Magnolia Cemetery memorializes Southern history

Submitted photo The pyramid tomb at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

“Midst sacred gloom of trees, midst shadows meet

That mingle well the solemn with the sweet,

Where banks of thyme and daisy scent the ground,

While waters murmur nigh with slumberous sound,

And from each shaft that rises o’er the steep

Tells where the hero and the statesman sleep.”

With these words, William Gilmore Simms begins his poem “The City of the Silent,” which he composed to mark the dedication of Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, in November 1850. Twenty years later, Simms, best known as a writer of historical novels whose careful attention to regional traditions and settings remind us of the works of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, was to find his own final resting place amid the graves of thousands of his fellow citizens of the South.

On the site of what had been a working plantation in the late 18th century, Magnolia Cemetery is located along the Cooper River, just north of the historic district in a portion of the city sometimes referred to as the Charleston Neck. In this landscape framed by marshland and tidal pools, shaded by live oaks draped in Spanish Moss, are scores of monuments, ranging from the elaborate funerary memorials popular in the second half of the 19th century to the more modest markers of our own time.

Among the most noteworthy are the more than 1,700 graves of those who died in active service to the Confederacy. Most of these military graves are clustered around a large monument capped by a bronze statue of a soldier clutching a furled flag, in what is now called the Confederate section. Farther into the interior of the cemetery, along one of the many paths that wind their way through the site, is a plot reserved for a particular group of mariners whose collective story has been the subject of international attention in the last few years.

These are the three crews of the Confederate submarine, the Hunley, celebrated as the first submersible vessel to destroy an enemy ship. On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley managed to sink the Union Navy’s largest warship, the U.S.S. Housatonic, just four miles from the shore of Sullivan’s Island. Unfortunately, after it rammed its torpedo into the warship, the manually operated submarine disappeared beneath the sea (the reason is still undetermined), and its whereabouts remained a mystery until discovered in 1995 by a team led by author Clive Cussler.

Three separate crews of the Hunley are buried in Magnolia Cemetery. The first internment involved the second group, led by Captain Horace Hunley, an Army officer and wealthy Louisiana-based planter and lawyer who financed the building of the vessel. On a practice dive in October 1863, Hunley and a seven-man crew perished when the Hunley sank. All eight men were buried on Kings Circle in Magnolia Cemetery the next month.

They were joined in the year 2000 by the five members of the first crew, who perished during a practice exercise in August of 1863 when a passing ship flooded the Hunley’s open hatches. Four crew members escaped this unfortunate accident, but five died and were eventually buried in a mariners graveyard on the banks of the Ashley River. It was in 1999 that historians located the site of this subsequently abandoned cemetery when they were doing archaeological research beneath the football stadium built for The Citadel in 1948.

The third and most dramatic burial took place in 2004 following a four-and-a-half-mile procession through the streets of Charleston. In April of that year, the eight participants in the Hunley’s last voyage, whose remains were retrieved from the bottom of the sea, joined the first two crews. Lt. George Dixon, the commander of the last crew, is now famous for the twenty-dollar gold piece given to him as a good luck charm by a girlfriend in Alabama; this is the coin that deflected a bullet at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and that he carried with him on the Hunley. It was retrieved along with his remains.

For the convenience of today’s visitors, a copy of the original cemetery plan designed by Edward Jones in 1850 and modified for tourist purposes can be picked up at the main office, housed in a restored farmhouse dating from 1790. In addition to the resting place of William Gilmore Simms and the gravesite of the Hunley crews, the location of many other noteworthy residents is indicated on this map. Among these are William Aiken Jr., the son of our city’s namesake and a South Carolina governor; William Gregg, founder of the Graniteville Company and a pioneer of Southern manufacturing; and noted authors John Bennett and Josephine Pinckney.

Although the office is open only on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the cemetery grounds are accessible to visitors every day of the year. For more information, call (843) 722-8638.

A Carolina Trustee Professor, Dr. Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at the University of South Carolina Aiken. For more information on historical sites in this region, consult his book “Circling the Savannah” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press).