Beaufort National Cemetery is located in Beaufort County on Port Royal Island within the city limits of Beaufort, South Carolina. The cemetery best distinguished by a landscape plan in which the burial sections are arranged in the shape of a half-circle with roads arranged like the spokes of a wheel.
Although local Native Americans had inhabited the region for thousands of years, it was not until 1514 that Beaufort County became the site of the second landing of Europeans on the North American continent. After an extended period of settlement, in 1587 the Spanish withdrew from the region in the wake of attacks by the English in Florida. For approximately eight decades the land was left to its original inhabitants. Eventually, King Charles II granted the territory to a group of eight proprietors who named it “Carolina” after their benefactor. The first settlers included many Barbadians, and Carolina came to more closely resemble the plantation economy of the West Indies than the other mainland colonies. In 1711, a year after the territory was divided into South Carolina and North Carolina, the town of Beaufort was founded.
Prior to the Civil War, Beaufort was a center of culture and affluence in the American South. Immense fortunes were made through the cultivation of rice, indigo, and later, long-staple sea cotton. Wealthy plantation owners had summer homes in Beaufort where they could benefit from cool breezes coming off the Beaufort River. The town was also a hotbed of secessionist sentiment. In 1860, the first meeting to draft the Ordinance of Secession (by which South Carolina led the withdrawal of the southern states from the Union), was held in Beaufort. As a result, the city was an early target of Federal forces.
South Carolina formally seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. One month later, a Union fleet circled Port Royal Sound and within less than a year after secession Union forces occupied the city, and held it for the balance of the war. The Confederate Fort Walker was renamed Fort Welles, becoming the center of a large Harrison that at one point had as many as 50,000 occupants. Fort Welles served as the headquarters of the Department of the South and the refueling and supply depot for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. General William Tecumseh Sherman's march through the state at war's end left a trail of destruction that brushed Beaufort County. The war, while not physically decimating the area, claimed one-fifth of the white male population of the state and shattered its economy.
The original interments in the cemetery were men who died in the nearby Union hospitals during the occupation and were initially buried in several places—among them East Florida and Hilton Head. About 2,800 remains were removed from cemeteries in Millen and Lawton, Georgia, and reinterred in the national cemetery; 117 Confederate soldiers are also interred here.
In May 1987, souvenir hunters using metal detectors on Folly’s Island near Charleston discovered the remains of 19 Union soldiers. The South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology identified the remains as members of the 55th Regiment and the 1st North Carolina Infantry. Both units were composed of black troops who fought side by side with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The 1989 Memorial Day program at Beaufort National Cemetery featured the reinterment of the 19 Union soldiers missing in action since 1863. The Honor Guard for the service was composed of actors from the cast of the movie “Glory,” which was being filmed nearby.
Beaufort National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.
Monuments and Memorials
The 1870s Union Soldiers monument was erected in honor of 174 unknown Union dead buried at the cemetery; it is marble set on a brick base.
A large granite monument dedicated to “the Defenders of American Liberty Against the Great Rebellion” was erected during the 1880s.
Blue Star Memorial was installed in 1998. Sponsored by the Beaufort Garden Club in cooperation with the Garden Club of South Carolina, the marker is a tribute to American men and women who have served, are serving, or will served their county. Its symbolism is linked to World War II, when families of service members displayed in a home window a square flag decorated with a blue star to signify that a loved was in the armed forces.
The “Fighting Fourth” Marine Monument was erected and dedicated in 1995 by the Fourth Marine Division Assn, Carolina Chapter No. 26.
In 1997, a memorial in honor of Confederate soldiers interred at the cemetery was installed.