FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - The city of Florence is defined by a lot of things these days, but for veterans across the South, Florence is a sacred place. WMBF News anchor David Klugh discovered why so many of our most honorable Americans have made Florence their permanent home.
If you can define a nation by the contributions and sacrifices of its people, then this place is, by definition, the story of America, engraved in 12,000 slabs of marble.
"Everyone who comes by knows that he's the one and all these gentlemen here did something or ladies did something for this country, which is why we're able to stand here today and do what we want to do," said Jimmy Johnson about his father, 90-year-old World War II veteran James Johnson, Senior. James knew better than most the cost of freedom, through his service in the WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He told his sons when it was time, to bring him here to the Florence National Cemetery.
This is the old site of the Florence Stockade, a Civil War prison for Union soldiers - a brutal existence for the thousands held here. One in three died of exposure or disease at a rate of 30 per day. There were no marble rows for these war dead. Instead, a total of 16 trenches were dug as mass graves for the 2,800 who perished.
One of the soldiers buried in these trenches dug by the Confederate army for the burial of Union soldiers was a woman named Florena Budwin. Her husband was a captain in the Union army. No sooner did her husband head off to war that Florena herself decided to dress as a man and enlist in the Union army.
She and her husband were later captured in South Carolina. She ended up at the Florence Stockade, and that is where she died at the young age of 20 back in 1865. She was buried there along with all the other male soldiers. It's because Florena was buried at the Florence National Cemetery that she actually became the first female ever to be buried with full military honors.
Also buried at the Florence National Cemetery is James Elliot Williams, the most decorated enlisted man in U.S. Navy history. Williams served in both Korea and Vietnam. In fact, upon his retirement, he reenlisted after the Korean War so he could fight again in Vietnam. He came home with the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross, the Bronze star, and three Purple Hearts. A friend made the comment at his funeral that it took him 15 minutes to remove all those medals off of his uniform.
Our heroes from every conflict are interned here - a history museum without walls, only the heavens overhead. Of course, families have their favorite spots here - so too does Cemetery Director Carolyn Howard: a single stone representing a Revolutionary War family that gave up more than most can comprehend. "Browler" had nearly two dozen sons here in South Carolina.
"Him and his 23 sons went to war, and unfortunately they all perished, except for one son, and he came back to tell the story," Howard said. "And so, I just can't imagine that kind of sacrifice."
Sacrifice is what this little corner of Florence is all about.
"Being able to have something like that here in this community, honor the veterans - the bottom line is the Pee Dee area is a good place to be if you're a veteran," said Randy Godbold with the Veteran's Administration
For the Johnsons, the choice to honor their father with a ceremony here at the Florence National Cemetery seemed only right, given his decades of service, given his father and brother are buried here, and given this puts him permanently in the company of heroes.
"It makes you appreciate everything that these men have done, what they gave us," Johnson said. "And to honor that, we must do that. We must honor these people and let the world know that in America we honor our soldiers and our people that have fought for this country."
The Florence National Cemetery is open daily and you can even schedule tours of both the historic burial sites and the old Civil War Stockade.
Learn more about the cemetery on the Department of Veteran's Affairs page here: