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Finding the Graves of Our Fore Fathers

Petty Officer 1st Class tim comerford, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic

Naval Support Activity Northwest Annex - 10.22.2009

If Naval Support Activity Northwest Annex is off the beaten path, then a little known historical treasure on the base would be somewhere in the dense foliage.

A small cemetery on an unpaved road is hard to find with only one sign to show the way. But if you can find this small unassuming Civil War era cemetery it holds the grave of one of our nation's heroes and maybe more. The small Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery holds five marked graves and seven that are unmarked.

Two of the marked graves are from U.S. army soldiers and one from a 10th Calvary "Buffalo Soldier." According to the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, In 1866, through an act of Congress, legislation was adopted to create six all African-American Army units. The units were identified as the 9th and 10th cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st infantry regiments. The recruits came from varied backgrounds including former slaves and veterans from service in the Civil War.

The nickname buffalo soldiers began with the Cheyenne warriors in 1867. The actual Cheyenne translation was Wild Buffalo. The nickname was given out of respect and the fierce fighting ability of the 10th cavalry. Overtime, Buffalo Soldiers became a generic term for all African American soldiers.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to the harshest and most desolate posts. Specific duties included subduing Mexican revolutionaries, outlaws, comercheros, rustlers and hostile Native Americans. Additional administrative duties included exploring and mapping the Southwest, and establishing frontier outposts for future towns.

The Buffalo Soldiers fought in the Indians Wars of the American West, Spanish American War of 1898, WWI and WWII.

The care of these graves has been taken up by NSA Northwest Annex and the discovery of the additional graves was made by Naval Facilities Engineering Command Personnel. NAVFAC hires people to work with state, national and international agencies in recovery of artifacts and care of historical landmarks and artifact on Navy bases around the world. Part of their job is dealing with the agencies if a grave is found on a site, when this cemetery was found years ago it had five graves marked, there were indications of other graves around them.

"The Navy has made sure the cemetery is marked and the graves are not disturbed and it was maintained," said Bruce Larsen, section head cultural resources NAVFAC Atlantic. While this cemetery is pretty cut and dry about where the graves are this is not common. On other bases such as Naval Weapon Station Yorktown, NAVFAC has found a cemetery but were unsure as whether there were bones interred there or if there were additional unmarked graves.

"Back in the old days farmsteads and plantations had their own family plot, when they sold the land or moved away they would try and move the headstone and graves with them," Larsen said. "What you are left with is a high likelihood of family burials with little indication of where the burials might be. Most of the graves we find around here are unmarked or marked with wooden headstones that eroded."

And once graves are suspected NAVFAC takes charge of the scene.

"We have the legal responsibility to make sure the Navy doesn't inadvertently disturb or destroy human remains. That's where archeological techniques come into play," Larsen said. "We try to use non-invasive techniques to identify where the burial shafts may be. One of the things we use now and seem to have a lot of success with is ground penetrating radar."

GPR uses pulses to image the subsurface. This non-destructive method uses electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum and detects the reflected signals from subsurface structures. GPR can be used in rock, soil, ice, fresh water, pavement and structures. It can detect objects, changes in material, voids and cracks.

Ground penetrating radar surveys are useful for locating graves by detecting the buried coffin or vault. In cases where a vault or coffin does not exist scientists can examine the GPR data for disturbed soil or other remains of the burial. Remains of burials are easier to locate in sandy soils that do not contain tree roots or stones. GPR produces a cross-sectional image of the ground.

"It's been around for about 25 years but it has only been in the last 10 years that technology has made it effective," Larsen said. "The GPR identifies anomalies in the soil that create patterns that we can identify as organic or non-organic. What the team in Yorktown is doing is criss-crossing on a 15-inch grid and they piece together the anomalies the radar detects."

The people at NAVFAC continue to search sites around the world for items of historical interest or for interred bodies, keeping them safe for their descendants or future generations.

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