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Life Arts    H2'ed 1/5/19

Altars Upon Earth: A Passion for Individualism and the Transience of Military Memorials

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The title is taken from a very short, short story by Rudyard Kipling who mourned the loss of his only son in World War I. Without trace, six weeks after his 18th birthday.

In 2004, federal officials discovered that robbers hunting for antique military relics (buckles, buttons, regimental insignia and the like) were looting graves at Fort Craig, a remote and long abandoned outpost on the western New Mexico frontier. The entire mummified body of a trooper was displayed in a private residence by a grave robber who also stole the only extant cemetery map that had a name attached to each grave.

The map, originally in the Library of Congress, was never found. Thus, the thieves had also stolen the only thing the soldiers still owned, their identities. The U.S. Army manned the frontier post from 1853 to 1884. Some 300 soldiers were buried in their best parade uniform, of whom 100 had met their fate in the Civil War Battle of Valverde. African-American "Buffalo Soldiers" (as Indians called them) of the 10th Cavalry Regiment featured as the fort's most prominent troop contingent.

Carl Sandburg understood that men killed in action may not be long remembered. Let nature take responsibility. "Shovel them under/ I am the grass/ Let me work", he wrote. Our age holds firm to the belief that battlefields are holy ground, protected and groomed by the national government. We expect an enduring commitment to our fallen warriors. Considerable resources go into searching for those who went missing in action, even generations after the guns have fallen silent.

It was not always so. Historical reality is much less magnanimous.

Cultural attitudes have shifted. Time itself slowly wipes away the deepest sorrow and encroaches on the sanctity of the ground on which men fell. Battlefield memorials, like old cemeteries, lose visitors when there is no one left to remember or recognize the place where men met their fate, or why. Our collective memory of the biggest wars, their importance and geographic parameters, recedes as does the grief that stirred the next-of-kin. Mourners pass over the horizon taking their sorrow with them.

Our custom to systematically find a name and properly bury its owner dates from about the Civil War. Until the time of the Boer War (1899-1902), caste-conscious Europe did not overly dwell on those who fell victim to powder and shot. To the contrary, dead soldiers on the battlefield were found to have an industrial use. Their bones could be made into powerful organic fertilizer.

It had long been known that blood and bone are highly effective in increasing agricultural bounty. An English landowner, John Bennet Lawes, found that dissolved animal bones in sulfuric acid resulted in a water-soluble solution he called "super phosphate of lime" that could be rapidly absorbed by plant roots. Tremendous increases in crop yields resulted when farmers spread the mixture on their fields. Lawes patented his discovery in 1842 and set up his artificial manure company. The bone-harvest stampede was on.

Business was so brisk that the supply of raw materials from the abattoir was insufficient to meet demand, a shortage that led to the wholesale import of dried bones. There were reports of cargoes of mummified cats from Egypt's pyramids and sun-bleached camel bones from the Sahara, buffalo bones collected from the American prairie and sheep and cattle bones carted away from the Argentinean pampa s. "The battlefields of Leipzig, Waterloo and the Crimea were scoured for their bones and even catacombs in Sicily were emptied" (emphasis added). [1]

Importation of bones into England from the Continent began in 1815 and reached 30,000 tons annually, with no sentiment spent on their origins. [2] The German agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig forcefully denounced the practice of collecting human skeletons, to no avail: "Great Britain was like a ghoul searching the continents for bones to feed its agriculture ...."[3]

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My youngest daughter was one of two forensic archaeologists from the University of New Mexico tasked with the job of matching the anonymous remains at Fort Craig using post-mortem physical evidence, with surviving military documentation. Not all could be given a name. The last phase of the identification project included a comparison of medical records stored at the National Archives in Washington, DC, with an analysis of remains at the Smithsonian's forensics laboratory.

When my daughter's truck arrived, African-American staff at the National Museum of American History were waiting. They lined both sides of the drive leading into the building. One at a time, each of them stepped up to accept a small box of remains to carry inside.

In time, sixty-four individual sets were reinterred with full military honors at Santa Fe National Cemetery.

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Eric Dietrich-Berryman Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

German-born (1940) immigrant (1958). US Army 1958-1964. Vietnam 1962-1963. USN 1969-1993. Hofstra University BA 1966; University of New Mexico MA (1968), PhD (1971). Fully retired. Married. Five children, three grandchildren. Resident in (more...)

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