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Union Soldier's Remains Found at Antietam

The soldier was just a teenager.

Somewhere in New York state, he had signed up to fight for the Union. The band was playing on the day he marched away from home, headed South to to kill those rebels. Everyone said it would be a short war. He'd be home in no time.

All of that ended on Sept. 17, 1862 at Antietam when he and his comrades were crossing a farmer's field. A bullet or piece of shrapnel found him. He sagged to the ground and was dead.

His buddies moved on; they had to. The fighting was intense. By the end of the day, the battle considered the bloodiest of the war would end with 23,000 casualties.

The next day, under a flag of truce, a Union burial detail began its grim work. Sometime in the next week, the New Yorker was put in a shallow grave near where he fell, but away from the the farmer's plow. He was buried near a limestone outcropping that rippled just above the surface. This was temporary. Either his family or the government would move him to a cemetery and give him a proper burial.

No one ever came for him.

His grave was overlooked when the Union dead were gathered and moved to the new Antietam National Cemetary, dedicated exactly five years after the battle.

For 146 seasons, crops were planted all around him and even over him if a farmer could make the tight turn at the rocky place, but nothing disturbed his sleep. He could have been there forever, never found and never known except for a ground hog who happened to build a tunnel at that spot.

The tunnel was deep, angling down under the limestone. At some point, the tunnel became clogged with debris and the ground hog vigorously kicked it out of the way, flinging it all the way to the surface.

It included pieces of tea-colored bone.

A visitor who was walking the battlefield in mid-October,strayed off the Corn Field Trail and saw some bones on the ground that he later left at the visitors' center. He didn't give his name, saying only he had found something in a field off the trail, next to an animal hole.

"It was a jaw bone with four teeth attached and one loose plus some other fragments," said Ed Wenschhof Jr., Antietam's chief of Natural Resources Management and Resources Protection. "We get a lot of these bones brought in here, almost all of them are animal."

He needed to check it out. Several protographs were emailed to the National Park Service's regional archaeologist, Stephen Potter, in Washington. Potter said he knew right away the jaw, and what turned out to be skull fragments, belonged to a human. And he knew they were very old bones.

"When I realized what I had -- an unmarked, unknown burial of a Civil War soldier, not a victim of modern mayhem -- it grabbed me in the gut," he said. ""I was totally focused. i forgot everything else. I immediatley started planning what we would do next."

He said he estimated the soldier's age at 19 to 21, based on an impacted wisdom tooth in the jaw bone, the lack of wear on the teeth and an open suture in the cranium. That suture closes only when an individual ceases to grow.

He called Wenschhof. Potter wanted to see the the bones but his first impulse was to collect whatever else was out there in the field. It was going to be difficult to find the spot. The field covered acres of land, but they had to move quickly because relic hunters might hear about the discovery and disturb the grave.

Wenschhof and a team of park rangers crisscrossed the field that was adjacent to the infamous Corn Field, where brutal hand-to-hand fighting had taken place during the battle. There were burrows everywhere, and they had to be careful not to step in to them. Finally, one of the team found bone fragments and several pieces of leather outside a ground hog hole. It had to be the right place.

The soldier had been found.

Potter had sent the photographs to Douglas Owsley, a well-known forensic anthropologist with the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution. He agreed with Potter's assessment but felt the soldier was somewhere between 18 and 21 and most likely was a teenager.

"He said the kid never saw his 20th birthday," Potter recalled.

Within a few weeks, Potter and a crew were at Antietam, also known as Sharpsburg, scraping away the top layer of brown earth and then delving into the reddish layer of clay. They were working under a blue and white tent erected to shield themselves from the rain and wind and to protect whatever they found.

antietam3.jpg

Two animal holes were within the the rectangle sketched on the earth, probably boundaries of the grave. The resident of the burrow had been captured a few days earlier and delivered to a new neighborhood beyond the field.

The excavation work was slow. There weren't any large bones in the grave shaft.

"Ground hogs can do a lot of damage," Potter said. "Context means everytthing. if the bones are moved or damaged or if the ground hog gnawed on them, and ground hogs do gnaw on bones -- they need their daily calcium supplement -- things can be hard to figure out."

