They were young, probably scared, and they died in battle in Virginia — a state far from their own. And now — 145 years after their deaths during the Civil War — they've finally returned home and have been laid to rest in their native Massachusetts.
THEY ARE the six Union soldiers unearthed from unmarked graves in January 1997, shortly before construction was to begin on the McDonald's restaurant along Route 28 in Centreville. And though their path was long and winding, the six were buried recently — with full military honors — in a national cemetery in Bourne, Mass.
"I think the most poignant part was when the [six-member] fife-and-drum corps was playing a subtle, somber, funeral march of the period and four guys in Union uniforms were the pallbearers," said Mike Johnson, senior archaeologist with the Fairfax County Park Authority.
"They would take each flag-draped coffin to a stand, and then transfer each one to a member of the Army National Guard honor detail. So they were essentially being brought forward from the past to the present to be buried."
Johnson and Park Authority volunteer C.K. Gailey personally drove the remains of these Civil War soldiers up to Massachusetts on June 9 for burial the next day in the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, on Cape Cod. And for Johnson — who'd participated in the achaeological dig after the six soldiers were found — their burial brought things full circle.
Kevin Ambrose, a member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association (NVRHA), actually came upon one of the graves in 1995, but no one investigated further until the rest were discovered, two years later, just prior to construction of the McDonald's.
"They were found in what's now the drive-through lane for fast-food pickup," said Dalton Rector, a local historian and member of the NVRHA.
The astonishing discovery led to a three-day archaeological excavation of the site, beginning Jan. 30, 1997, under the direction of forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution. Skeletons and historic artifacts from the gravesites were measured, cataloged and removed.
The NVRHA helped with the dig, too. And, said Rector, "My friends and I started debating, right then and there, who [these soldiers] were and where they were from." He then began five years of investigation, delving back more than a century in an attempt to unlock the mystery of their identities.
"WE THOUGHT they were from the early part of the war," he explained. "So I used March 10, 1862 — the date of the Confederate evacuation of Centreville — as my research cutoff date." On March 25, 2002, Rector presented his theory about the soldiers' identities to more than 150 fascinated people at the quarterly meeting of the Historic Centreville Society.
Basing his conclusions on forensic evidence, genealogical records and extensive historical data, he said, "I can make a compelling case that they were [Union soldiers] from Massachusetts and died during the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, halfway between Centreville and Manassas."
In July of 1861, Union troops traveled from near Washington, D.C., toward the Confederate forces around Manassas. Gathering in Centreville, on July 18, the Union soldiers went on a reconnaissance at the Blackburn's Ford crossing of Bull Run.
But two volunteer regiments, the 1st Massachusetts and the 12th New York, plus the regular artillery, suffered heavy casualties. Many of the wounded soldiers were brought back to Centreville, where several buildings had been turned into hospitals. It's also where many of these young men were buried — including the six in question.
Besides their skeletons, also found in their graves during the 1997 excavation were metal uniform buttons, glass buttons from undergarments, pieces of fabric and even musket balls. One soldier was still wearing his shoes.
Some of the buttons from the state-militia jackets had an "I" on them, signifying "infantry," and Massachusetts used this type of button for its officers. And the fact that the soldiers had been buried in coffins also provided a clue.
"That meant they were buried by their own men," said Rector. "Therefore, they were in control of Centreville at the time." He also noted that the Battle of Blackburn's Ford was fought July 18, 1861 — three days before the Battle of First Manassas, which is considered to be the first battle of the Civil War.
The Smithsonian determined the soldiers' approximate ages (most were younger than 23) and heights, and Rector took it from there — eventually identifying the men by name, military unit and company. He even learned about their childhoods and family backgrounds.
Companies G and H of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment fought in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, and Rector obtained a list of those soldiers' names and ages and discovered how each man died. From 24 names, he painstakingly concluded which ones were in the Centreville graves.
AT THE TIME of this battle, he said, "The Confederates were already waiting in Fairfax County for the Union soldiers. Ten were killed in action from the 1st Massachusetts unit and three more were mortally wounded [and died later]."
Company G was the first company on the battlefield, and these soldiers arrived in their jackets. When the 17th Virginia entered, hand-to-hand combat ensued and Company H came in as reinforcements, fighting with their jackets off. These details proved important because the men in graves No. 1, 3 and 6 all had jackets, but the others did not.
After grave 1 was uncovered, the McDonald's developer cleared away brush from the site to discover the five other graves. A week later, said Rector, a relic hunter found another cluster of buttons — probably from a seventh grave. From his research and the type of buttons, Rector identified this soldier as belonging to Company G.
He'd hoped to have DNA testing done to confirm all six soldiers' identities, but it proved an impossible task. Meanwhile, the soldiers' remains stayed in boxes in the Smithsonian.
So, said archaeologist Mike Johnson, "When the offer came from Frank Haley of the Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War to arrange for a proper reburial, the Park Authority accepted the offer. "The soldiers had been waiting in the Smithsonian for nine years, and it was time to bring closure."
Haley's organization hosted the 1 1/2-hour ceremony at the national cemetery in Bourne, Mass., and it was an authentic re-enactment of a burial from the Civil War period. It included a horse-drawn hearse, a procession to the burial site led by a fife-and-drum corps, an 1879 prayer and a 21-gun salute with 1853 Enfield rifle muskets.
The six soldiers from the 1st Massachusetts Infantry were each buried inside the same type of pine caskets that were used when they were killed. And each casket was covered with 35-star American flags — like the flags of their time in 1861.
"THE PEOPLE there were fantastic and the re-enactors were wonderful," said Johnson. "More than 200 people attended the ceremony, and many of them told us they'll never forget that day because it was so important — particularly for the Massachusetts Sons of Union Veterans."
The honor guard folded the flags into triangles and presented them to particular people involved in the ceremony, including Johnson. His was from the soldier in grave 5 and, he said, "I'm recommending it be given to Supervisor Michael Frey to put in the Sully District Governmental Center. I think that would be appropriate."
Frey's office used to be next to the site where the soldiers were found, he represents the district where they died and he also helped with the excavation.
Pleased that they were finally laid to rest in Massachusetts, he said, "It is fitting that, after all these years, these soldiers are returning to their home state. We honor these men for their courage and sacrifice. And we understand that, even all these years later, their story is an important part of our past and a symbol relevant in today's world."