Robert Bohrn and another Civil War relic hunter uncovered the bones of an African-American soldier on Folly Island more than 20 years ago, and Bohrn said that startling discovery changed his life.
He feels as if he's a caretaker for the Union soldier and 18 others whose skeletons were also found.
Bohrn cannot forget them or the lonely outpost where they died. He wants to make sure others don't forget either.
"It's one thing to find a coin, a slave tag, a person's ring," said Bohrn, who lives in Rock Hill with his two daughters. "It's way different to turn your shovel blade over and see a human being."
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Bohrn is working with South Carolina to erect a historical marker near the site.
The African-American Union soldiers, he believes, deserve the same respect the South has given to Confederate soldiers.
PASSION FOR CONFEDERACY
Bohrn, who is 53, grew up on James Island near Charleston. His fascination with Civil War history began in 1961, the year of the Civil War centennial. He was 5 and swore allegiance to the Confederacy. He got his first metal detector at 14, and combed in and around Charleston, uncovering slave tags, Confederate coins, Union buttons.
Relic hunting became his hobby, if not his passion.
He knew Union soldiers had camped on Folly Island, a barrier island about 12 miles south of Charleston, during the war, and he hunted for relics on the back side over the years. But the woods there were dense with undergrowth and difficult to penetrate.
After a bulldozer cut a rough road through that area in 1987 for a new subdivision, Bohrn and fellow Civil War buff Erik Croen went looking.
They didn't find what they usually found, items that a soldier might drop, such as bullets, coins, pieces of knapsacks. The only relics they uncovered were badly deteriorated buttons. That was unusual. Even more so what happened next.
Croen dug up what looked like a root. On closer inspection, he realized it was a human femur.
They called state archaeologists. Bohrn said he remembers the conversation:
Are you sure they're not cow bones?
I don't know many cows wearing uniforms.
BONES OF 19 SOLDIERS
Archaeologists retrieved the bones of 19 black men, ages 16 to 40. All but one lay on their backs, hands across their abdomens. Only two skulls remained. Someone apparently pilfered the others years before.
About 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union. The best-known regiment was the 54th Massachusetts, immortalized in the movie "Glory." The men buried on Folly Island are thought to have been part of the lesser-known 55th Regiment, which fought alongside the 54th in the November 1864 Battle of Honey Hill.
It wasn't Confederate bullets that killed them. It was disease - dysentery, malaria, typhoid.
"They gave their lives for their country in a horrendous way," said Bohrn, a former chef now disabled by Crohn's disease. He said he can relate to the way they died; once he was so sick from diarrhea his weight dropped to 76 pounds.
"They didn't die instantly," he said. "They just withered away."
Their remains were reburied on Memorial Day 1989 at Beaufort National Cemetery.
The site of their first burial, Bohrn believes, should also be acknowledged.
"When you see that guy laying there, who never had a chance to go home, who never saw his family, that saddens me," he said. "It has always been my dream to have a historical marker put on Folly."
Historical markers must be privately funded in South Carolina. Bohrn said that with the help of a Web site for relic hunters, www.thetreasuredepot.com, he has raised $1,830 to cover the costs.
If all goes as planned, a marker will be erected at the island's community center on May 8, the 23rd anniversary of the discovery.
Tracy Power, coordinator of the S.C. Historical Marker Program, plans to help Bohrn with the wording.
"So few people know about the U.S. Colored troops," Power said. "Anything we can do to help tell that story is a good thing."