In this case, the ground hog had destroyed most of the soldier's bones.

antietam2.jpg

What they did find was a number of jacket or coat buttons that connected the soldier to a New York regiment. The ones from the cuffs had the state emblem and some of the larger ones from the front had the emblem and the Latin word, "Excelsior," meaning upward. The other buttons found were general government issue, indicating the soldier was not a green recruit but a veteran who had been around long enough to have replaced lost buttons.

They also found a belt buckle with "U.S." engraved on it, and some bits of leather later identified as coming from boots or shoes.

antietam1.jpg

Potter told the crew, "We now know three things: our soldier was a young guy, probably a teenager, but he was a veteran and not a new recruit and he was part of a New York regiment."

The crew, having plotted the exact postion on paper of every bit of metal and bone and leather taken from the grave site, filled the 18-inch-deep excavation and tried to make it look like just another part of the farmer's field.

The next step is for Owsley to examine all the bones and items found in the grave to see if he can tease any more information from them. He won't be able to do that for several months.

John Howard, Antietam battlefield superintendent, had been following the progress of the search closely. He had come out to watch the crews excavating the grave. Later he said it was unlikely the solider would ever be identified because so little was known about him and, on the day of the battle, there were many New York regiments involved.

One of the rangers who works for Howard, Brian S. Baracz, has studied the battle for 10 years. He said there had been 68 infantry regiments, 12 artillery and seven cavalry units from New York at Antietam. Close to the area where the soldier was found, two dozen New York infantry regiments had crossed through. Using just those 24 units and narrowing the list of possible soldiers to those of the right age who were listed as "missing," he said the number would range between 25 and 50.

Howard said if they ever got "really lucky and identified the soldier, we'd make a real effort to track down the next of kin. We'd ask them what they wanted us to do. We could ship the remains or give him a proper burial here at Antietam."

If there is no identification, he expects the soldier will be buried in the New York section of the national cemetery, which is near his office.

"Just like any other American soldier, we will give him a proper burial," he said. "This is where he fought. This is where he died. This is now his home."


By Linda Wheeler  |  December 28, 2008; 8:38 AM ET
 
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Comments

Thank you for posting about this. It's a heart touching story.

Posted by: theGelf | December 28, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I've toured the Corn Field area with the U.S. Army Corps or Engineers "Field Guide to the Battles of Antietam and South Mountain" in hand.

One gets a close sense of where each regiment fought. Assuming the body was buried near where it fell, it's most likely that the soldier would most likely belong to one of a few NY regiments known to have come under fire close to his burial location. And of the "two dozen NY units [that] crossed through", many barely got to the edge of the woods along the cornfield and I'm sure that some of them accounted for all of their killed. In fact, few actually "crossed through": the union right-wing attack stalled at the Corn Field and was repulsed by Gen. Stonewall Jackson's troops. It's said every corn stalk (the fight was on Sept. 17, 1862) was cut down to inches from the ground and that you could walk from end to end of the multi-acre field stepping only on bodies from both sides. Jackson, surveying the post-fight scene, chewed on a peach and said, "God has been very kind to us today."

Posted by: mjcashen | December 28, 2008 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Yes, a young NY boy, likely an Irishman, died for his new country trying to right one of the tragedies of our founding. A pity Michelle cannot draw upon such sacrifice in her moments of churlish hatred for our country, despite her $300,000 PR Blagovich fluff job for a Chicago hospital district.

Posted by: georgejones5 | December 28, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Yes, a young NY boy, likely an Irishman, died for his new country trying to right one of the tragedies of our founding. A pity Michelle cannot draw upon such sacrifice in her moments of churlish hatred for our country, despite her $300,000 PR Blagovich fluff job for a Chicago hospital district.

Posted by: georgejones5 | December 28, 2008 11:42 AM

//

George, it’s a real tribute to your patriotism that you took this opportunity to launch a cheap smear at Michelle Obama.

You’re a great Republican, with malice toward none.

Posted by: Attucks | December 28, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, georgejones5's comment is pretty messed up. Hope the list managers will pull it down, since we are supposed to refrain from "personal attacks or other inappropriate comments."

Story is really nice. Got to make it out to Antietam in the spring. North won that war, huh? Some can't seem to let it go or would prefer to go back to "the good ol' days." It would have been just as nice a story had the remains been CSA.

