The Long Road Home

 

08 June, 2006

By KAREN JEFFREY
STAFF WRITER

BOURNE - The air was saturated with the scent of lilacs and the promise of summer when they joined the army in May 1861 - young men willing to leave behind loved ones in defense of the
Union.

It was a time of flag waving, long-winded oration and gallant gestures; a time when optimistic young citizen-soldiers and politicians predicted the war could last only a few months. Little did any of them know that within a matter of weeks some of them would never see their families again.

Six of those
Bay State sons who never made it home will return Saturday in a ceremony beginning at 11 a.m. at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.

The remains of the soldiers from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry will be brought home to their native soil 145 years after their deaths on a
Virginia battlefield, thanks to the efforts of scientists and a group of dedicated volunteers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The men have been identified through rigorous research, but because they have not been positively identified through DNA, all six will be buried as unknowns.

''The fact that they are finally coming home after so many years gives a lot of satisfaction to us,'' said Massachusetts National Cemetery Director Paul McFarland. ''They remained in anonymous graves long enough.

''We hope that the public will attend,'' he said of Saturday's memorial ceremony that will include Civil War re-enactors and members of the modern-day Massachusetts National Guard. ''The participation of the Guard is a reminder to all of us that these men, like men and women today, volunteered to serve their country. We don't want to forget them,'' McFarland said.

While the Civil War lasted from 1861-1865, it has taken 11 years from start to finish for the remains of these soldiers to make their way home.

That this is happening at all is largely because of the determined efforts of Dalton Rector, the descendant of a Confederate cavalryman, and Frank Haley, the descendant of a Union infantryman.

The Dead

Research by Virginia and Massachusetts Civil War buffs and genealogists indicate the following six men are most likely those whose bodies were recovered from shallow graves outside
Centreville, VA., and are being reburied Saturday at the Bourne National Cemetery. All were members of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.

*William A. Smart, Company G., 20, of
Cambridge, working as a turner at his enlistment on May 23, 1861.

*Albert F. Wentworth, 18, Company H, of
Chelsea, working as a conductor at his enlistment on May 22, 1861.

*Thomas Roome, 30, of Boston, Company G, working as a courier at his enlistment on May 23, 1861

*George Bacon, 22, of Chelsea, Company H, working as an oil pressman at his enlistment on May 22, 1861

*Gordon Forrest, 22, of Malden, Company G, working as a printer at his enlistment on May 23, 1861

*James Silvey, 23, of Boston, Company G., working as an upholsterer at his enlistment on May 23, 1861.

Source: courtesy of Frank Haley, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, and Dalton Rector, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association.

It began in 1995 when Kevin Ambrose, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, was searching for Civil War artifacts in a wooded area near
Centreville, Va.

As any student of the Civil War knows,
Northern Virginia is rife with civil war battlefields, skirmish sites, encampments, meeting places and graves. And, Ambrose was searching Blackburn's Ford, an area not far from the battlefield site known as Bull Run to Northerners and Manassas to Southerners. The first major battle after the attack on Fort Sumpter, Bull Run/Manassas was a thorough rout of the Yankees by Confederates.

Blackburn's Ford was the site of a July 1861 skirmish three days before the first Battle of Bull Run/Manassas and later site of a Confederate encampment.

At first, Ambrose thought he had stumbled across a spot rich with relics, but soon discovered he was searching through a shallow grave. He covered it up and notified state authorities. Nothing happened with the grave until two years later when McDonald's Corp. decided to clear the land for construction of a new, fast-food restaurant. In accordance with
Virginia state laws, the corporation was required to have an archaeologist review the site before construction could begin. With the help of Ambrose, the solitary grave was located once again. Near it, five more graves were discovered in what was later to become the location for the McDonald's take-out window.

Excavation began under the supervision of
Fairfax County (Va.) archaeologist Michael Johnson and Smithsonian Institute anthropologist Douglas Owsley, known on the Cape for his role three years ago in helping identify the remains of a young Bosnian man who was a fire victim here.

This was just the start of a puzzle that was to consume Rector for the next several years. A
Virginia real estate salesman who specializes in historic homes, Rector was one of a dozen or more of the volunteers from the relic hunters group who helped recover the remains of the long-dead young soldiers.

The scraps of cloth, buttons and a pair of shoes found in the graves did little to identify who lay there or where they were from. ''That's because in the early days of the war a lot of the soldiers, North and South, didn't have uniforms. They came in wearing uniforms from their state militias,'' said Johnson, the archaeologist. ''The war machinery hadn't cranked up to produce uniforms; there weren't contracts out for shoes.''

Wood remnants and nails outlining the shape of long-decayed coffins were found in each grave, but these only proved that someone had time to bury the soldiers in coffins - a nicety that was to be abandoned later in the war when time was short and casualties greater. Buttons bearing eagle insignias, a common motif among state militias, were also found in the graves. While this helped, it did not narrow the search field very much.

Neither did sophisticated scientific tests that help identify where a person was raised by isolating and identifying certain isotopes in the remains. In this case, all scientists could say was that some of these.

If you go
What: Memorial ceremony and burial of six Civil War soldiers from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.
Where:
Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne.
When: Ceremony to begin at
11 a.m. Saturday at the flagpole, straight down from the entrance of the cemetery.
Who: Members of the public are invited to attend free. Civil war re-enactors and others will participate.
Why: The remains of the soldiers were found in forgotten graves in
Virginia on a construction site.

long-dead soldiers had eaten corn in childhood. And this is where Rector's near-obsession came into play. ''All the while we were excavating the graves, we talked about who were these men, where were they from?'' he said during a telephone interview from inside an early 19th-century
Virginia home he is helping a friend restore.

Rector began a painstaking search of records in the National Archives, looking for regiments and battalions that may have been in the area. Once identifying these, he narrowed the search further by tracing the names and fates of soldiers within those units. He read military reports, letters and spent hours and hours cross-referencing names.

''It might be hard for anyone who hasn't done something like this to appreciate how much work
Dalton (Rector) put into this,'' said Frank Haley, a Bellingham resident and member of the Sons of Union Civil War veterans.

It was only after he painstakingly eliminated the names of hundreds of other men, accounting for their fates, that Rector concluded the bodies must be from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry, which lost 24 soldiers in the battle at
Blackburn's Ford. Eventually, he summarized the results of his research in a 32-page report, which others have described as ''stunning.'' But even with this amount of work and detail, Rector and others are only willing to say the conclusion is ''the best working theory.'' Without DNA tests - an expensive and difficult proposition since known descendents of the men have to be located and tested - there is ''no way of positively identifying these remains,'' said Johnson, who nonetheless believes Rector's ''theory'' is ''the closest thing to truth we can get under present circumstances.''

Rector is too much of a gentleman to speak about the frustration he encountered once he finished the research. Others, however, acknowledge Rector encountered repeated roadblocks when trying to interest people in
Massachusetts in his campaign to get the bones out of storage in the Smithsonian and reburied in their home state.

This is where Haley, the
Bellingham resident, enters. A Civil War buff and member of a group that cares for veterans' graves, Haley got wind of Rector's report in 2004. He telephoned Rector and ''it took me two hours to persuade him I was serious about following through with this,'' he said. ''They were United States Civil War soldiers. They deserve to be buried in a cemetery, not left sitting on a shelf at the Smithsonian.''

Haley spent two years cutting through red tape and staying in touch with Rector. He arranged for the remains to find a final resting place in Bourne. ''This is the least we can do for those men,'' he said.

2006 Cape Cod Times