For most of history, warriors killed in action were subjected to inglorious, anonymous burials in mass graves … if they were buried at all. Someone might have noticed you didn’t return from the battle, but in most cases your family would be left in the dark for the rest of their own lives to wonder what happened.
That situation slowly began to change in the 19th century. One example is the “ghost ships of New York.” In America during the Revolutionary War, the British housed thousands of prisoners on hulk ships anchored near Brooklyn. Estimates are that 18,000 POWs died in the horrific conditions.
Many were buried in shallow graves on the Brooklyn shore, but the blowing sand soon exposed bones to the elements … and passerbys who carelessly handled them.
Officials finally made an effort to gather the beach remains as well as the bodies of other unfortunate prisoners into one tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Some estimates have more than 11,000 soldiers buried there. In 1873 the remains were interred in slate boxes in a vault in New York City’s Fort Greene Park. In 1908 a 149-foot column was erected over the crypt, which became officially known as the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.
The story of the Revolutionary War POWs is chronicled in the books, Forgotten Patriots, by Edwin Burrows, and The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn,” by Robert P. Watson. While the American patriots lie in the monument anonymously, at least visitors can read the plaques and learn about the honored dead buried there, something not afforded to many other KIA.
Attitudes about dealing with war casualties began shifting (for some reason) at the mid-1800s. Armies in the Crimean War, American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War made rudimentary attempts to identify individual soldiers killed in battle.
But progress was slow. In the early years of our Civil War, the common practice became this: the side that won the field at the end of the battle buried the dead. Casualties from the winning army had a chance of being identified and gaining their own burial plot with a marker. Losing soldiers were heaped into mass burial pits. Both armies treated the bodies of high-ranking officers (usually colonel and above) with special respect, provided they were on the winning side.
The bodies of those lucky people were shipped back to their hometowns where the entire populace often turned out for the funeral cortege. Losing officers faced a different fate. Their bodies were sometimes desecrated or looted as when a Confederate amputee assumed ownership of the cork leg worn by Union Col. Ulrich Dahlgren, who was slain in Rebel-held territory during a cavalry raid.
After the Civil War and tempers cooled slightly there were attempts to disinter mass graves and bury the soldiers in proper graves, but those attempts were spotty at best. At the Shiloh battlefield, preservationists have identified 12 mass graves of Confederate soldiers but only five are marked. Gettysburg now has its own Confederate section and so does Arlington National Cemetery.
A fascinating book on the Civil War dead is The Aftermath of Battle: The Burial of the Civil War Dead, by Meg Groeling. The author not only dives deep into the history but also includes side bars on how and where war history buffs can visit grave sites.
Manassas still giving up its secrets
The Civil War is still giving up its dead. This June, the National Park Service announced archaeologists had discovered the remains of from 2 to 12 Union soldiers in a burial pit near Manassas, Va. The unlucky souls had been killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862.
One of the two mostly intact skeletons even exhibited the ball that killed him when it embedded in his upper thigh. The bones of amputated legs and arms were also found in the shallow pit, which had been hastily covered during the onslaught of victorious Confederates.
The two soldiers will be buried in a new section of Arlington National Cemetery in coffins built from wood from the Manassas battlefield. The Park Service hasn’t decided what to do with the amputated limbs. Ironically, experts say the two soldiers will probably remain unknowns, but historical sleuths may be able to trace the severed limbs because surgeons kept records of amputations.
The birth of dog tags
The fate of lost warriors improved somewhat in World War I. The armies issued identification tags to their soldiers made out of aluminum or tin. Except the British. Their ID tags were constructed from compressed paper, which of course disintegrated if the body was buried in the mud for any length of time, which thousands were.
France and Belgium are dotted with large memorial structures commemorating the lost in the “Great War.” Relatively speaking, that honor was unthinkable for say, the dead of the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Here are some of the WW I monuments and their incredible numbers: Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France bears the names of 72,090 missing British and Commonwealth warriors; the Menin Gate memorial in Belgium commemorates 54,896 missing Allied soldiers killed at Ypres; and the Douaumont Ossuary holds 130,000 unidentifiable remains of French and German soldiers killed at Verdun.
The Fromelles controversy
WW I remains continue to surface in construction projects and farming activities. In 2009, historical researchers uncovered on the Fromelles battlefield a burial pit of 250 Allied soldiers, including 173 Australians. A new cemetery called the Fromelles Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery was laid out near the burial pit. Scientists were able to identify 75 Australians from DNA matches with their descendants. The unknowns were laid to rest in the new cemetery.
The discovery and later identification of their fallen warriors electrified Australians. The dedication ceremony of the new cemetery in 2010 was broadcast nationwide. And illustrating the ultra-sensitive nature of war remains, 94 years after the 1916 battle, British representatives were not invited to the dedication, even though Britons died in the battle. Britain conducted its own ceremonies to lay their Fromelles casualties to rest in the new cemetery.
Perhaps Australians wanted to send a message they remember their sons being used as cannon fodder for incompetent British generals. More than 7,000 Allied soldiers – mostly Australians – died in the failed Fromelles attack in northern France. Nearly 9,000 Australians died in the failed invasion at Gallipoli in Turkey.
Identification of future KIA, at least in the United States, should be much easier thanks to the development of genetic fingerprinting. In the 1990s after the first Gulf War, the Department of Defense began experimenting with taking cheek swabs from incoming service members and typing them for DNA. The process is now mandatory.
The Defense Department has built a library of more than 3 million genetic fingerprints. A 2002 law even allows civilian police to access this massive database.
KOREAN UPDATE: On July 27, the 65th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, turned over 55 boxes wrapped in United Nations colors to American and South Korean authorities. The boxes reportedly hold the remains of soldiers killed in North Korean territory. The remains will be shipped to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory in Hawaii for DNA matching. Anxious relatives have sent their own DNA samples to the laboratory in hopes of finding their missing loved ones.
President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had apparently agreed to the return of 200 remains during their summit in June, but as usually happens with dealings involving the North, foot-dragging occurred, and additional negotiations were needed before the partial repatriation proceeded.
Experts say North Korea has always used U.S. remains as a bargaining chip. North Korea wants the U.S. to sign a permanent peace treaty to replace the armistice. Full access to Korean War sites in the North by American survey teams probably won’t occur until that treaty is signed.
Another annoying habit by the North – they charge transportation and handling “fees” for the return of remains. The Defense Department said no money was exchanged this time. Veteran Korean negotiator and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was quoted in news articles as saying it’s possible North Korea handed over this batch of remains free of charge as an inducement for further negotiations.
Since there are nearly 8,000 Americans listed as missing in North Korean territory, these cat-and-mouse games will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, DNA matching usually takes one to two years, but DNA science is rapidly advancing so perhaps identifications of the latest 55 can be accelerated. Of course the North Koreans have also been known to include animal bones mixed in with human remains and miscount the actual number of repatriations, so we’ll have to wait and see what the scientists find in those boxes.