Salute to black Union soldiers

Photos provided

Ted Rathbun (above right), then of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, clears sand from bones unearthed in 1987 at Folly Beach. The excavation turned up 19 Union soldiers buried during the Civil War. At left, these busts were created to show what two of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment troops unearthed at Folly probably looked like.

They emerged in 1987 for the first time in 124 years as bare bones in an archaeological dig.

The faces of two 55th Massachusetts Regiment Union soldiers whose remains were recovered at a Civil War grave site on Folly Island can now be seen.

Two life-size busts depicting the reconstructed heads of the soldiers -- wearing their Union Army caps -- will be on display Friday when a historic marker is dedicated at Folly River Park.

The Massachusetts 55th was the second all-African-American unit. They camped at Folly in 1863 during the Siege of Charleston. The better-known first African-American unit, the Massachusetts 54th, made an assault on Confederates at Morris Island's Battery Wagoner and was immortalized in the feature film "Glory."

Civil War re-enactors will be on hand for the marker dedication, to begin at 6 p.m. and to include a brigade gun salute, cannon fire and a performance by the Charleston police pipes and drums corps. Robert E. Bohrn, a former Charlestonian who contacted authorities after discovering the remains while relic collecting, will make a presentation.

Also there will be retired anthropologist Ted Rathbun, who helped excavate the site and study the bones, and retired State Law Enforcement Division forensic artist Roy Paschal.

Paschal works with Rathbun, who reportedly suggested the facial reconstructions be attempted. Bohrn funded the creation of the polymer busts and also the making of the historic marker, and will keep the busts as a personal memento after they are shown Friday.

Paschal said the busts are products of scientific methods for determining missing facial features and are based on careful measurements of skull features and known dimensions of muscle and other tissues. The two likeness are unique enough, Paschal said, that if anyone was alive who knew these soldiers they'd recognize the busts.

"With a high degree of surety, I believe these busts bear the likenesses of these two gentlemen," Paschal said.

Studies authored by Rathbun state the remains found in 1987 were troops from African-American units. "The cemetery contained the remains of at least 19 black soldiers, most likely from the 55th Massachusetts, 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry and the Second U.S. Colored Infantry," Rathbun's report states.

Bones ranged from fragments to full-length, well-preserved skeletons. The absence of any evidence of body wounds indicate the troops had died from diseases that were prevalent at the time in military encampments, the report said.

The bones were reburied in 1989 with full military honors at the National Cemetery in Beaufort.

Bohrn, now living in Frankfort, Ky., said he and another collector were probing a semi-wooded area slated for development when they encountered bones. Bohrn said he realized they'd come across a site not only historically valuable, but also sacred, and contacted the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"Americans need to recognize and respect the sacrifices made by both the North and the South during the Civil War," Bohrn insists. He said the men whose remains were found "gave the ultimate sacrifice, for what they believed in, deserve recognition."

Bohrn said the site chosen for the marker -- Folly River Park -- is not the grave site but near it, and more people will likely see the sign at the park. "I certainly believe that this historical marker, erected in their honor, will show that we as Americans have come a long way as a people since the 1860s," he added.

Paschal said the facial reconstructions were aided by a computer and were done first using clay. "I did them on my own time. It was a personal project," said Paschal, who has done forensic art and photographic studies for cable documentary programs.

The clay renditions were later used to cast the more durable busts made from a polymer, he said.

He said the two men remain unidentified. But rosters of the Massachusetts 55th troops who camped at Folly exist, and further efforts could possibly identify living descendants who might have photos of their "great-great-great-grandfather." The descendants might physically resemble the busts, he added.