Part of working at a Civil War battlefield is being a steward of history. Not only are we stewards of the battlefields themselves, the monuments and historic buildings, but we also are stewards of the memory of those who participated in the events that the battlefields seek to interpret and commemorate. At the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), perhaps there is no one place within the park where that memorialization is more evident than in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery. On this Memorial Day, we thought we’d share with you an event that for many on the park staff brought home this notion of stewardship of the battlefields and the memory of the men who fell upon them.
On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore in North Carolina, passed through Virginia, and left a path of destruction in its wake. FRSP was hit hard by the heavy winds and rain. Fortunately, the historic buildings, such as Chatham and Ellwood, escaped with only very minor wind damage. Most of Isabel’s impact was felt in over a thousand downed and uprooted trees throughout the park.
In the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, a large tree blew down and the root throw opened a three-foot deep hole over Graves #1650 and #1651. Park staff was unsure whether the burials in those graves had been disturbed. We called our National Park Service archaeologists. Fredericksburg was not the only park dealing with potential disturbance of archaeological sites, as the regional support office fielded calls from many parks in Virginia and North Carolina. Since no human bones were visible at the two graves, park staff was instructed to use hoses to wash the dirt off the tree’s root mass, thus exposing any bones, if they were present. If bones were discovered, we were to stop and immediately call the archaeologist and he would drive down from Philadelphia as soon as he could.
The process of examining the root mass began with sweeping a metal detector over thecompacted earth and roots. Six large (3”) cut nails and one unidentified iron fragment were found. If the remains of the two soldiers had been interred in coffins or boxes, the nails suggested that the burials had indeed been disturbed.
Washing a root mass, compacted with rocky Virginia clay, using a garden hose is not an easy task. As the day wore on, we began shaking the roots to help loosen the clay. I reached for a root, shook it and immediately realized I was not holding something made of wood. I was holding a tibia, a bone that forms part of the human leg. All work immediately stopped. A call was placed to Philadelphia and our regional archaeologist said he would be at the cemetery the following day.