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South Carolina beach city remembers black Civil War soldiers

By Harriet McLeod

FOLLY BEACH, South Carolina (Reuters) -- The tiny island city of Folly Beach, South Carolina, paid tribute this week to Union soldiers whose bones were found there more than a century after the Civil War ended.

Residents, visitors and Civil War re-enactors gathered at a riverside park on Friday for ceremonies that included rifle and cannon fire salutes, bagpipes and the unveiling of a historical marker to the soldiers' unit, General Edward A. Wild's "African Brigade."

The unit camped here from 1863 to 1865. It consisted of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, free men, and the First North Carolina Infantry, former slaves.

This year, states North and South are holding commemorations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the first shots of which were fired nearby in Charleston harbor. The bloodiest war in American history claimed 620,000 American lives and ended slavery in the United States.

In 1987, Civil War relic hunter Robert Bohrn was exploring a vacant lot on Folly Beach with a metal detector when he found Union uniform buttons and a skeleton. The remains of 19 soldiers ultimately were discovered in what turned out to have been the brigade cemetery.

"In a shovelful of sand, I touched a soldier," Bohrn told the crowd. "It's one thing to find artifacts, but to find the men who lost them is an honor that I just cannot describe."

Bohrn, 54, contacted the University of South Carolina's archaeology and anthropology department to tell them he'd found bones. "They said 'you sure it's not a cow?' I said 'no, I've never seen a cow wear a Yankee uniform.'"

The soldiers were reburied with full military honors at Beaufort National Cemetery in 1989, but forensic artist Roy Paschal made casts of two skulls and created bronze busts of what the soldiers probably looked like. He displayed them on Friday.

Historians have records of who was buried in the brigade cemetery but identifying the men would be difficult, Paschal said.

Retired Washington, D.C. firefighter Louis Clark said identity is what drives him to re-enact the Civil War as a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, one of the first all-black units, whose members fought and died in this area.

"I might have an answer about my ancestors that I haven't found yet," he said." These soldiers all knew that they were going to raise their people to a higher level in life. They had the consolation of knowing that future generations were going to receive the benefit of what they did."

"The Civil War doesn't mean anything to you, not yet," re-enactor Melvin Turner, also with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, told a group of preschoolers after the ceremonies.

"This happened 150 years ago. But this is the uniform they wore. See this medal? I'm brave."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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