Yesterday when we were kayaking on the Savannah River we found something rather disturbing. About a half mile south of Stokes Bluff Landing on the South Carolina side of the river several headstones were embedded in the rip rap along the bank.
Finding headstones used in such a haphazard manner seemed like desecration. I posted some of the photos on Facebook, and got comments such as, “That’s terrible!” and “You should report this!” as one might expect. However, consider this…
The stones have been in place a long time. Matt and John found them a couple of years ago when they first paddled this stretch. I’m sure they have been there a lot longer than that. The stones are in an open area, and not concealed. I’m sure that if someone wanted to contact whichever authorities would be appropriate, that would have been done a long time ago, too. It’s not like people don’t know about these.
No, something else was going on here, and I wanted to find out what it was.
When I got back from the trip the first thing I did was search using the terms “headstone” and “rip rap.” Surprisingly, I got several useful hits, although none were about these specific stones.
In Washington D. C. the Columbia Harmony Cemetery served the African American community. The cemetery was experiencing financial troubles, and in 1957 it was purchased by a real estate developer. The graves were relocated, but the headstones were not. These were not part of the relocation deal. According to the Wikipedia article…
The fate of many of the original markers remained a mystery for almost a half-century. In 2009, hikers found a large number of headstones from Columbian Harmony Cemetery lining the banks of the Potomac River on privately owned land near Caledon State Park in King George County, Virginia. According to the landowner, most of the headstones were buried on-site when the cemetery was relocated. However, the landowner was permitted to haul debris away from the site to use as riprap. This included granite headstones, highly detailed marble markers, and other funerary monuments.
As distasteful as this might seem, it was handled even more poorly in Philadelphia. Another cemetery with financial troubles, the Monument Cemetery, had fallen into disrepair, and by the 1950s had become a haven for thieves and other illegal elements. Temple University needed the space for a new parking lot, and got the city to condemn the cemetery. 8,000 bodies were claimed, but the remaining 20,000 bodies were moved to a mass grave in the Lawnview Cemetery in Northwest Philadelphia.
Once again, the headstones were not part of the transaction. The Betsy Ross Bridge was under construction, and Temple University sold the headstones to the contractors for use as rip rap. At low tide the stones can be seen.
Things weren’t as bad in Janesville, Wisconsin. Workers doing restoration on the Riverplace Park discovered several headstones in the Rock River. They were able to document that these were rejects from a local stone carving company, which were given to the city for use as rip rap.
Back to the Savannah River…
The stones we discovered all seem to be military headstones.
I think this is key to the answer for these stones, and it ties into the fourth story of headstone rip rap. In 2010 the Washington Post reported that several hikers had discovered military headstones lining some of the creeks around Arlington Cemetery. There was an uproar, until it was discovered what was going on.
Unlike private cemeteries, headstones in national military cemeteries are routinely replaced if they become damaged or illegible. Up until the 1960s it was customary just to reuse the stones as-is in a variety of applications, including rip rap. In the late 1960s the policy was changed so that when headstones were replaced, the old stones were ground up so that they were no longer recognizable as headstones.
According to the United States Army Regulations (AR-290-5) Arlington National Cemetery –
5.1.D Replacement Policy.
d. Replacement Policy.
(1) Headstones and markers will be replaced only if they are damaged, weathered, or otherwise unsightly; if then constitute a safety hazard; or if the inscriptions are illegible.
(2) All Government replacement headstones and the inscriptions on them will be identical with the original headstone as far as is practicable and desirable.
(3) If the Director, Personal Affairs, determines that a private monument is not maintained in a safe and serviceable condition, the next of kin will be given an opportunity to have necessary repairs made or to replace the monument. If the next of kin cannot be located or will not accept responsibility for repairing or replacing the monument, the Department of the Army reserves the right to remove it from the cemetery and have it replaced with a standard Government headstone or marker.
As for the Savannah, according to an article from the Savannah Morning News…
From 1959 to 1976 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river for the benefit of barge traffic between Augusta and Savannah. They cut 40 curves and about 27 miles out of the Savannah to make it faster and easier for barges to float goods down the river for export.
It is possible that old headstones were reused as part of the rip rap.
Alan and Matt climbed out of their kayaks and found even more stones on top of the bluff. Five apparently blank stones were used as the foundation for something, as seen in this photo from Alan’s Facebook page:
They also had a bit of luck. They were able to find one stone that was legible. This one shows Ted R. Horton’s name very clearly.
Alan was able to find Sargent Horton on Find-a-Grave. Apparently he is buried in the Beaufort National Cemetery, and has a headstone there with information identical to the one Alan and Matt found.
So, it looks like Sargent Horton’s headstone is in place, and this one was either flawed or damaged.
I think I’ve gotten close to the answer, but I’m sure we were every really know why these stones are here. Other questions remain, though. Why are these only found in this 10 yard stretch of the river? Shouldn’t they be roughly distributed throughout the river’s rip rap? Why were some of the stones moved to the top of the bluff? Actually, that one’s easier for speculation – the landowner spotted the unusual stones in the rip rap below and moved some of them to his/her property.
Even with having a better idea, though, coming across old headstones out of place while kayaking is nothing short of spooky.