The Fort Pulaski cemetery is small and often missed as people either head toward the Visitor Center or make their way to the lighthouse trail. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. With only two marked graves and a small memorial surrounded by a short wall, it’s hard to believe that thirty-seven people are buried in this cemetery, with there likely to be others.
The majority of these thirty-seven are unknown. Some of these unknown are most likely construction-era burials. Fort Pulaski took eighteen years to construct, from 1829 to 1847 and burial records during this time period are practically non-existent. Thus, we can really only speculate as to who these people might have been. These workers were a mixture of white men and free and enslaved African Americans. The majority most likely would have been local to the area, but there are records of both Irish and English immigrants hired as laborers as well.
Of the two marked graves, very little is known about either of them. The first marked grave pre-dates the construction of Fort Pulaski by over twenty years. A simple fort called Fort Greene stood on the island from the 1790s to 1804. Lieutenant Robert Rowan was a member of the 1st Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers stationed at Fort Greene in the year 1800. His marker tells us all we know for sure about Rowan: he died on March 3, 1800, at only twenty-five years old. What he died from or why he is buried here and not elsewhere is not known.
Much like Robert Rowan, little is known about the second marked grave, but what we do know about it tells a sad story. In 1872, Lieutenant Charles Sellmer lived on Cockspur Island with his wife, Marion. He was stationed at the Quarantine Station on the island, checking ships for disease and quarantining them when need be. On April 21, 1872, the couple welcomed a child into the world and named him Charles Howard Sellmer. Tragically, the babe never reached three months old and died on June 15, 1872. He was buried in the small cemetery with Rowan and the Civil War dead.
Among these Civil War dead are thirteen Confederate soldiers. Given the nickname “The Immortal 600” because of their original number, a little over five hundred Confederate officers were imprisoned at Fort Pulaski from October 1864 to March 1865. During that time, thirteen died of disease, mostly diphtheria and diarrhea. Today a marker with all thirteen names and their units stands in the cemetery to mark their final resting places.
Despite there being thirty-seven known burials at this site, these are not the only people who died on Cockspur Island. Had you paid Fort Pulaski a visit during the Civil War, you most likely would have seen quite a few more markers in this little cemetery. A number of Union soldiers died on the island between 1862 and 1865, but their remains were reinterred after the war in South Carolina at the Beaufort National Cemetery.
When visiting Fort Pulaski today, you may notice the occasional coin placed on either of the marked graves or on the Immortal 600 memorial. The majority of these coins are pennies, and you may have wondered why people are leaving money on graves. The tradition of leaving coins and other items at grave sites dates all the way back into antiquity. But it is only recently that leaving coins on military graves in particular has taken on a different meaning.
Though there is no verifying where exactly this new tradition began, many have embraced it nonetheless. On a military grave, quarters often signify that the one who left it was with the soldier when they died. A dime means the leaver served with the soldier. A nickel indicates that they trained together. And a penny simply means that you visited.