The Folly Island Cannonballs and the Value of Context

Hurricane Matthew wended its way up the Eastern Seaboard this week, wreaking havoc and taking lives. One of the few, well, not exactly happy, but perhaps “huh” stories to come out of the storm’s aftermath is the discovery of a number of cannonballs on the beach at Folly Island, South Carolina, south of Charleston.

I’m absolutely not going to second-guess the decisions made to destroy or curate the items, as it seems that some were exploded in place while others were carried back to an unspecified U.S. Navy facility for destruction. Bomb squads do what they need and are trained to do.

What I do fine somewhat troubling is the news coverage and the lack of context for what Folly Island meant during the war, and why exactly Civil War cannonballs would be showing up there. Those that gave any context noted only that “The first shots of the Civil War were fired at nearby Fort Sumter in 1861.” The only source to really do better was Hudson Hongo, writing for Gizmodo, who offered that “During the Civil War, Folly Island served as a key staging area for Union troops attacking nearby Fort Morris. Since then, remnants of the occupation have periodically been discovered in the area, including a black regimental cemetery found during a construction project in 1987 and military artifacts uncovered by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.”

Folly Island was a major piece of the U.S. Army’s attempt to take Charleston from the seaward side, coming overland from the mouth of the Stono River and working through the coastal swamps toward the city. This is the area where Fort Wagner, on adjacent Morris Island, stood (yes, THAT Fort Wagner, from the movie Glory). The cannonballs that washed out of the sand yesterday were a part of a major, complex, combined-arms effort by the U.S. military, and their location and recovery should not be taken as some surprising, improbable discovery. Our “iron harvest” pales in comparison to what France and the Low Countries deal with from World War I, but it is, nonetheless, an ongoing hazardous legacy of conflict.

Total credit to Mr. Hongo for tracking down the previous work on Folly Island (you can download the text of the report here). That mentioned “black regimental cemetery” was an excavation project by James Legg and Steven Smith that recovered the remains of 19 U.S. soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts Infantry, 2nd U.S. Colored Infantry (organized in the District of Columbia), and 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry regiments. Their presence is more than just a component of the U.S. Army’s contingent in the area. They were laying the groundwork for the 14th and 15th Amendments and the first round of African-American voting rights. The campaign for Charleston, involving black and white regiments, was about more than military strategy, and that should not be lost in the shifting sands of the beaches of Folly Island. Cannonballs are interesting, but the people that put them there, the movements and campaigns (in multiple senses) that they were engaged in, and their place in our heritage is what really matters. That’s the context. Context matters. Ask any archeologist.

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