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The Kentucky Project: The Story and The Science
The Story of the Hopkinsville Confederate Dead
by Martin Pitts
Hopkinsville, Kentucky is about an hour's drive northwest of Nashville. As I pulled the little Boxster off the four lane into the motel parking area, I noticed a Wal-Mart across the highway where I expected to find a shopping mall. Along the route below was a line of signs for minor franchises like Jersey Mike's or Waffle House or Pizza Hut. Beyond the road's end on a rise, tops of church steeples hallmarked the older streets and neighborhoods of small town America.
Bill Meacham is waiting in the lobby and greets me warmly.
"Hey Marty! Great you made it! Where did you get that slick sports car?"
"Not mine Bill, it's my brother's. I forced him to lend it to me."
"Well, I hope you're paying big money! It will sure turn heads in this town. Let's have a bite and talk about the plan for the dig, okay? There's an Applebee's next door. It's pretty good."
My pal from youth in Nashville and my roommate from New Orleans college days, Bill Meacham now lives in Kowloon, Hong Kong across the harbor from Central. He’s been there since 1970. At dinner I notice his hands are large and expressive. Digger hands.
At Tulane University in New Orleans Bill's academic majors were both Philosophy and Anthropology. All of us conceded that Bill was the smartest guy we had ever known. Bill proved it by grades in the Summa Cum Laude range. By his sophomore year Bill had learned Russian language and French and Spanish and then Italian. Later when he moved to Hong Kong Bill mastered both written and spoken Cantonese and Mandarin.
Once years ago, Bill told me that his fieldwork in archeology is basically contract ditch digging. At that time he was uncovering and documenting ancient Chinese shrines and relics for the government just beneath the soon to be built terminals and runways for the gigantic new Hong Kong International airport on Lantau Island.
In 2003 Bill Meacham came back home to the USA and Hopkinsville for the burial of his mother Alice Meacham. She was placed next to her husband, Bill's father, Dr. William Feland Meacham who was buried four years before.
After the service, Bill walked around the grounds of the Riverside Cemetery. He noticed the tall granite pillar marking graves of 101 Unknown Confederate Dead. He bowed his head for a little prayer, but the idea of unknown soldiers caught his scientific eye and his passion for history.
A cotton baron and native son, John C. Latham commissioned the monument for the Unknown Confederate Dead in 1886. The Confederate soldiers were from different southern states and reburied under the granite monument brought in from Bangor, Maine. Latham's last resting place is only a few yards away in an imposing, Greek columned tomb.
In the fall of 1861 more than 300 Confederate soldiers died of some terrible disease, and most of them were buried somewhere in the Cemetery parkland. But over time the exact locations of the graves were lost. All the markers were made from wood and within a few years they simply melted into the ground over the long Kentucky summers. The same fate came to the wooden coffins. Time and the wet soil make liquid of all things made by man.
After we order at dinner, Bill Meacham smiles, "It took four years and crossing the Pacific three times for me to get the permits and such to dig. I tried high tech remote sensing survey in 2012, and we dug trenches by hand in 2014. But now we're there! They even promised us a backhoe and an operator for the first day." A backhoe is a heavy tractor with a steel scoop for digging.
Bill continues, "So you'll know, I've hired some help locally. I found a temp agency for a couple of helpers to dig. I've got all the tools we'll need. One more thing, two guys from Texas are coming up to help and another from Cleveland. They'll be here for the second day."
The City Grounds Superintendent, Elvis Williams takes care of the Riverside Cemetery. Elvis actually dug the grave for Bill Meacham's father and then later, Bill's mother. He operates the backhoe digging tractors for graves and all the mowing equipment for the fields and open spaces in the park. He proudly maintains the dozens of stone markers and the giant obelisk dedicated to the memory of the Unknown Confederate Dead.
The dig began on a clear and very warm October morning 2015. Elvis arrives with his backhoe tractor.
Bill marked the area to scrape first. He cautioned Elvis to dig no deeper than three or four feet. With care Elvis shovels the first load onto the grass. He repeats and repeats. Slowly we see a swimming pool sized cut in the ground.
Meacham calls for a break. He jumps into the trench with a shovel and his tools. He scrapes and shovels just four times until he nods to me to come down closer.
"See here. This is a grave. Look at the soil difference. I'll mark the line. See it?"
