Friday, August 21, 2015

Revealing secrets in a South Carolina cemetery photograph

Like this blog on Facebook.

At first glance, this poorly exposed image of a small Southern cemetery is unremarkable. A picket fence borders the grounds, which include at least 11 graves. Words appear on the headboard on the left in the back row, but they are indecipherable. A large tree branch juts out, perhaps obscuring other graves in the background. Judging from the freshly turned dirt in the right background, three of the interments appear to be recent. Weeds choke the cemetery, suggesting upkeep was not a priority.

Taken by Timothy O'Sullivan, this glass-plate image is in the collection of the Library of Congress, which makes digitized versions of Civil War photos available on its excellent web site. The caption on the negative sleeve for the original image reads, "Graves of Sailors Killed at bombardment Hilton Head, S.C. Nov. 1861."  On the LOC web site, the creation date for the photograph is listed as "1861 Nov.," but that's incorrect because one of the sailor graves in the image notes he died in 1862. Other images by O'Sullivan in Hilton Head were taken in April 1862, the probable time frame for this photograph.

 Upon closer examination, secrets of the image are revealed. ...

U.S.S. Wabash
... An enlargement of the large, wooden headboard in the left background reveals it marks the grave of  Thomas Jackson, a coxswain aboard the flagship U.S.S. Wabash.  Jackson suffered a gruesome death during the Union navy's attack at Port Royal Sound in South Carolina on Nov. 7, 1861, when the Wabash, a large steam frigate, came under fire from batteries at forts Beauregard and Walker. A "huge shot" struck Jackson in the leg, leaving it "dangling by a mere shred of quivering flesh and skin." Probably in shock, Jackson attempted to amputate the leg with his knife  but was unsuccessful, and he was quickly attended to by his comrades.

Lacking cannons of heavy enough caliber or range to withstand the attack, the Confederates were overwhelmed and abandoned the forts, allowing the Union to tighten its blockade on South Carolina. Casualties on both sides were light: the Union navy suffered at least six killed and 20 wounded; 11 Confederates were killed and 47 were wounded in the forts.  

"Rapidly he sunk away," noted an 1865 account of Jackson's death in The Soldier's Casket"and at last, with a short sigh, died." Jackson was apparently buried by his messmates hours later and may have been re-interred later in the graveyard in Hilton Head, S.C. It's unknown whether his remains were disinterred after the war and re-buried nearby in Beaufort (S.C.) National Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 7,500 Union servicemen. Here's the full account of Jackson's death in The Soldier's Casket

A 43-year-old seaman from Delaware, George W. Collins joined the Union navy in Philadelphia on Aug. 24, 1861. According to a Union navy enlistment document, he stood 5-foot-6 and had blue eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion and his occupation was listed as carpenter. In the 1860 U.S. census, Collins' occupation was listed as "waterman," and he lived in the Kent County town of Little Duck Hundred with his wife and daughters, Lucy and Mary. At least four other people whose relationship to the Collins family is uncertain lived with them.

Collins had blue eyes, brown hair and a fair complexion, according to this enlistment document.

In the 1860 census, George Collins' occupation was listed as waterman.
(Enlistment and census documents from
In March 1862, Collins and several other sailors from the U.S.S. Susquehanna were ordered to go on scouting missions on two South Carolina rivers. On March 22, they were fired on by Rebel pickets, who were scattered by a howitzer. But later that night, when they went ashore at the junction of Pull-and-be-Damned Creek and the Cooper River, they were mistakenly fired on by Union pickets. One of the shots hit Collins, killing him. It was an act, a Union officer wrote in a report, of "culpable carelessness."

Later that spring, Collins' body was returned to Hilton Head. On the day his marker appeared in O'Sullivan's photograph, it was partially obscured by weeds. ...

SOURCE: Barratt, Peter, Circle of Fire: The Story of the USS Susquehanna in the War of the Rebellion, Columbiad Press, 2004, Page 97.

... An enlargement of the tall headboard next to Collins' marker reveals the words "Sacred to the Memory of" and "Killed on Board." But the name of the sailor, vessel he served aboard and date of his death are too difficult to read to make a positive identification of who is buried here. Was he among the sailors killed the night Thomas Jackson died? If so, we may be able to hone in on his name. For now, however, his identity remains unknown. ...

UPDATE: Eagle-eyed friend of the blog Craig Heberton provides a probable ID on this grave marker:

The marker which stumped you appears to read "W.H. FitzHue (FitzHugh)," who died "aged 23 years" onboard the "U.S.S. Pawnee." An account: "There were eight reported Union casualties in the successful naval effort to take Port Royal, South Carolina on November 7, 1861. Eight sailors died from wounds suffered during the four-hour bombardment of Confederate-held Forts Beauregard (on St. Helena) and Walker (on Hilton Head), which guarded the entrance to Port Royal harbor. One of those sailors was William H. Fitzhugh, a 1st-class boy on board the USS Pawnee. An enemy shell struck the ship and exploded at the waterline killing ordinary seaman John Kelly instantly. Splinters from the impact shattered Fitzhugh’s right leg. In an effort to save him, the surgeon amputated his leg, but Fitzhugh died later that evening probably never knowing of the Union victory that he participated in that day. He was buried with full military honors at Bay Point the next day with the other seven men killed in battle. William Fitzhugh was a contraband of war, that is, a recently, self-emancipated slave who found his way to the Union line in Virginia and enlisted in the Navy. Fitzhugh may be the first black casualty for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron but he was in no way unique in his naval service."

 -- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, vol. 12 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1902), 264.

... In another enlargement of the original O'Sullivan image, this man, dressed in a suit coat and wearing what appears to be a slouch hat, stands by two grave markers. Perhaps he was the cemetery caretaker or maybe a man who just came to pay his respects to Union sailors buried there.

 Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. Might I suggest that those recent internments may be brick covered and not fresh at all. I have seen this here in SC, where a brick vault shaped covering is put on many of the early graves. You'll notice this in the last enlargement of your picture (too round and smooth to be soil), and on the original you can see the joints on the same grave.

    1. Interesting observation, Patrick.