Posted by: DCUnited2 | December 28, 2008 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Yes, indeed. Thanks for this.

This story touched me deeply and I think it must have been the respect and love and care each of the people involved in the story displayed towards the remains of a truly "unknown" soldier who died 146 years ago.

I'm not a Civil War buff, but when the man said the news "got him in the gut" it got me, too. To see someone move instantly from the humdrum of a job to a holy mission says to me that our history is in great hands.

I am tremendously uplifted today because of the love shown towards a "common soldier."

Posted by: louperryman | December 28, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

This was an excellent article. It should remind us as we enter a new year that freedom isn't cheap.

Posted by: rogden71 | December 28, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I do find the article very nicely done. In a time when people paid others to serve, so many stepped up for thir country with the idea that we should all be together in the U.S. United States of America. This was a real question when this young man died.

When you choose to drag hatred into an otherwise well writen story, you achieve what, other than diminishing any point you might have tried to make.

How about building a better country, as this boy was trying to do? How about making something that will last beyond your short time on earth. Do you really want your legacy to be anger and hatred?

Posted by: morgangale | December 28, 2008 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I think the article's excellent. It illustrates the value Americans place on the earthly remains of our fallen soldiers and our emphasis on providing proper treatment for their remains, no matter how far removed by the passage of time. Of the countries I've been stationed in or served in, most tend to regard their fallen as part of a closed chapter of history. I think our ability as a Nation to feel a link to the sacrifices of the past enables us to place contemporary sacrifice (military and civilian) in the broader narrative of developing and perfecting the ideals associated with our Founding.

As a military officer, stories like this give me a modicum of hope that the partisan rancor of our era will dissipate with time and sentiments like those of georgejones5 will be little noted, nor long-remembered.

Posted by: RichWhittington | December 28, 2008 5:05 PM | Report abuse

How sad it is that Mr. Jones is carrying such distress in his heart about the Obamas. He doesn't realize the only one really suffering here is himself. Let it go, Sir, and find in yourself sadness over the death of a boy from New York and a war that continues to polarize our nation.

Posted by: rrickards10 | December 28, 2008 6:08 PM | Report abuse

Yes, a fine and touching story--and many fine comments, too, with the lamentable exception of "georgejones5," who ought to be ashamed of himself.

My great-grandfather served in the New York 108th and fought at Antietam. His name was Enoch Miller. At Antietam he suffered a relatively minor wound, but took a near-mortal wound at Gettysburg the next summer.

The 108th was recruited at Rochester in the spring of 1862. At the time, Enoch was 22 years old and had recently been a college student--until President Lincoln's call for fresh volunteers inspired him to sign up. He had been born in England and always said that he'd shed all his English blood at Gettysburg and become an American. After recuperating, he was ordained, became a chaplain, and served with the Freedman's Bureau in Arkansas.

The story "hit home" with the thought that this teenage boy who died at Antietam might have been one of my great-grandfather's buddies. Pretty sobering... May he rest in peace. He died for a good cause--may those of us who have come after be worthy of the republic he helped to save.

James Miller

Posted by: jm917 | December 28, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Wow, how sad his family never found his grave. Rest in peace, young man.

Posted by: sandnsmith | December 28, 2008 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Linda this is an excellent story. I don't recall seeing it in the print edition. This is exactly what is wrong with the Post. They feature endless crap about Obama and yet they ignore outstanding stories like this and relegate it to the online edition.

Posted by: MKadyman | December 28, 2008 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Michelle Obama is General Counsel to the University of Chicago Hospitals, a private institution, not a PR job, and not a Chicago Hospital District. Apparently you're fact impaired, sir.

Posted by: schesnin | December 28, 2008 10:24 PM | Report abuse

Great story. I hope it makes some developers wonder if they have destroyed any grave sites in the last decade of overbuilding in the area. Only god knows how many more forgotten soldiers still lie undisturbed. At Antietam, George McClellan's chief medical director (I forgot the exact term) claimed to have buried some 4,000 confederate soldiers after the battle. Only 2,600 were re-interred up the road from the battlefield in Hagerstown.