Bill draws a line with the blade of the tiny mason's trowel he brought over from Hong Kong. There is a clear line of two different colors and textures. The tightly grained reddish clay forms the outline around a lighter, pebbled brown soil of a grave.
"I see it, Bill. So how do we know this was dug in 1861?"
"We really don't know for sure, yet. It may be a 'Potters Field' grave from another time for some poor soul who couldn't afford a regular grave. There's a very small one over there. It's most likely a child or a baby and the parents had no money for the plot."
Bill continues and finds another grave. And soon another. He scrapes the loose soil from the graves. "All graves from Civil War times were aligned east to west. The head in the west faces the east for rising to meet Christ at the Second Coming. Most people here in Kentucky and the south still honor that Christian tradition."
As a sign of respect, Bill covers up each skull with an inch or two of dirt. He then grabs a handful of grass sod and places it on the head of the dead. We see another pattern.
Bill stands and comments "Look. These four graves are equal distances apart as if they were aligned for inspection. That is a good indicator of a military burial ground. "
He chooses one grave and goes a little deeper with a smaller camp shovel and his trowel. He knows the wood coffin is long gone. Only the bones survive.
He finds a single ceramic button and then a blue green brass one. Bill stops digging with the trowel, and he brings out a clean house painting brush. He dusts the bits of dirt in delicate sweeps. Another button appears. Then he finds a piece of what looks like window glass of our times. Bill notes to me that the glass was normal for coffins of the civil war.
The wooden coffins were made with a glass window. When the body was inside and sealed, the survivors and other soldiers could identify the dead through the window. Bill looks at me sadly, and he tells me the smell of a dead person would have been terrible after even a single day. So sealing up the coffin was necessary to allow the friends and relatives to pay their respects.
Directly under more pieces of the glass Bill brushes away more soil to reveal a skull lying on it's its side with a barely attached jawbone. All the teeth are shining in the sunlight. He softly and carefully brushes the temple of the skull. The thin white bone collapses leaving a dark hole.
"Did not mean for that to happen. Sorry, man!" Bill speaks softly to the ghost of the soldier. One of the molars from the lower jaw drops onto the dirt. Bill picks the yellowed tooth up and replaces it.
The Riverside Cemetery has a very spiritual aura. Just thirty paces away from the first excavation pit is a small sign with an arrow for the grave of the renowned mystic of the 1920's and 30's, Edgar Cayce. In his Hopkinsville youth Cayce was stricken with a terrible case of laryngitis, and soon he became mute. He was cured by hypnotic trance. The cure led to newspaper and magazine stories giving Cayce a celebrity he used to develop his calling as a clairvoyant. Cayce was a lifelong religious man who even taught Sunday School at the Disciples of Christ church. Strangely, a branch of this church later gave birth to the suicidal Jim Jones of Guyana.
That afternoon, Joe Woolsey, the "Witcher of Hopkinsville" comes by to see what we're doing. A witcher is a southern word for a dowser, or a mystic who can find water wells, or oil or gold. Joe brings out a pair of half-inch thick copper wire bent to into elbows.
"I can find those graves. Watch me, boys!" Joe was about as old as Bill and I.
Joe shows us how he can find graves holding the wires out in front as he marches across the field. He trudges along until the two ends magically cross. At that moment a grave is marked.
But we know that Joe's marks are too far away from the edge of the soldier graves to be real.
"Joe, maybe you could show me how that works tomorrow, okay?" I ask him.
"Sure! I taught Bill how to do it. Didn't I, Bill? You were pretty good." Joe looks to Bill who approves with a blink.
It was late in the afternoon. Bill ended the first day by covering up the button grave and making notes about GPS locations for the others.
The next morning was day two of the dig. At breakfast we meet the two volunteers and friends of Bill Meacham, who drove up from Houston, Texas. Kenny Vernor and Ron Foreman were partners in a Lone-Star-Texas-Big construction materials company. Bill tells us that we have also another helper in a nearby hotel, David Onysko from Cleveland.
The Texas guys rented a new special digging tractor with a bucket that allows the operator to scrape away the layers of dirt with precision.
Kenny and Ron are old hands in building trades. Ron was an expert. I asked him where he learned how to operate the digger.
"I flew Apaches in the Air Force Reserve up in Dallas. The controls are the same. And it's like riding a bicycle. You never forget." He smiled. I smiled. He was joking in that down on the range Texas accent.
