When Paul Davis heard earlier this year that the complete remains of two Civil War soldiers had been uncovered recently at Manassas National Battlefield, mixed among severed limbs in a surgeon’s pit, he immediately wondered: Could that be his great-great uncle William, who died at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but whose bones had been lost to history?
From what he knew of his ancestor’s death, it seemed possible. Davis had read letters that said William — a color sergeant in the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, part of the Union Army’s famed Iron Brigade — died after being taken by ambulance for treatment.
Unfortunately for Davis, he may never find out.
Army officials rejected requests from several families to conduct DNA testing that might have enabled their identification before reburying the remains as unknown soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery in September.
“The Army made the decision that the costs associated with obtaining, storing, and testing of the DNA from these two Unknown U.S. Soldiers was not justified due to the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely,” a statement from Army officials at the cemetery says.
Davis said he finds the Army’s stance insulting.
“Don’t put someone in a box for eternity without their name if you have the ability to identify that person,” said Davis, 64, of Fort Myers, Florida.
Davis noted that the U.S. military has an entire department working to identify remains of service members, but the agency only investigates cases going back to World War II. He said he doesn’t understand why the military’s commitment comes with an apparent expiration date on older conflicts.
“There’s a covenant that exists between our country and our soldiers: If they’re lost, our country will try to find them, and if they’re found, our country will try to identify them,” Davis said. “When a soldier makes the ultimate sacrifice in battle for his country, when does the commitment to bring him home end?”
This discovery was unusual, and accidental. Countless unidentified soldiers were buried where they fell during the Civil War. National Park Service policy is to leave their remains in place, considering battlefields to be hallowed ground.
These bodies were discovered in 2014 when workers digging to install a pipeline uncovered human bones. Researchers eventually found nearly a dozen severed limbs, along with two full sets of remains. They were able to conclude the soldiers were members of the Union Army, based on uniform buttons found in the pit and a bullet lodged in the one man’s femur, fired from a Confederate Enfield rifle.
The location corresponds with work done by surgeons in the battle’s aftermath, as the Union medical corps sent ambulances to collect the wounded and treat those left lying on the battlefield who could be saved, said Douglas Owsley, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution who examined the remains.
Owsley said he does not dispute the Army’s contention that DNA testing would be unlikely to identify the two individuals, because there could be many potential candidates with plausible claims like those put forward by Davis, given the large number of casualties at Second Bull Run.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency already has a $144 million budget and 600 staffers working to identify tens of thousands of remains, and typically identifies about 200 service members a year. Making an exception in Davis’ case could open the door to an even larger caseload by violating its firm rule against investigating pre-World War II conflicts.
Owsley said some consideration was given to developing DNA profiles of the remains before they were reburied, but the Army opted against that as well, noting that Arlington was founded as a place to honor the Civil War dead, both known and unidentified.
“The Army feels strongly that the dignified burial of these two sets of remains is in keeping with the over 2,000 Civil War Unknowns who were killed in action near the national capital region and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery,” the Army said in its statement.
Owsley said it may be easier to identify the severed limbs. Surgeons were under orders to document amputations so that Army pensions could be issued to these wounded soldiers, and there are fairly extensive records of surgeries from the battle. Owsley said he hopes to preserve samples from the limbs, which are stored at the Smithsonian, but the Army has not yet agreed to such testing.
Davis said every detail he learns about the case seems to jibe with his ancestor’s story. He said no one at the Army was willing to look at his documents and other evidence corroborating the possibility that his ancestor has been unearthed.
For instance, Park Service officials said Davis’ ancestor couldn’t have been connected because he served in a Wisconsin regiment, and isotope testing — which can be done less expensively and more easily than DNA testing — indicated the two soldiers were likely from New England. But Davis said his great-great uncle lived in Maine before moving to the Midwest for work as a lumberjack.
Indeed, a headstone in a Maine cemetery bears William Garcelon Davis’ name, marking an empty gravesite. That’s why Paul Davis wants his ancestor buried in Maine, even though he recognizes the honor of burial at Arlington.
“The ones who loved him, that’s where they thought he belonged,” Davis said.