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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Florence, South Carolina
Florence National Cemetery was established in 1865 around a series of trench graves containing the remains of Union soldiers who died while held captive in the town’s prison camp. During the final years of the war, the Confederacy held thousands of Union prisoners of war in hastily constructed stockades in northeast South Carolina. Prisoners suffered not only from their battlefield injuries, but also disease and inadequate sanitation, clothing, and food.
After Union General William Tecumseh Sherman captured Atlanta, Georgia, Confederate Generals feared that he would move to liberate Union prisoners held in camps and stockades in southern Georgia. Thus, prisoners were moved to locations out of Sherman’s path. Thousands were sent to Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina as preparations began on a new prison at Florence. Situated at the junction of three railroads, Florence provided an ideal location for a new Confederate prison.
Construction of the stockade began on September 12, 1864. Using 1,000 Union prisoners of war, Confederate Major Frederick Warley supervised the construction. Three days later, the first prisoners arrived and by the end of the month, the Florence Stockade held more than 12,000 prisoners.
The design of the stockade was modeled after the prison at Andersonville. Heavy upright timbers enclosed a rectangular field, 1,400 feet long and 725 feet wide. An earthen rampart against the outer wall served as a walkway for guards, and a deep trench beyond the rampart prevented prisoners from tunneling out. A “dead line” was established 10-12 feet away from the timber wall. Guards received instructions to shoot any prisoners crossing the line to approach the wall.
With growing numbers of prisoners and dwindling supplies, conditions in the camp rapidly deteriorated. Rations consisted of cornbread, molasses, and rice, and initially prisoners were not provided utensils for cooking or eating. Some prisoners’ clothing was so worn that they were nearly naked. Rough shelters of pine branches kept the most ill out of the elements. Deaths in the camp ranged between 20 and 30 a day.
By mid-October 1864, some relief was at hand with the delivery of supplies from the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The supplies consisted of clothing, bedding, and some tinned rations. Barracks were constructed to serve as a makeshift hospital to which nearly 800 prisoners were admitted.
Public criticism of the prison camp conditions led to the parole of the most severely sick and injured. By January 1865, the numbers in the camp dropped to 7,500, and the death rate decreased to six per day. Confederate commanders continued to parole prisoners and eventually evacuated all prisoners from the camps. By February 1865, after almost five months in operation, the Florence Stockade was empty.
Prisoners who died while at the stockade were buried in trenches on the nearby plantation of Dr. James Jarrott, a wealthy landowner and slaveholder said to have been a Union supporter. Each morning, a mule-drawn cart laden with bodies would exit the stockade and travel to two burial sites on Jarrott’s property. One burial site contained more than 400 remains, and a larger site of 16 trenches contained 2,300 remains. In 1865, the larger site was established as the Florence National Cemetery. The remains of the 400 prisoners from the smaller site were later reinterred in the national cemetery.
Today the Florence National Cemetery is composed of two properties. The oldest portion is the original 1865 property, which was expanded by two acres in 1942. A new 19-acre area southeast of the old cemetery was established in 1984.
The old section is surrounded by a brick perimeter wall, constructed in 1877. The wall is punctuated by a pedestrian gate at the western end along East National Cemetery Drive. At the main entrance, iron gates attached to tall whitewashed masonry piers were installed in the late 1940s to accommodate vehicular traffic.
Just inside the entrance to the old cemetery is an administration and utility building, of which the garage and restrooms date to the late 1940s. The office section of the building was built in the late 1970s, replacing a 1906 superintendent’s lodge.
A rostrum is located near the center of the cemetery’s northern wall. Built in 1938, the rostrum provides a raised platform for speakers at memorial ceremonies and other events. The classical design features a rectangular brick stage with columns at the corners supporting a pitched metal roof. A wrought-iron railing wraps around the stage and extends down a short flight of stairs at the back. At the front center of the stage is a cast-stone podium.
Another plaque, installed around 1910, is attached to the exterior wall of the administration building. The cast-iron plaque is inscribed with President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The first female service member interred in a national cemetery lies in one of the mass trenches in Section D. After her husband joined Union troops, Florena Budwin disguised herself as a man, hoping to find her husband. Captured in Charleston, South Carolina in 1864, she maintained her disguise and was sent to the Florence Stockade. When she took ill, a stockade physician discovered her identity and moved her to separate quarters. Sympathetic women in Florence provided her food and clothing. Upon her recovery, she stayed at the Florence Stockade and served as a nurse, delivering food and providing care to the sick and wounded. In January 1865 she fell ill again and died. She was buried at Florence National Cemetery with full military honors.
Florence National Cemetery is also the final resting place for a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”