Unknown Soldier Reburied 147 Years After His Death in Battle
Story by: Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg - 42nd Infantry Division Public Affairs Dated: Thu, Sep 17, 2009
The NY National Guard’s Military Forces Honor Guard returns an unknown New York Soldier from the Antietam Battlefield to the NYS Military History Museum. Photo by Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg.
GERALD B.H. SOLOMON SARATOGA NATIONAL CEMETERY, Schuylerville, N.Y. -- The New York Army National Guard brought an unknown New York Soldier home today, 147 years after he gave his life preserving the United States at the Battle of Antietam.
The Soldier was buried with full military honors Sept. 17 by the New York National Guard’s Honor Guard, joined by Civil War reenactors and the volunteer honor guard of the Saratoga National Cemetery.
"What a wonderful, wonderful tribute to this unknown Soldier,” Chaplain (Col.) Eric Olsen, New York State Chaplain said after the funeral service. “This brings him home and there is now somebody who will always honor him where he is finally laid to rest.”
Joined by a Civil War reenactors’ honor guard from the 125th New York Volunteers and the volunteer honor guard of the Saratoga National Cemetery, the New York National Guard buried Saratoga’s first unknown Soldier in a traditional 1860s pine casket, replete with U.S. Colors representing the 34 stars of the flag as a Union Soldier would have received in 1862.
The New York National Guard procured the 34-star flag and the Parker Brothers Funeral Home from Watervliet, N.Y. donated the replica Civil War era coffin.
The New York National Guard became aware of the discovery of these remains earlier this year when a newspaper story was published about the circumstances, said Don Roy, the director of the New York Military Force Honor Guard. He and New York State Military Museum Director Michael Aikey decided that this Soldier’s remains should be brought home to New York, and they began reaching out to the National Park Service and Saratoga National Cemetery, which is administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and making plans to honor this Soldier.
"The majority of the men who came here and were killed did not have the opportunity to go back home," said John Howard, Superintendent of the Antietam National Battlefield and Antietam National Cemetery. "In our National Cemetery there are over 1,500 unknown graves and you do not know who these young men were, and yet you knew they came here and made this sacrifice. The idea of being able to send him home was something the entire staff stood behind. It was the right thing to do."
Mr. Roy transported the remains to the New York State Military Museum on Sept. 16 for a public viewing. The Patriot Guard Riders Association, a motorcycle club which rides at military funerals to honor service members, provided escort along the entire route through the State of New York.
Veterans organizations, civic groups, local schools and citizens all came out along the 140 mile precession north from the Peekskill, N.Y. up to Saratoga Springs.
"It is right and fitting that today’s Citizen Soldiers from New York State bring home this unknown New York volunteer of the Civil War," said Major General Joseph Taluto, the Adjutant General. "Today we bring this young Soldier back from a different time, but with similar emotion. Although his name is unknown to us, we know the kind of person he was.”
The funeral on Sept. 17 included a 19th century horse-drawn hearse, carrying the unknown Soldier remains to his final resting place. Joining Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, The Adjutant General for the State of New York in the precession were reenactors of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant.
The Grants were portrayed by Larry and Connie Clowers of Gettysburg, Penn. The entourage also included a host of Civil War era reenactors, including family members, widows and children dressed for mourning.
In Saratoga Springs, the honor guard joined with Civil War reenactors and representatives of the Sons of the Union Veterans of New York along with approximately 500 attendees, including the entire 8th grade class of approximately 140 students from the nearby Schuylerville Central School District to welcome home the Civil War Soldier after nearly 150 years and pay their respects.
"I feel very honored to place this Soldier to rest here at Gerald B. H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery," said Daniel Cassidy, Cemetery Director. "I am pleased he was discovered and can finally come home to his birthplace. He bravely served his country and died for a noble cause; now he can rest here in this serene place among fellow patriots."
The Soldiers remains-fragments of bone, a belt buckle, and metal buttons - were discovered in an area of the Battlefield called "the Cornfield" by a hiker in October 2008.
A team of National Park Service archeologists, with forensic analysis provided by the Smithsonian Institution helped determine the nature of the young man’s remains. The iron uniform button’s design, particular to New York State volunteer regiments, identified the remains as being those of a New Yorker.
"He was a Union Soldier fighting in a veteran New York State regiment that had seen hard campaigning," noted Dr. Stephen R. Potter, Regional Archeologist for the National Park Service who led the analysis team.
"The two New York cuff buttons (on his jacket sleeve) tell us that this was a New York state-issued coat or jacket and not Federal issue," Potter said.
“National Park Service archeologists recovered 401 fragments from 24 different bones out of a total of 206 in the adult human skeleton,” Potter said, “most of them coming from the skull and both legs and feet.”
Sixteen New York Regiments participated in the battle. Because this Soldier was wearing a coat with buttons issued to New York regiments early in the Civil War, it is likely that this Soldier volunteered shortly after the war started in April1861, Howard said. As the war went on, generic uniforms replaced state-specific items of wear.
This young Soldier was in the middle of the action when the battle began, as both armies struggled for control of David Miller’s cornfield. He was deliberately buried where he fell on the battlefield, Howard said. But when other Soldiers were moved into the National Cemetery near the battlefield, he was forgotten. His grave was never found because it was adjacent to a rock outcropping, and no farmers plow ever went there, he explained.
The Battle of Antietam, known in the South as the Battle of Sharpsburg, was one of the bloodiest single days in American military history. Approximately 23,100 Americans were killed, captured, wounded or listed as missing when General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attempted to invade the North and force the Civil War to a political settlement.
More than 110,000 troops collided outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland at Antietam Creek.
After three days of heavy fighting, Robert E. Lee’s losses were so heavy he elected to withdraw. Abraham Lincoln used the victory at Antietam to justify the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the rebellious states.
“I say to this unknown Soldier, the legacy of his service has been transformed today into the ethos that says I will always place the mission first; I will never accept defeat; I will never quit and I will never leave a fallen comrade behind,” Taluto said.
After the funeral honors, the 34-star U.S. flag was presented by Maj. Gen. Taluto to Michael Aikey from the State Military Museum. Without known family members, the colors will be added to the New York State Battleflag collection.
“This is just a wonderful event,” Aikey said. “We get to feel history, we get to be a part of history, not just record history.”