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An ‘Ah Ha’ historical moment

Posted: November 1, 2013 11:14 a.m.
Updated: November 4, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Often a researcher will experience an “Ah Ha” moment when he discovers and understands a topic totally unrelated to the topic being researched. Some also describe this as a serendipitous moment. Harvey S. Teal chronicles such a moment in this story.

The story’s background

While hosting his family’s vacations on Edisto Island for more than 30 years, Teal became familiar with the island and the local property owners, became a charter member of their local historical society and when their museum was established, helped set up the exhibits in the Civil War room.

At a number of places on Edisto Island, such as Civil War skirmish and camp sites, and antebellum home sites, Teal recovered many bottles and Civil War artifacts. When their museum was created, he contributed the first artifact for their collection, an antebellum whiskey bottle recovered from a local site.

From the family vacation home each year, Teal ventured by boat to jungle-like Otter Island, a mile or so away, to spend a day there alone searching for Civil War artifacts and just exploring the island. Teal did not recover many bottles but did recover a cannon ball, buttons, Minnie balls and other items. He contributed most of them to the museum.

One of his most interesting discoveries on the island was not an artifact but a previously unknown Civil War graveyard. This was surprising since this barrier island had never been inhabited except temporarily by soldiers, fishermen, hunters and a few “explorers” such as he.

About 1990, while on the island metal detecting, Teal and a friend received a signal though their headphones that almost blasted their ears off and was about the loudest they had ever heard. As they dug down and around the six foot long object, they realized the identity of the object, an iron casket! Neither of them had any interest in grave robbing. Consequently, they re-covered the casket.

A recent fire had burned off much of the underbrush on this part of the island since they were last there. As they stood gazing at the somewhat bare surface, they began to see sunken spots in two rows. It finally dawned on them. They were in the middle of a graveyard!

By using their probes, they determined all of the remaining graves totaling nine, contained wooden coffins. They reasoned these graves likely were of Union soldiers who died from sickness while stationed at the old fort some three hundred yards away or stationed elsewhere on the island.

That day, as Teal stood there gazing over this ancient graveyard in its setting of Spanish moss-covered oaks and tall long leaf pine “sentinels” towering over the graves, he harkened back to a time in his youth when he read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As Teal pictured in his mind Stevenson’s characters from long ago, Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Squire Trelawney, and Captain Smollett, he felt their presence there with him. The pirate refrain, “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo Ho, Yo Ho and a bottle of rum” reverberated through the canyons of his mind.

Before leaving Edisto Island that summer, Teal informed the local historical society about this discovery. He left the dead in peace that day and they remain so as far as he knows to this day.

That day, Teal assumed the Union soldiers buried on this lonely, desolate barrier island were destined to be like the servicemen in Arlington Cemetery who have guards around the clock, destined to be unknown. Little did Teal know that 20 or so years later he would learn the identity of two of them and their dates of death and burial.

Teal’s Ah Ha historical moment

On August 20, 2013, while researching Sherman’s March at the South Caroliniana Library, Allen Stokes, who knew about Teal’s trips to Otter Island, came to him with a very small brown 3x5 inch book in his hand and said, “Harvey, I have this diary the Library has acquired and I thought you might like to read it. It’s the diary of Lyman Thompson, a Pennsylvania soldier who was stationed on Otter Island in 1861-62. When you finish, drop it by my desk.”

As Teal read, he began to learn many things about the Union occupation of Otter Island in 1861-62. He learned even more when he read that day the history of the 45th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers.

On December 11, 1861, the 45th took command of Fort Drayton, abandoned by the Confederates when the Union captured Hilton Head and Beaufort. The Union forces mounted five artillery pieces at the fort that were under the command of the 4th Rhode Island Artillery, occupied Fenwick, Coosaw and Edisto Islands, built a hospital, and watched for Confederate activity in the area.

On May 21st, the 45th left Otter and moved to Edisto to prepare to advance north toward Charleston. On May 29th, Thompson was a part of a detail sent back to Otter to break down the five artillery pieces and ship them back to Hilton Head.

Thompson related his taking the sick to the hospital many times and on one occasion, sitting up all night with a sick soldier who had “seven fits during the night.” Just before leaving Otter Island, Thompson was sick himself. Nevertheless, he helped load the remaining sick in the hospital on a hospital boat headed for Port Royal. The Otter Island Hospital appears to have been built of wood since Thompson related his “helping to move an old roof about 20 rods for to put on the hospital.”

Thompson reported seeing an alligator on Otter on one occasion. Twenty years ago “gators” still resided on Otter. Teal not only saw but had a brief encounter with one.

Thompson recorded many other activities: buying items from a sutler or from the Steamer Boston; drilling, serving on guard and picket duty; writing and receiving letters and arrival of the mail; and playing checkers and dominoes.

He served on a detachment sent to get a load of poles from Coosaw Island. On the way back, the seas became so rough they threw the poles overboard and returned to the island. The next day they got another load and returned to Otter that p.m. His commanding officer was displeased and placed him under arrest. However, this did not seem to hurt his career as he became a sergeant later.

Thompson chronicled on February 18, 1861, “George Mickle died at eleven o’clock tonight” and on the 20th he added, “Went to the funeral of George Mickle.” On March 20th, he wrote, “A man of Company F buried.” Finally, on April 20th, he wrote, “Wm. Grigsby died at 12:00 and was buried at 6:00.”

As Teal sat in the South Caroliniana Library that day after reading Thompson’s diary and learning so much new information about Otter Island, he realized just how blessed his long life of 85 years had been and that it continued to give him opportunities to have Ah Ha historical moments such as he had just experienced. Two of the graves on Otter Island were no longer unknown ones!

One entry Thompson recorded in his diary while under arrest on Otter especially resonated with Teal. Thompson wrote, “Read the Life of Robinson Crusoe about all day.” What more appropriate book to be reading than this while on a desolate, lonely, isolated, barrier island such as Otter!

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