, Deborah Stalvey, on Facebook. She wanted to donate to the historic marker fund, and in June the couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

The marker was dedicated July 15 in Folly Beach. That’s also when Bohrn first saw the bronze busts. 

Roy Paschal, a retired forensic artist with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, created them based on the two intact skulls found in 1987.

Bohn purchased the bronze for the two busts for $600 and brought them to his home near Switzer.

Paschal depicted the men in uniform. Each has a Union cap and buttoned-up jacket and look as if they’re ready to step into battle.

Bohrn said he cried when he first saw the busts.

“Those are my guys, and, again, this is the only instance of this ever happening in this country,” Bohrn said. 

“… They would’ve been bulldozed away, and they would’ve been relegated to the back pages of a history book.”

More Civil War soldiers are likely buried beneath the sandy soil of Folly Beach, Bohrn says. A subdivision now covers the campsite, and anthropologists only searched a limited area.

Historic records show more than 40 men died in the Folly Beach camp between December 1863 and February 1864, Bohrn said.

Bohrn, a retired executive chef, has no plans to dig around Folly Beach’s woods for more Union remains.

“They’re fine; they’re still five, six feet down,” Bohrn said. “There might be a house or two on top of them, but they’re fine. 

“They’re not going anywhere.”

By Kevin Wheatley
The State Journal

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