Camp Marion a brief, but fascinating part of Summerville history

  • Thursday, February 28, 2013

A group of officers in a tent at Camp Marion, circa 1898. This may have been a command staff meeting. PHOTO COURTESY CHUCK COX AND ST. JOHN THE BELOVED CATHOLIC CHURCH


The story of Camp Marion is one that most people probably don't know, even though they might be walking on its very grounds.
Yet for its relative obscurity – the place was in existence less than a year – Camp Marion is a fascinating part of Summerville and American history.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, President William McKinley put out a call for 125,000 volunteer soldiers to bolster the ranks of the small standing regular army, and the U.S. Army soon began establishing military camps for training, housing, and mobilizing these new troops. Established in 1898, Camp Marion was one of a number of training camps for these volunteer units. It was thought that the Southern camps not only would help acclimatize soldiers for duty in Cuba and Puerto Rico but that volunteer troops assigned to these camps, especially along the east coast, could supplement the regular army garrisons in case of an invasion from Spain, according to historian Frederick Gregurus, who compiled information on army camps during the Spanish American War.
The camp was located close to the intersection of Marion and Carolina Avenues, near the Pine Forest Inn, on the same property that Shepard Park is now located, according to Gregurus.
To read existing history regarding Camp Marion, one barely gets a glimmer of its short existence, much less any contributions it might have made to Summerville or to the nation as a whole. Yet there are nuggets to be found.
For example, while they were here, some of the soldiers helped build St. John the Beloved Catholic Church's first sanctuary building, which was dedicated in April 1898.
One of those soldiers, Private Herbert O. Kelley of the 14th Pennsylvania, would go on to become a printer, labor union organizer, and veterans affairs advocate, eventually becoming the first National Commander of the American Veterans of Foreign Service, now known as the VFW.
Another group of soldiers who were at Camp Marion from November 1898 until the end of April 1899 was the 9th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Battalion, an African American unit.
Their commander, Major Charles Young, was one of the most distinguished, accomplished officers in U.S. military history, notes Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Jordan M. Simmons, III who grew up in Summerville.
Simmons served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam as an Infantry officer, and in the Gulf War. He also was one of the students wounded at S. C. State University during the 1968 incident known as the Orangeburg Massacre. He said he learned about Camp Marion and Colonel Young while he was researching the military service of his great-great grandfather, Private Jordan Swindel, who served with the Union's 35th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry, an all African American unit of former slaves and freed men enlisted in North Carolina.  The unit was sent to Summerville prior to the end of the Civil War.
Sadly, because of the times in which he lived, Charles Young not only faced enormous hurdles endemic in an era of intense racism, but his story has been shamefully obscured over time. Thus, Simmons felt it important not only to bring Young's story, and the story of Camp Marion to light, but also to encourage others to take an active interest in Summerville's rich and storied – and sometimes unknown – history.
According to numerous sources, including Buffalosoldier.com, the Ohio State Historical Society, The National Archives, U.S. Park Service, and US Army and Navy Journal, Charles Young was born March 12, 1864, in Mayslick, Kentucky, the son of former slaves. Young's family relocated to Ripley, Ohio, where he attended the white high school, graduating at age 16 with honors. After graduation, he taught school in Ripley's black high school and it was during that time he took a competitive examination for and received an appointment to West Point. Young graduated in 1889, the third African American to do so. Upon graduation he was assigned to the Tenth and the Seventh cavalries where he was promoted to first lieutenant. His army career would span some 28 years, all with black troops, and would see him become the first African American to achieve officer rank at full colonel.
In 1903 while stationed at the Presidio, San Francisco, Young was appointed acting superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant national parks, another first for an African American. Young, quickly realizing the value of the pristine environment and the need to allow safe and lower impact access to the park, accomplished major milestones during his tenure there, completing roads to the Giant Forest and Moro Rock. Recognizing the damage tourists were causing to the sequoias, he also erected the first fences around the most abused trees, and urged the state and national governments to acquire patents to protect the land. As Young himself observed in his comments to the Department of the Interior, “Indeed a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are.”
Young served with great distinction in many roles and assignments, as an intelligence/counter-intelligence officer in the Philippines and in Haiti, as a diplomat, as a field commander. Because of his exceptional leadership of the 10th Cavalry during Pershing's campaign against Pancho Villa, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was briefly Fort Huachuca's commander in Texas, according to Buffalosoldier.com 
Sadly, when the U.S. entered WW I in 1917, he was ordered for a medical evaluation rather than given a troop command in Europe. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure and forced to retire. However, shortly after his retirement he rode his horse from Ohio to Washington D.C. to prove he was fit for duty, petitioned the Secretary of War for reinstatement, and returned to full duty as a full colonel.
Instead of France, however, he was sent to Nigeria as military attaché, where he died in 1922.
His funeral was one of only a few to ever be held in Arlington National Cemetery's Memorial Amphitheater and he was buried in Arlington Cemetery with full military honors.

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