Vicksburg National Cemetery Releases Study Findings on Unmarked Graves

Entrance to the Vicksburg National Cemetery. NPS photo.

Officials at the Vicksburg National Cemetery, located on the edge of Vicksburg National Military Park, have released the results of an extensive study of a group of unmarked graves discovered in the cemetery in 2010.

Vicksburg National Cemetery occupies 116 manicured acres high above the Mississippi River. During more turbulent times the site was manned by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's XV Army Corps during the siege of Vicksburg. But after the end of the Civil War it was purchased to serve as the final resting place for many of those who died during the fighting in and around Vicksburg.

Beginning in 1866, a major effort was conducted to locate those remains. It was a complicated effort, covering broad areas across the Mississippi River in Louisiana as well as terrain in and around Vicksburg itself.

By 1875, nearly all the remains of the Civil War dead had been removed to the cemetery — there were 16,588 graves. Today the cemetery includes more than 18,000 interments, including 17,077 Civil War dead—of which 12,909 are of unknown soldiers. That's a number unmatched by any other national cemetery in the country.

Rounded, upright headstones mark the graves of the known soldiers, while small, square blocks, etched with a grave number only, designate the burials of the unknowns. A few graves are marked by non-government-issued headstones. Like other national cemeteries for eligible veterans and family members, the cemetery continued to receive burials from more recent decades in the years following the Civil War.

The cemetery was administered by the War Department until 1933, when it was transferred to the National Park Service. In March of 1961 the Park Service officially closed the cemetery to additional burials due to lack of space, although occasional interments have continued since that time for eligible individuals with existing reservations. The park believes that there are there are 61 reservations still outstanding, although based on the time period involved, some of those individuals are likely to have been buried elsewhere.

In August 2010, cemetery workers were preparing a grave site for one of those increasingly rare burials with an "existing reservation," an interment for a World War II veteran. As they did so, they were undoubtedly both shocked and dismayed to discover the site they were preparing was already occupied by a casket. There was no headstone nor record of interment in the space.

An adjacent grave site, also believed to be empty, was also found to be occupied by a casket. It, too, was unmarked and unrecorded. Those graves were immediately closed without disturbing the remains, and the World War II veteran was buried in another plot.

Officials at the park promptly began efforts to try to identify the graves and determine the extent of the problem. The unmarked interments were located in newer sections of the cemetery that, according to records, were opened beginning in the 1940s, and used to bury veterans of World War II and later, the Korean War.

Park Service officials asked for assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine additional sites within the newer sections of the cemetery to determine if there were other potential unknown burials. In December 2010, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) devices were used to scan portions of these sections and detected what appeared to be a significant number of unmarked graves. Soon after, Park Service workers physically probed some of the suspected sites with metal rods. In several cases the probes made contact with solid objects beneath the surface, appearing to confirm the GPR's findings.

In January 2011, Vicksburg National Military Park Superintendent Michael Madell requested assistance from the NPS Southeast Archeological Center to further investigate the anomalies. Professional archeologists from SEAC conducted field research in the cemetery between January and June of 2011. The team utilized more extensive GPR and probe testing, and also used shallow mechanical scraping to get a more precise picture of subsurface features.

Mechanical scraping involved using a backhoe to create a shallow excavation approximately 62 centimeters wide, averaging 30 centimeters deep, and of varying length. The scraping technique proved effective, allowing the archeologists to differentiate between false readings created by soil conditions, rocks, and other subsurface debris, and that of the actual grave shafts. Superintendent Madell stressed that the scraping was not deep enough to disturb any actual interments that might exist.

When information collected through the field investigation was analyzed, archeologists were able to verify, with a high degree of probability, the existence of eleven previously unknown graves, in addition to the two unmarked and unrecorded graves discovered in August 2010.

Perhaps just as important as identifying any additional graves was another task—an attempt to identify the individuals who were buried there. Due to the elapsed time, there was no hope of obtaining first-hand information about burials which dated back to the 1940s and 1950s, so some serious detective work was required.

According to Superintendent Madell, Park Service staff conducted a comprehensive review of archives and records in an attempt to identify the individuals who were buried in the unmarked graves. Included in that effort by Park Service staff was a search or coordination with others to examine records from local funeral homes, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and National Archives facilities in both Washington, DC, and the Atlanta area, all without success.

"My staff and I searched all files and storage facilities located in the park without finding pertinent information," Superintendent Madell said. "Regrettably, we must conclude that there are no records to indicate the names of the 13 souls who rest in these unmarked graves."

The superintendent noted that the records search did result in the discovery of the names of approximately 130 spouses of veterans who had been properly recorded in files and buried next to their loved one, but whose names were never inscribed on the headstones. The National Park Service is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to arrange for the names of those spouses to be added to the headstones. The VA also will be providing a headstone inscribed with 'unknown' for each of the 13 unmarked and unrecorded graves that were discovered.

"Though we are relieved to now know the results of our research," said Superintendent Madell, "we also are very sad to learn that 13 individuals have had to rest in anonymity for several decades. These souls, be they veterans or spouses of veterans, deserve more respect and recognition. We apologize to them and to their families."

The final results of the 18-month study of the unmarked and unrecorded burials were released on February 14. If you're interested in the details, you'll find a copy of the report at this link.

The Park Service intends to collaborate with local veterans groups to honor the 13 unknown individuals as part of this year's Memorial Day ceremonies.