Posted by: gene7 | December 29, 2008 12:24 AM | Report abuse

I cannot imagine why the hateful comments of Georgejones5 have not been removed as a violation of your rules. His views are pure hate mongering

Posted by: Fordson61 | December 29, 2008 4:25 AM | Report abuse

It's unfortunate the visitor didn't leave his name. If not for him, the unknown grave of this young soldier would most likely never have been discovered. The observant visitor should receive some mention for his efforts. Perhaps he'll allow himself to be recognized once he reads this excellent article. Who knows how many others lie beneath the fields of Antietam.

Posted by: poescrow | December 29, 2008 5:21 AM | Report abuse

As an afterthought, I would hope the young man's possessions will be re-interred with him and not put on display to public view. He died with them and they should rest with him for eternity.

Posted by: poescrow | December 29, 2008 5:24 AM | Report abuse

I find the article well done. For the life of me I cannot believe the editor still allows attacks on a particular group of people. The writer wrote...

"The field covered acres of land, but they had to move quickly because relic hunters might hear about the discovery and disturb the grave."

Was this a direct quote from the archaeological team? I assume not, as it is not in italics. So, one can directly attribute it to the writer. As a relic hunter I expect an apology. Matter of fact, I demand one!

First, my friends or I do not venture out when we hear of something like this to dig it up in search for the buttons and a belt buckle! Besides, the Graves Protection Act of 1992 has been invoked making this activity illegal. If I hear of anyone doing digging like that, I'd turn them in myself.

Second, the relic hunting as a community has done more for the documentation, collection, and education of civil war uniform and weaponry than any archaeological group on the subject.

As for the bones, it is more than probable that mother nature took care of the majority of the soft bones over the 146 years being in a plowed or agricultural field for that time span. The Archaeologists are lucky to have recovered what they did. Considering moisture, agricultural chemicals, acid rain, and natures wild life. I do wonder what will become of the artifacts? Being protected by the above mentioned GPA of 1992, they should stay with the soldiers remains upon re-interment. I believe the park service has enough relics in their basement holdings with out looting more from one of our brave veteran soldiers final resting place.

In my opinion, a marker should be placed on the grave site, as the position of it, means more to history and the soldier that was buried there than re-locating the remains and leaving a blank spot on the grond for future generations never to know.

Finally, known grave sites should be protected not only from "Pot Hunters" (the correct accepted school house term), but from Archeologists, and development!

I hope this is not considered a personal attack as your posting rules state, I am simply re-butting what I feel was a personal attack upon me as a "relic hunter."

John

Posted by: frontierwest | December 29, 2008 12:17 PM | Report abuse

This is a very well done story. Thank you for this excellent piece of writing.

I too encourage to remove the post by georgejones5.

Last week there was a story in the Post about WalMart wanting to build a new store adjacent to the Wilderness Battlefield. If they do so, I wonder what they will bury forever beneath their asphalt.

Posted by: JohnDBaniszewski | December 29, 2008 2:53 PM | Report abuse

In the context of this story, the nasty post by georgejones5 is inappropriate.

Allowing it to remain reflects poorly on this paper.

Posted by: MikeOLeary | December 29, 2008 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Seems ironic to me the comment made about relic hunters looting burial sites and than in turn it was basicaly done by the Archaeological team. Nothing was mentioned about a marker at the site where he was buried? And why would they not bury all the items found at the site? I would like to know what they did with the artifacts, the buttons and the US plate. It should be buried with that brave young man! Now who exactly are the grave robbers?

Posted by: tsgman1 | December 30, 2008 1:59 AM | Report abuse

This is a very interesting and moving article, but I must take issue with two things discussed in its paragraphs.

The first is the assumption that the soldier’s bones had been destroyed by a hungry groundhog. As “John” states, after 146 years, it is very likely that there were very few remains left, even before the groundhog had burrowed into the site.

The second item I must take issue with is the ludicrous statement: “…but they [park officials] had to move quickly because relic hunters might hear about the discovery and disturb the grave.” What? WHAT? Come on, give me a break. As a veteran relic hunter, I find this statement to be not only insulting, but nonsensical, to boot. The OVERWHELMING majority of relic hunters never trespass on lands, such as national battlefield parks, where detecting is prohibited. And even if an outlaw detectorist had gotten word of human bones being found on the park property, it is highly unlikely that this news alone, unaccompanied by any information as to the precise location of the discovery, would have motivated a relic hunter to go searching on park property. There were over 4,000 fatalities at Sharpsburg, and I think it a safe bet to say that bones have been turning up at the battlefield ever since 1862.

