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Grave robbers desecrate and loot Fort Craig, N.M., cemetery

Last year, federal archaeologists exhumed 67 bodies from Fort Craig, a Civil War-era fort in New Mexico, after a looting investigation led them to a house where remains of a uniformed “Buffalo Soldier,” the nickname American Indians gave to black troops in the U.S. Army, had once been displayed.

Established in 1854, Fort Craig was a frontier outpost in present-day Socorro County near the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, Union troops stationed there fought in the February 1862 Battle of Valverde, a Confederate victory that presaged the more famous clash at Glorieta Pass that March.

After the war, Buffalo Soldiers staffed the fort, helping to protect settlers against Indian raids. By 1885, the fort was abandoned.

In 2004 archaeologists with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—which manages the fort’s cemetery— got a tip that Vietnam veteran and former Air National Guard pilot Dee Brecheisen had repeatedly stolen human remains. Don Alberts, a retired Air Force historian, told authorities he had seen a mummified Buffalo Soldier in Brecheisen’s house decades earlier.

By the time the investigation was launched, however, Brecheisen had died, leaving behind what reclamation archaeologist Mark Hungerford calls a “looters’ paradise,” with Civil Warera artifacts lining Brecheisen’s driveway and gardens. Still, investigators quickly discerned that Brecheisen had divested some of his most valuable acquisitions before his death.

Only the skull remained of the purported Buffalo Soldier skeleton—its curly black hair eerily intact—and the body has yet to be recovered. Unfortunately, the macabre criminal case was dropped after Brecheisen’s death.

Before formal digging, the agency commissioned a ground-penetrating radar study to find other bodies and found 251 coffins with human remains.

The agency began more invasive excavations between August and October 2007, exhuming 67 intact or near-intact bodies—39 men (some with uniforms still visible), two women and 26 infants or small children. Archaeologists also found widespread evidence of looting and desecration, including plastic bags and soda cans tossed inside the coffins. Most bodies from Valverde were gone—thought to be disinterred by the U.S. Army in the late 19th century or simply stolen.

“The looter’s technique would best be described as sloppy,” says Jeffery Hanson, a reclamation archaeologist. “It was basically metal detecting, taking a shovel, digging in the ground, getting what he wanted, throwing what he didn’t want back into the coffin, and then he was off to the next one.”

Scientists are now studying the remains, which will be reburied at appropriate family plots—if next of kin can be established—or at national cemeteries.

Archaeologists will continue to educate the public about the impact of looting on historic sites. “We are getting looted to death,” Hanson says. “Looting is big business. We have to have people willing to say that they’ll enforce antiquities laws and put people in jail for this kind of crime.”

—Kim A. O’Connell

Tennessee town memorializes Nathan B. Forrest’s horse

In the annals of American history, no war has produced as many famous horses as the Civil War: Traveller, Little Sorrel and Rienzi are among the best known, but there are others. Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, for example, rode several great mounts, including his loyal horse Roderick.

At the March 1863 Battle of Thompson’s Station, Tenn., Roderick had been shot three times and removed from the front, but he jumped three fences to return to his master’s side, where he suffered a fourth and fatal wound. As the legend goes, Forrest knelt and wept beside his dying steed.

Today, a new statue of Roderick marks the chestnut gelding’s final resting place. The memorial was dedicated this spring as part of the town’s commemoration of the 145th anniversary of the Thompson’s Station battle. In addition, the town’s mayor, Leon Heron, announced the creation of the Roderick Award of Courage, which will be presented each March, starting in 2009, to an individual who exhibits bravery in the face of adversity.

Outside the world of horse racing— which has erected statues for such famous chargers as Seabiscuit and Secretariat—it is uncommon for a horse to be so honored without his famous rider depicted as well.

The Roderick statue, therefore, is a unique and fitting way to celebrate Civil War history. As historian Eric Jacobson said at the monument’s unveiling. “We may all live for the future,” he noted, “but all of us are products of our past.”

—Kim A. O’Connell

Richmond Battlefields Association snaps up Cold Harbor parcel

To history buffs, nothing may be more heart-stopping than a “For Sale” sign on a Civil War site—but that is exactly what was posted recently on part of the Cold Harbor battlefield outside Richmond. Within 48 hours of spotting the sign, however, the nonprofit Richmond Battlefields Association (www.saverichmond had purchased the 11-acre parcel, saving it from possible development.

