Once Neglected Charleston Cemetery Reveals Consequential Black History

The Morris Street Baptist Church Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, had been overlooked and neglected for nearly 60 years. But, a recent restoration project is uncovering its remarkable history that dates back centuries, including the graves of slaves and Civil War soldiers.

The Morris Street Baptist Church Cemetery is located on Mechanic Street in Charleston, between the Memorial Baptist Church Cemetery (The Baptist Church of Charleston Cemetery) and Friendly Charitable Association Cemetery.

Several individuals buried in the cemetery were members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), regiments in the United States Army composed primarily of African-American soldiers. The 175 USCT regiments constituted about one-tenth of the Union Army.

Roughly 20 percent of the USCT soldiers lost their lives during the Civil War. Common causes of death included: killed in battle, non-combat-related disease or sickness, a wound or injury, when captured or during internment, or missing in action. The primitive nature of Civil War medicine and in its practice meant that many wounds and illnesses were ultimately fatal. 

Formation of the USCT: In July 1862, the U. S. Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862 that freed slaves whose owners were in rebellion against the United States. That same year, Congress passed the Militia Act of 1862, which empowered the President to use former slaves in any capacity in the Union Army. President Lincoln opposed early efforts to recruit African-American soldiers, but accepted the Army using them as paid workers. In September 1862, the Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, announcing that all slaves in rebellious states would be free as of January 1, 1863. Recruitment of colored regiments began in full force following enactment of the Proclamation. The U.S. War Department issued General Order Number 143 on May 22, 1863, establishing the Bureau of Color Troops to recruit colored soldiers to fight for the Union. The USCT regiments included more than 178,000 free blacks.

Recent Discoveries in Charleston

Uncovered in an overgrown area of the Charleston cemetery were two historically significant discoveries, the graves of formerly enslaved men who served in the USCT.

  • Samuel Ferguson: Ferguson was born December 1844 in South Carolina and died Aug. 7, 1914, in Charleston. He served in the 1st United States Colored Infantry Regiment (unassigned unit) [Organized May 19, 1863, and mustered in June 30, 1863]; and the 47th U.S.C. Infantry Regiment [organized in March 1864 and mustered out on Jan. 5, 1866]. He applied for his Civil War pension on March 2, 1897.
  • Pompey Grant: Grant was born October 1850 in South Carolina and died April 11, 1913, in Charleston. He served in Unit F, 103rd Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. The regiment was organized at Hilton Head, South Carolina, on March 10, 1865; and mustered out April 15-20, 1866. Pompey would have been just 15 years old upon enlistment. He applied for his Civil War pension on Dec. 3, 1896, in South Carolina.

A Community-Wide Effort: The African-American Cemeteries Project has been a unifying, community-wide effort, according to Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds and Reverend Demett Jenkins, who were both quoted in a recent News2 article. The goals of the Lowcountry history project is to give future generations a chance to learn from their ancestors and support restoration of historically significant African-American burial sites.

The United States Colored Troops: The History and Legacy of the Black Soldiers Who Fought in the American Civil War
Soldiering for Freedom: How the Union Army Recruited, Trained and Deployed the U.S. Colored Troops
Army Life in a Black Regiment. Free e-book version.

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