Civil War burial draws praise and cries of disrespect

 

They were lost to history, six Union soldiers from Massachusetts killed in battle just days before the famous First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Found in shallow graves in woods in Centreville, Va., the men's remains were traced to the First Massachusetts Infantry, after a decade of painstaking research.

Tomorrow, they will be buried at the National Veterans Cemetery in Bourne with an honor guard and a three-volley salute with Civil War-era rifles.

But not everyone will be celebrating a homecoming that is 145 years overdue.

The soldiers are being wronged, said Dalton Rector, a Civil War buff who helped discover the skeletal remains nine years ago and is credited with pushing researchers to determine where the soldiers hailed from.

Rector says he thinks he knows their names, and he argues they deserve better than to be buried in graves as unknowns without any descendants there to pay final respects.

``When I started this research, it was my main hope that they would be positively identified through DNA testing," Rector, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

``These were some of the very first soldiers to die in the Civil War. . . . It is just heartbreaking to me. I came to know these soldiers personally. I came to know their names and their ages. It's so unfair. Just so unfair."

The unfulfilled journey has left Rector wondering if Northerners care about their Civil War dead as much as Southerners. Rector, a descendant of a Confederate cavalryman, said that when the bones of unknown Confederate soldiers are found, Southerners are quick to find descendants and give the dead a proper burial with a marked grave.

The notion, however, was brushed off by Fairfax County, Va., archaeologist Michael Johnson who applauded Rector for his persistence but defended the decision to lay the unknown soldiers to rest without the research necessary to confirm their identities.

DNA testing is expensive, said Johnson, and nine years in boxes after the remains were removed to make way for a McDonald's in Centreville is long enough.

``To me, it got to a point of disrespect by continuing to keep them out of the ground," Johnson said. ``I said, `Let's go ahead and rebury them.' That doesn't prevent the DNA testing. Let's give them a proper burial so they are not sitting in a storeroom for years and years, waiting for everything to come together."

In 1995, two members of the Northern Virginia-based Relic Hunters unexpectedly found the first set of remains on what they believed was a former Confederate campsite, Rector said. Two years later, developers preparing to build a McDonald's called officials to remove the remains, and a crew of state archeological workers and volunteers found remains of the other five soldiers nearby, Johnson said. The soldiers were not side by side, Johnson said, but were found with shards of wood and nails around them, indicating that whoever buried them had time to make caskets. Some were wearing militia uniforms and eagle pins that later helped identify their regiment.

It was a thrilling discovery, Johnson said.

For Rector, 56, a real estate agent fascinated by Civil War history since 1973 when he joined the Relic Hunters, it was life-changing. ``When you're face to face with a human skeleton, it is a very moving experience," he said. ``Three of them were buried in their uniforms. One was buried in his shoes. And one soldier was found with a bullet hole through his head."

For the past nine years, archeologists and genealogists in Virginia and anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., used sophisticated tests to date the bones and dug through files at the National Archives for information.

Not only were they able to figure out the ages of the dead, they were able to narrow down where they were from, checking off named dead soldiers and noting those whose remains were never discovered. ``We usually don't do all of this," Johnson said. ``We did it partly because of Dalton."

Rector carried on the search, poring through thousands of index cards with the names of dead soldiers. Using the anthropologists' results -- the men's ages and the likelihood of their Massachusetts roots -- he believes he found the six men: William H. Smart, 20, of Cambridge; Albert F. Wentworth, 17, of Chelsea; Thomas Roome, 30, of Boston; George Bacon, 22, of Chelsea; Gordon Forrest, 32, of Malden; and James Silvey, 23, of Boston.

But without DNA testing and more research, the identities can't be confirmed. They are believed to have been casualties in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, a skirmish three days before the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, where the Union Army was defeated and withdrew to Washington.

Frank Haley of Bellingham, a descendant of a Union infantryman and a member of the Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, heard about the research, contacted Rector, and helped bring the soldiers home.

Because research has tentatively identified six soldiers, officials wanted to keep the remains separate, in case there is further testing. Members of the Massachusetts Sons group are seeking donors to pay for more testing.

The soldiers will get a heroes' welcome tomorrow, said Paul B. McFarland, director of the Massachusetts National Cemetery. Weather permitting, the remains will be carried in a single horse-drawn hearse, he said. There will be a reenactment of a Civil War burial complete with an honor guard, a chaplain, and a military salute. A bugler will play taps and a choir will sing ``Battle Hymn of the Republic," McFarland said yesterday. ``I'm almost speechless," he said. ``We are proud to give them a final resting place."

 

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.