Featuring some of the fiercest and bloodiest assaults of the war, the primary battles of Cold Harbor occurred in early June 1864. The battle is famous for being the last major Confederate victory of the war—and for the slaughter of thousands of Union soldiers in mere minutes.

Earlier this year, the Civil War Preservation Trust placed Cold Harbor on its annual list of the nation’s most endangered battlefields, citing the increasing development pressure around Richmond. Only 180 acres are protected by the National Park Service as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, out of the thousands of acres encompassed by the original battlefield.

“It’s the best known battlefield in Richmond and it’s in a deplorable state of preservation,” says Robert K. Krick, the former chief historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, who serves on the board of the RBA. “Aside from the land owned by the Park Service, there hasn’t been much preservation progress on that battlefield.”

The parcel includes a significant portion of the area over which the Union XVIII Corps attacked on June 1 and June 3, 1864. The association now plans to restore the heavily wooded property to its 1864 appearance and has launched a fundraising campaign to promote additional preservation work. The group also wants to reach out to the owner of a 100- acre farm that separates the tract from the NPS property to try and protect the land through easements or some other means.

“One preservation success often stimulates another,” Krick says. “We get one piece of a battlefield protected, and then we get willing sellers all around it. It goes almost without saying that this is extremely significant battlefield ground.”

—Kim A. O’Connell

Giant Confederate flag stirs discord

The Sons of Confederate Veterans organization has put up what’s believed to be the world’s largest Confederate battle flag at a small park on private land near the junction of Interstates 75 and 4, just east of Tampa, Fla. But its presence is stirring emotions among African Americans.

The flag, measuring about 30 feet high by 50 feet long, was raised atop a 139-foot pole in honor of Jefferson Davis’ birthday June 3. Work is being completed on the one-fifth-acre park and the flag should be flying regularly in early 2009, said John W. Adams, a Deltona, Fla., resident who is first lieutenant commander of the SCV’s Florida Division. He told America’s Civil War that dedication of the flag, pole and park probably will take place around Confederate Memorial Day during the last weekend of April 2009.

Controversy over the battle flag, which flew over Hillsborough County from the start of the Civil War until the region came under Union control in May 1864, isn’t new. County officials responded to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s by including the battle flag as part of the official county seal in 1965. It remained as such until the county board removed it in 1994.

Hillsborough County NAACP President Curtis Stokes said the flag should not be flown because it symbolizes slavery, racism and hate against blacks, not only during the Civil War, but through the lynchings and struggles over civil rights that followed well into the 20th century.

“Our stance at the NAACP is that the flag does not represent the wishes or the character of the men and women of Hillsborough County,” he said. “It symbolizes hate.”

Stokes said people should appreciate the culture of others, but said the flag issue is about more than heritage. He said the flag’s association with oppression against blacks cannot be ignored.

“I think blacks and whites should come together and respect each other’s culture and heritage,” Stokes said. “But we should not fly a flag that represents an extremely dark part of America’s history.”

Adams said “the flag is not evil,” noting the idea is to honor Confederate ancestors and recognize the region’s Southern heritage. He said groups that in the past used the flag for hate purposes had misused and misrepresented it, and those who say the battle flag symbolizes hate are mistaken.

“The flag is a symbol of rebellion more than anything else,” Adams said. “I think what we’re dealing with is a convenient scapegoat.”

The SCV started a “Flags Across Florida” project after the Confederate “Stainless Banner” national flag was removed in 2001 from the state capitol grounds in Tallahassee, where it had flown since 1978. The group built small Confederate memorial parks and erected flagpoles to fly the battle flag in Suwannee County along Interstate 75 and in Havana, Fla., on U.S. 27.

Plans for the Tampa flag and Confederate veterans memorial started about four years ago, said Adams, who cochairs the Flags Across Florida project. The flagpole site includes a small park where granite walls and bronze markers will honor the Confederate ancestors of donors. Adams said much of the estimated $80,000 to $100,000 cost is being donated, including funds to honor black Confederate veterans.

Adams said black and white Southerners should respect each other. “The time of division is over—we need to start embracing each other’s culture,” he said. “If a white guy doesn’t respect what Martin Luther King Boulevard stands for, and a black guy doesn’t respect that the battle flag is about our ancestors and heritage, how are we going to come together?”

Tobin Beck


Originally published in the September 2008 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.