The six coffin-sized rectangles, painted blue on a McDonald’s parking lot in west Fairfax County, get a few curious glances from busy families these days. This is the spot where some of the first soldiers killed in the Civil War were buried 160 years ago.
An historical marker tells the story of a remarkable decades-long effort to solve several mysteries about the men who became known as the “Centreville Six:” Who were they? How did they die? Why were three buried in their jackets and the others were not? And why did one soldier have unusual non-military shoes?
“What makes this story unique is the extraordinary combination of detailed forensic analysis and unrelenting historical research,” said Jim Lewis, a Civil War historian. His one-hour presentation on the discovery during a recent AARP Virginia Tuesday Explorer Series event can be seen on the AARP You Tube channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjPiTZsCLZ8&list=PLWc5RAyomMOrj7cphGzV2eX_mvys8DLTc&index=10)
The saga began in June 1994, when a local relic hunter was exploring a hilly wooded area near the intersections of U.S. Route 29 and Virginia State Route 28 in Centreville, near the fast-food restaurant. Kevin Ambrose’s metal detector registered the presence of iron items. His digging led to a startling discovery - coffin nails and a human skeleton with remnants of a military uniform.
Ambrose immediately covered them up and notified archaeological authorities in Fairfax County. But not much happened until two years later when McDonald’s wanted to build a parking lot on the wooded area. That triggered an archaeological review and a thorough exploration.
In January 1997, a team of professionals and volunteers, including Ambrose, Senior Fairfax County Archaeologist Mike Johnson, and Dr. Douglas W. Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, spent three days excavating the site. They uncovered five additional graves.
Three of the men were buried in uniform jackets, while the other three were not. One soldier had unusual shoes, with leather soles but no heels and canvas sides. Excavators found brass uniform buttons and porcelain undergarment buttons as well as musket balls. Some of the musket balls were fired, while some were dropped in the graves.
It was determined that all were young soldiers who died in battle, but no identification was found with any of the men. Some of the buttons, known as Eagle “I,” indicated pre-Civil War infantry uniforms. In 1862, Union uniforms were standardized and the Eagle “I” buttons were discontinued. These clues led researchers to believe the men died in the early days of the Civil War.
Another clue was that the men were buried in wooden coffins. That meant troops had the time to build them and bury their dead. Later in the war, as casualties mounted by the thousands, there usually was no time for burials in coffins. Also, troops needed wood for shelter and warmth.
The area was farmland during the war, and no battles were recorded there. Another relic hunter, Dalton Rector, worked extensively to identify the soldiers by collecting the names of troops with no burial records from the early days of the war, cross-referencing them to help identify the men.
When President Abraham Lincoln called up Union troops after the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, most initially wore the uniforms of their individual state militias. During the first major Civil War battle at nearby Manassas (First Manassas or First Bull Run), Union troops wore over 100 different uniforms, mostly militia. Rector determined from the jackets and buttons found with the remains that the men were members of the 1st Massachusetts Militia.
That unit was involved in some of the first combat between Union and Confederate troops – the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford on July 18, 1861, just days before the First Battle of Manassas. Union troops attempted to cross Bull Run at Blackburn’s Ford, but Confederate fire blocked their progress. After a five-hour skirmish, Union troops were pushed back towards Centreville.
Records show the 1st Massachusetts Militia lost 13 men, but not all could immediately be retrieved from the battlefield. The bodies of several fallen soldiers remained across enemy lines for two days, baking in the oppressive heat. When a truce was called on July 20 and the militia retrieved their dead, the bodies were bloated and unrecognizable, so they buried them quickly. Militia records state they buried their dead “on a hill” south of Centreville.
The three with jackets were members of Company G, the first unit deployed. The other three were from Company H, which supplied reinforcements. The day was sweltering hot, at over 100 degrees, and the men in Company H had removed their jackets before going into battle because of the heat.
As for the unusual footwear, one soldier was identified as a baseball player for a Boston team, and he wore his baseball shoes into battle.
In 2006, the remains of the six soldiers were interred at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne after a full Civil War-era ceremony. Each was buried in a pine coffin draped with a 35-star flag. Rector’s cross-referencing research was able to identify each soldier, including a 17-year-old, Private Albert Wentworth. No DNA tracking was ever undertaken for positive identification, so all were interred as “unknown.”
In 2018, Lewis, a member of the Bull Run Civil War Roundtable, began work to get a Civil War Trails historical marker installed at the restaurant site. The marker was installed on May 18, 2019, with support from the restaurant’s owner, Jim Van Valkenburg.
In the early days of the Civil War, both sides believed a quick battlefield victory would end the conflict. Instead, four years of staggering carnage claimed the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers. Six of the first men killed in combat now get the recognition that eluded them for more than 130 years.
This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.
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