Feature Articles

June 2013

Charleston Museum in Charleston, SC, Offers Exhibition of Civil War Artifacts from Folly Beach, SC

Continuing its commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Charleston Museum in Charleston, SC, will present Our Duty was Quite Arduous: The Union Encampment on Little Folly Island, 1863- 1865, on view from June 6 through Mar. 10, 2014.

This original exhibition presents Civil War artifacts recovered by Charleston Museum archaeologists from the beach of “Little Folly Island.” Accelerated erosion caused by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989 uncovered a wealth of materials from the Federal presence there during the Civil War. Most were remarkably preserved and now provide a rare glimpse into the daily lives of Union soldiers garrisoned on Folly Island.

In early 1863, Confederates struggled to maintain control of Charleston, a pivotal seaport in the South’s defenses and supply chain. Federal leaders were desperate to penetrate its fortifications, particularly Fort Sumter. Surrounded by a maze of islands, marsh, tidal rivers and streams, Charleston was difficult to defend and to attack. The Federals realized the best hopes of neutralizing Fort Sumter lay in attacking from the south, by way of Folly Island and on up into Morris Island’s Battery Wagner.

This plan commenced in February 1863 when a small band of soldiers, led by Major General John G. Foster, disembarked onto a narrow strip of dry sand called Folly Island. Slowly thrashing through a jungle of undergrowth and pine woods, they reconnoitered the Confederate positions on Morris Island, just north of Folly. Within a few months, this quiet, largely uninhabited island became the camp of thousands of soldiers. Union troops toiled in horrid summer conditions, resulting in the building of ten masked batteries (earthen fortifications) with heavy fire power, on Folly’s northernmost tip, known as Little Folly Island. From this point the Union launched its siege of Morris Island, a battle well-known for its involvement of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first official African American units in the United States, later made famous in the movie Glory. Following the siege, Little Folly Island became a major supply depot and wharf for ferrying equipment and troops.

By the summer of 1865 with the war at an end, Folly’s north end was abandoned, the fort and rifle pits filled with used and broken equipment, lying in disarray. Buried later by sand and preserved in pluff mud, these materials were forgotten until exposed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The Federal troops who had been stationed there struggled against oppressive heat, bothersome sand, vicious mosquitoes and sand gnats, poor water, and irregular provisions. “Our duty...was quite arduous,” wrote a Connecticut soldier, referring to the challenging conditions faced by Federal troops on Folly. Their experience stands in stark contrast to the modern view of Folly Beach as a place of sun, surfing and relaxation.

Among the items recovered from Little Folly was a “US” cartridge box plate. The oval brass plate was filled with lead to provide weight and stability. These were affixed to the cartridge box and, along with the waist belt plate and cartridge box shoulder plate, completed the set of accoutrement plates for a US infantryman with a rifle-musket.

Also found was a ceramic tobacco pipe.

Alcoholic beverage bottles, for rum, wine, cider, ale, and whiskey, are a ubiquitous feature of Civil War sites. The Folly North beach was littered with discarded bottles.

Some of the most extraordinary artifacts recovered from the Federal encampment on Folly were military-issue shoes and boots, preserved in the waterlogged pluff mud. Once recovered, they were challenging to preserve. One example was conserved using Polyethylene Glycol and freeze-drying.

The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773, is America’s first museum. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located along Charleston’s Museum Mile. Holding the most extensive collection of South Carolina cultural and scientific collections in the nation, it also owns two National Historic Landmark houses, the Heyward-Washington House (1772) and the Joseph Manigault House (1803), as well as the Dill Sanctuary, a 580-acre wildlife preserve.

For further information check our SC Institutional Gallery listings, call the Museum at 843/722-2996 or visit (www.charlestonmuseum.org).

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