Uncovering the Union Army’s 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

Black History Month

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the Union Army is often overlooked, but their impact cannot be overstated. During the Civil War, they bravely marched into hostile territory and left their mark on the Lowcountry and the nation.

Robert Bohrn, a Lowcountry historian and relic hunter, has spent his life uncovering what people cast aside or simply forget. In 1987, he was digging on Folly Beach when he made one of his greatest discoveries.

Bohrn knew the area had been an encampment for Union soldiers, and construction on a new subdivision unearthed artifacts confirming such:

“They started excavate uniform buttons that were very corroded…and then we found a femur.”

Bohrn began searching the site for more bones. He found a few fragments in the pit dug for construction, and decided to dig a hole nearby to lay out the bones.

When Bohrn dug the second hole, the magnitude of his discovery became clear:

“There were four vertebrae — human vertebrae — with a piece of cloth and a uniform button on top.”

Bohrn uncovered more multiple sets of remains. The bones of many of the soldiers were so well preserved, scientists were able to make models of how the soldiers may have looked.

They discovered that the soldiers were black.

He called the deputy state archeologist and tracked down records of black soldiers that fought in the Lowcountry.

Bohrn found the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, a group that fought at Battery Waggoner: a bloody battle portrayed in the 1989 movie ‘Glory.’

The 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment followed. The group was used mostly for labor, building many of the roads on Folly Beach.

Soldiers in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment died hard deaths: “they died of disease, mostly dysentery and typhoid. They just withered away to nothing.”

Bohrn wanted to honor the men that carved out what we now know as Folly Beach. He raised money to erect a historical marker.

But Bohrn says that he is “just the mouthpiece for these soldiers.” The honor is theirs, not his, after a life of what Borhn describes as unmatched bravery:

“They were to me, the bravest soldiers… that ever wore a uniform. As a free black, or a runaway African American, to come to South Carolina in a uniform [with] a musket, that took guts.”

In early February, Bohrn was awarded with the award of the Silver Crescent by Governor Henry McMaster for bringing to light the story of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

Without Bohrn’s discovery, the soldiers likely would’ve been “bulldozed, lost to history.”

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