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After 126 years, 19 black Union soldiers receive military burial

By DE'ANN WEIMER

BEAUFORT, S.C. -- As regiments clad in Yankee blue and Confederate gray fired military salutes, the remains of 19 black Union soldiers who died on the beaches of South Carolina were buried Monday at Beaufort National Cemetery.

The bodies of the soldiers, believed to be members of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, the 1st North Carolina (Colored) Infantry Regiment and possibly the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, were discovered two years ago on Folly Island near Charleston, S.C., at a construction site.

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Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis presented the Massachusetts regimental flag to the color guard as 144 black and white Civil War re-enactors recreated a military burial service in accordance with 1863 Army regulations.

The Memorial Day salute for the soldiers was fired by a black Civil War re-enactment group from Boston as a Confederate unit from Georgia stood by.

A cool breeze stirred the flags and carried puffs of smoke from the Civil War-era muskets above the moss-draped trees as the caskets were lowered into the ground.

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The 19 unknown soldiers were buried with soil collected from five sites in Boston in a small corner of the national cemetery shaded by three giant oak trees.

The graveyard also is the last resting place for members of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment killed in the Battle of Honey Hill, which was fought just 12 miles from Beaufort.

Dukakis said the black soldiers 'had a uniqueness about them.'

'Unlike the men and boys who fought and died for a way of life they believed in, and others who did so with equal bravery to establish the sovereignty of the national government, these black soldiers ... fought for their own liberty, to grasp their own freedom and ensure both for others of their own race,' Dukakis said.

The 1988 Democratic presidential nominee said Monday's ceremonies were an important reminder about the cost of freedom and the continuing price that must be paid.

'Liberty once gained and then neglected is liberty in peril. Oppression once defeated and then forgotten is likely to return,' he said. 'So we do well to gather here today, so close to that place where these brave men, black and white, fought to gain that liberty and suppress that oppression, and died in the effort, as fitting testament to their cherished memory.'

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Anthropologists who studied the skeletons, buttons and other artifacts found at the Charleston-area excavation site concluded the soldiers were victims of disease while encamped on the island in 1863 and 1864.

'We will never know for sure they were with the 55th, but the 55th Massachusetts Militia was on the island a significant length of time in order to have casualties that number as many as 19,' said Steven Smith, director of the South Carolina Office of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The 55th Massachusetts Regiment was made up of free blacks and former slaves drawn from several states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Missouri.

The regiment fought alongside members of the 54th Massachusetts at the Battle of Honey Hill and remained on Folly Island through the seige of Charleston, making its 1863-64 winter encampment there.

The 1st North Carolina was recruited from freed slaves in New Bern, N.C., in June 1863 and was assigned to a brigade stationed on Folly Island during the long siege of Charleston, Smith said.

Because only two of the skeletal remains buried at Beaufort were complete, South Carolina officials rejected a request by Massachusetts authorities that the bodies be returned to that state.

'We at first thought the graves (on Folly Island) had been looted,' said Smith. 'Now we believe federal officials may have just removed parts of the bodies and buried those in national cemeteries like Beaufort, so it's logical to bury these remains there as well instead of sending them to Massachusetts.'

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The federal government dispatched search parties throughout the South after the cessation of hostilities to recover the bodies of Union soldiers from southern battlefields.

Many of those participating in the re-enactment also portrayed the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the movie 'Glory,' which was filmed in coastal Georgia and is awaiting release.

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