Let me also say that, personally, I was pleased to learn that the soldier will be reburied at the Antietam National Cemetery. I have no preference concerning whether or not the soldier’s uniform articles are buried with him. If it is the park service’s decision not to bury the artifacts with the soldier’s earthly remains, I would hope that those articles could be put on public display at the battlefield museum. But I know from past experience that it is far more likely that the artifacts will be locked away in a storage room somewhere, and the public will never have the opportunity to view them.

Posted by: PanchoBob | December 30, 2008 4:18 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad this young man will rejoin his comrades after so long. Like many of you, I too am appalled that someone can be so disrespectful of his sacrifice that they use a story about the finding of his remains to take a cheap, irrelevant political shot.

When I read the article, I thought about my own great-great-great grandfather who was killed in action at Petersburg the day the Federal Army broke the siege, April 2, 1865. He left a widow, and son behind who never knew his father. As far as we can tell, his remains were never identified.

This young New Yorker died for his country and no doubt left behind grieving parents, sibling and sweethearts. Be ashamed, georgejones5.


Posted by: scromett | December 30, 2008 6:37 AM | Report abuse

Good story. My first thought was that the finder should have either have left the bones in situ, or at least placed a marker at the site, since he probably knew about the Battle and the possibility that it was a CW soldier...but then I realized that it is probable that there was nothing at the site with which to mark or distinguish the spot, and he did the only sensible thing. I am a CW buff and know that both Union & CSA collectors, re-enactors, etc. would be happy for this find no matter which side the soldier fought on. I am keeping my fingers crossed that with a little more research, he can be identified.

Posted by: 4NoParty | December 30, 2008 6:42 AM | Report abuse

I would like to clear two things up about the the National Park Service and comments made by this PonchoBob.

Relic Hunters DO BREAK THE LAW. I am a family member of a law enforcement officer on a civil war battlefield. And yes, they do get called out at night for violators being there, digging and searching for remains and pieces of our American history. Or while patrolling the park on foot, they stumble upon holes that have been dug by bandits that weren't caught in the middle of the night. These criminals should be ashamed! And where do the artifacts end up? Sold illegally on the Internet or at auction. What gives them the right to sell something that was stolen from all Americans and from a man that defended our country.

Now, around the country there are still private farms and there are places that are not government protected that relic hunters can dig legally, but believe me, there are plenty that do it illegally that give them a bad name. I am certain that is why the reporter said this in the article. So nothing has been said that is misleading.

And, as far as what the Park Service will do with the soldiers items like his belt buckle and buttons for example, I am sure they will be displayed for all to see in the visitor center. The Park Service is very lucky to have a wonderful collection of artifacts from the civil war. If everything had been buried with the soldiers as some of you have suggested, there would be nothing for you to see. Students would not be able to come to the visitor centers and see the exhibits - the guns, the ammo, the belt buckles, the little boy's drum, the doctor's medicine bag, so on and so on. There would be nothing for us to see to experience what our country has been through to let us know where we are going.

And the comment PonchoBob made about them "probably keeping the items in a basement" is ludicrous! I am very intune with several civil war battlefields. My best friend is a curator at a battlefield close by. The general public has no idea what a great service they are doing for our country. The park service catalogs, records, protects, displays, and sometimes has to store pieces of civil war material that they have. But they are safely preserving them for our future generations. I can assure you that it is not "just in some basement somewhere". The people who work for the park service know each piece, love each piece and are protecting each piece for you, me, and our children.

I have a suggestion...If you would like to see every single item that they have out on display at one time, lets all give contributions to the National Park Service so that they may build larger visitor centers to display all the items that represent our past.

The National Park Service and its people give so much to us. A place to enjoy our families, a place to learn, a place to feel safe. I think they're the best thing in our country in a time when so many things are wrong.

Thank you.

Posted by: LoveYourNPs | December 31, 2008 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Great article--I'm going to try and get my teenage daughter to read this to show what (although time or culture has changed) a teenager could sacrifice and incredibly strong dedication to a cause

Posted by: Julole1 | January 3, 2009 7:41 AM | Report abuse

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