Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Efforts to Identify the Unkown Dead Continue

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 19, 2019

From Peter Maugle, writing at Mysteries and Conundrums, comes the story of efforts that continue — more than 150 years after the guns fell silent — to name the unidentified dead from America’s bloodiest conflict.

Steve Morin, a volunteer at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, pores through the yellowed pages of an antique book, cross-referencing it with his iPad. Morin, a retired FBI research specialist and student of the Civil War, is attempting to determine the identity of an unknown soldier. He is not using DNA to perform this task, which makes it possible to ascertain the names of many World War II, Korean and Vietnam War soldiers whose remains had been anonymous. Instead, Morin is using a combination of rosters, books, and online resources to reveal the identities of these otherwise indistinguishable men.

The process can be tedious and frustrating at times, but Morin has the right mindset and background. Experience with the FBI instilled in him a conviction to get the facts straight. No stone is left unturned as Morin strives to make the most accurate identification possible. He scrutinizes enlistment and payroll records, unit rosters, pension applications, and a multitude of other sources. Morin must also take into account misspellings or misinterpretations of writing from over 150 years ago. He might consider if the letter “A” was perhaps misconstrued as an “H” on a crude grave marker, or if a soldier’s state of origin is supposed to be MA, ME, or MG? Sometimes the clues come together like a puzzle, and lead to a distinct probable identity. When a solid deduction is made based upon all available evidence, the outcome is denoted in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery records. The entries are never definitive, however, and always reflect a degree of uncertainty. And if there is insufficient evidence, the best course of action is to leave the status as “Unknown.”

Another researcher assisting with the identification project is Michael Taylor, a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. Taylor was inspired to take on the task (in addition to his course load and other duties at the USNA), after he attended a tour of the Fredericksburg battlefield with his fellow midshipmen. The visit ended in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, where Michael was struck by the over 12,000 unknown graves. He asked park staff if there was any way to go about identifying these soldiers. The arduous and complicated process necessary to establish any semblance of positive identification was explained to Taylor, but it did not deter the midshipman. Within a week, Michael delved into digital resources provided by the National Park Service and came up with promising leads. Now, over a year later, Taylor’s work has resulted in almost one hundred corrections and probable identifications for these previously unknown Civil War soldiers. Taylor, the son of a Vietnam War veteran, feels, “All those who served this country deserve to be remembered.”

When the Army reburial parties went about their grim task over 150 years ago, it is remarkable to consider they made every possible effort to somehow identify the fallen. Even if it only entailed part of a name, or their state of origin, there was an expectation that the task would someday be completed. Despite not knowing if there would be enhanced recordkeeping or organizations established to administer these places, the conviction was there. Otherwise, why bother inscribing “W.A.W.” on a gravestone? Now, with vast archives and multitudes of records available at a few keystrokes, the seemingly impossible is viable. Persistent research allows us the opportunity to fulfill the aspirations of our forebears by finally identifying these Civil War dead.

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