Fairfax sends Civil War remains home to Mass.

By Stefan Cornibert
scornibert@timespapers.com

06/22/2006

 

The burial of six Civil War-era skeletons unearthed in Centreville is fueling a controversy among historical researchers.

Discovered by chance in 1995, the bones represent some of the earliest casualties of the Civil War. Archaeologists believe the six men died during the Battle of Blackburn's Ford on July 18, 861, in a skirmish that preceded the Battle of Bull Run.

 

The remains, thought to be Union soldiers from the First Massachusetts regiment, were re-interred at a military cemetery in their home state two weeks ago on June 9.

But exactly who they were is a mystery, one that has researchers and archaeologists feuding over whether burying them was the right move.

"It doesn't prevent identification," said Michael Johnson, a senior archaeologist for
Fairfax County. "I'd like for there to be a DNA identification. All you'd need is a court order and the next of kin and you could exhume the bodies."

Identifying the men is a task that had Dalton Rector, member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, devoting countless hours to research.

"By processes of elimination, I was able to determine the possible groups of soldiers they could belong to," Rector said. "The First Massachusetts lined up very well. The only thing lacking was DNA testing."

Rector said he wanted more time to locate the men's next of kin and arrange for DNA tests.

"They just went back into the ground, unknown," Rector said. "I really have mixed emotions. I am very disappointed."

The men ranged in age from 16 to 18 years old. Rector believes he has already found the name of the youngest, Albert Wentworth, after combing archival documents, searching for a 16-year-old soldier who would have served in
Northern Virginia at the beginning of the war.

"His selection of who they were is a theory," said Johnson, who defended the decision to re-bury the soldiers with military honors.

"I just didn't feel right about leaving them in a box any longer," he said.

The site of the three-day excavation that brought the six bodies to the surface is now a McDonald's on
Lee Highway. The bones might have stayed in the ground, had the fast-food chain not sought to build on the property.

Although finding the remains offers little new information about their time period, Johnson said it does provide a small window into the days following the outbreak of the Civil War.

"It's a piece of history that you can read as a narrative," Johnson said.

The Battle of Blackburn's Ford, according to a history from the Fairfax County Park Authority, began when Confederate troops arrived at Union lines on a reconnaissance mission. The rebels were repelled with an artillery barrage, but there were casualties on both sides. The Union troops were taken to Centreville, where several buildings were used as makeshift hospitals.

There is evidence to suggest, Johnson said, that the men were buried around the time Union troops began to fall back after their defeat at
Bull Run. The graves, he explained, are misaligned in places, an indication the job was done in a hurry.

"They had time to bury them but not unlimited time," he said.

The bones stayed underground for more than 130 years until Kevin Ambrose, a relic hunter, found them with a metal detector. Ambrose summoned the authorities, and the excavation was under way.

"We probed the ground, and right away we knew there were at least five and maybe six graves there before we started digging," Johnson said.

A forensic pathologist from the Smithsonian Institute later examined the bones, determining the ages of the men when they died. The remains were kept at the Smithsonian until their burial in
Massachusetts. Johnson is certain the men died in combat.

"One was shot in the head," he said.

Unearthing the bodies took three days with the help of 50 volunteers. Among them was Fairfax County Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully), who also arranged for police protection of the site.

"I worked at uncovering a femur, and I could already see the skeleton from his waist up to his skull. As I'm working on it, he was just looking right up at me the whole time," Frey said.

The excavation, he added, brought him closer to the county's history.

"We know they were young men," he said. "You just have to wonder who were they, what happened to them and what sent them into the war."

Before the decision was made to bury the men in
Massachusetts, Frey also tried to have them interred at a local church. Although reluctant to see the remains leave the county, Frey said letting them go was the right thing to do.

"On one hand, there was a little disappointment," he said. We had hoped they would be re-interred here. They have spent 130 years here. But, we know they were sons of
Massachusetts."

Fairfax County's landscape is dotted with historic Civil War sites, according to parks department spokeswoman Judy Pedersen.

Grave sites, fortifications and other pieces of history are often uncovered in the area, but the county keeps the location of many of them under wraps.

"We don't really tell the public where they are because we feel the sites would be in danger," she explained.


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