Coffins for Revolutionary War Soldiers
About a year ago the Executive Director of Historic Camden Foundation asked me to build 5 coffins. These were coffins not caskets. A coffin has 6 sides and a casket has 4 sides. He also said that I was to tell no one about this because at this time (Sept 2022) there were multiple archeologists, forensics, and battleground trust personnel unearthing the remains of five participants in the Battle of Camden. This was on the “QT” to avoid the inevitable treasure hunters and curious onlookers who could disturb the very delicate and time-heavy work of removing these remains while recording the exact placement and position of the remaining bones.
As it turned out, I did not make 5 coffins. I made 16. The remains that the archeologists initially thought were individuals turned out to be multiple remains: 14 in all were eventually recovered. I made two extra coffins for the US Army to practice loading on and off the biers (stands) and the caissons.
As fate would have it, a few short weeks before the conversation with the Executive Director, Jim Burns had contacted Historic Camen with the offer of anything the Foundation could use from his hardware store. His grandfather had started the store in 1897 and Jim had inherited the store and ran it until his retirement. Historic Camden gratefully accepted many pieces and while moving some of these old treasures, Jim approached me and expressed his concern that the new building owners would “rip out” all the old heart pine and drag it to the dump. He wondered if I thought Historic Camden could use some of this old wood. Naturally, I said “Sure.”
It just seemed right and appropriate that these coffins be made from local timber, so I began to use this salvaged wood from Burns Hardware Store to make the coffins. As I worked the wood, I marveled at the tightness of the growth rings. There were as many as 36 per inch. That made me consider the age of these trees when they were cut down in 1896 to make lumber to be used in the building of Burns Hardware. Using an average of 20 rings per inch, I concluded that these trees began growing in 1680 -1690. That means that they were about 100 years old when the Battle of Camden took place Aug. 16 1780. These trees were very local, meaning they had to have been growing in Camden in close proximity to the sawmill because it was very difficult to drag a 2 ton tree trunk with a horse. Maps show a sawmill two blocks from Burns store on Broad St., so the soldiers may very well have sat beneath, leaned against or passed by these trees in the days leading up to the battle. 117 years later those trees were made into lumber and 125 years after that the lumber was made into coffins for the remains of 14 of those who died in the Battle of Camden.
I was asked to make the coffins a little smaller than today’s standard size so I made them 5’6” long. The blacksmiths at Historic Camden made the nails I needed, 32 nails per coffin for a total of 512 handmade nails.
I also wanted to make it clear that these coffins were crafted with loving hands the way a member of the family would have cared to make them. They were not manufactured by a soulless corporation just to add to the quarterly bottom line. I planned each piece of each coffin by hand to remove any trace of machine imprint. Faint hand plane marks are visible bearing witness to this. I took the time to match grain patterns as much as possible and glue lines are nearly invisible. I chamfered all edges with a block plane which again shows the work of hands rather than a machine. I coated the pine with boiled linseed oil, a very old kind of finish that creates a wonderful glow as if the wood itself is radiating from within.
Once I had determined the lengths and angles necessary to connect the various pieces, I made a pair of jigs. One snugly held the three boards of the foot while the glue dried, and the other snugly held the three boards of the head. Once the glue had set I removed the two parts and glued them together using a clamping strap that went around the outside. I then used that shell as a pattern to trace on the boards comprising the bottom. After I cut to those lines I nailed through the sides into the bottom.
After I carefully placed the glued up boards selected for the top with the external face down, I laid the coffin on the boards with the bottom up. Again I traced the outline but this time I kept the pencil line ¼” away from the edge of the coffin. Once I had cut the top I placed the coffin correct side up and clamped the top to the rest and measured and drilled pilot holes there by decreasing the chance a nail would angle toward the outside and split the wood.
I was asked to make handles for the coffins and it did not seem appropriate to use metal ones – even ones our blacksmiths could make. I acquired 1” manilla rope and drilled appropriately sized holes in the appropriate places and simply knotted the rope inside the coffin making appropriately sized handles.
I also made biers for the 14 coffins and the 2 practice coffins..
It was an honor and a privilege to make these coffins for patriots who died for the freedoms that we enjoy today. Making these coffins with loving care was, in a very small way, what I was able to give to those who gave the ultimate gift to us.
It was quite remarkable to see members of our military and the Royal Scots carry them with dignity and reverence.
It was very emotional for me to see them lying in state in the Kershaw-Cornwallis House.
They are now laid at rest in a special area of the Quaker Cemetery in Camden, SC.