When we arrive at the site the digger is there and ready to go. The digger is practically brand new. Kenny signs the delivery papers and Ron jumps up into the cabin.
Bill asks Kenny how much it will cost. Kenny says, "Don't worry, Bill I've covered it for a few days."
Bill is surprised. "Thank you Kenny. You are a true believer and a good man!"
Bill walks over to the digger. " Thank you too, Ron. Are you okay with running this thing? Should I get extra insurance?"
"Not to worry Bill, but it has been a while. I'll catch up soon I know." Ron starts up the machine. In about ten seconds we all can see he is an expert. Ron is a very, very good pilot of the digger machine.
Bill nods to me, "Just like helicopters, huh?" The he moves to stake out the next area to scrape.
David Onysko and the temp worker Jason Decourcey and I watch Ron and his digger machine dig up buckets of dirt. It would take us hours to do by hand what Ron and his digger can do in a few minutes. Ron precisely scrapes a five inch deep sod pad and then another and another. He finds four or five new graves. Then a couple of more.
Bill assigns David and then Jason two graves each to go deeper by hand shovels and brushes.
In only ten minutes, David makes a special find. His trowel hits metal. He calls out, "Hey Bill, come here!"
Bill and David carefully trowel and brush the dirt to expose the outline of a metal coffin. Bill is impressed. "David, you've got some beginner's luck here! This, I've never seen before." He makes a few more careful brushes and bits of digging, so the whole coffin is cleared. David taps the oval metal tag just below the faceplate. It is loose. Bill picks it up and brushes. The metal oval has a name on it.
"It says W. H. Pate Tippah County Mississippi,” declares Bill. "This is pretty damn amazing. We've got a name here! From the old map, this will tell us where everyone else if buried!" He eyes the grinning David Onysko, "Wow! You've got some real beginners luck, David. I'm impressed. You get the gold medal!"
The soldier was from Tippah County, Mississippi. William H. Pate signed up when he was sixteen years old. He died a few months later.
Bill worries about keeping the metal coffin safe from grave robbers. There was an incident years ago in nearby Franklin, Tennessee where a confederate officer's grave was broken into, and the uniform and sword were stolen. The local police never found the thieves. For the first night he decides to cover the coffin with dirt and conceal it with plywood boards.
Near the day's end, Bill's cousin, Wallace Henderson drives by and watches as we continue the dig. Wallace is tall and he looks and sounds vaguely like Bill. Wallace is locally famous as an historian and biographer.
On the morning of the third day the excavation is now in three parts totaling almost the size of half a football field. Ron continues to dig and scrape, but more slowly now. He grooms the piles of dirt on the edges of the trenches. Two new volunteers, Nick and Debbie Bradley come in to help with the handwork. The Bradleys were old friends of both Bill's and mine from Nashville days. The next three days are spent scraping and brushing to search for more star finds like the Pate coffin.
Nick and Debbie pick up the technique pretty quickly. Scrape gently and scrape again. Then a bit deeper. Be cautious. When a bone or a piece of glass is revealed, stop and get a smaller trowel and the brushes. Brush away the debris.
There are three tiny pearl white buttons, not pearl, but actually milk glass. The glass buttons were a bit valuable for the times. They were used on the collar of a soldier's shirt. We bag a few of the glass buttons and some of the brass ones.
The sun reaches the tops of the trees and the day is over for digging. Wallace Henderson volunteers his garage for temporary metal coffin storage. Wallace's house is only a mile or two away in a fairly wealthy and safe neighborhood. We transport the coffin there for safety. Later we will bring the coffin back to Riverside for secure reburial. Elvis will cover the coffin inside of a sealed, concrete sarcophagus in an unmarked grave.
Bill declares Sunday, the seventh day, a holiday of rest for the crew. We all welcome some down time. I spend most of Sunday documenting some of the 1800s architecture of Hopkinsville downtown.
On Monday the eighth day of the dig, word gets out around town that we've found the long-lost confederate graves.
The Local chapter of the Sons of the Confederacy shows up. The head of the chapter, white bearded Larry Walston brought some members over to pay their respects to these Confederate dead. Civil War re-enactments are a passion for Larry. He spends long summers in tents and uniform, living the life of a Confederate soldier, only without the direness of war.
A local nonagenarian historian, Wesley "Tag" Mabry asks me about the coffin. I help the old guy to sit in the shade in a camp chair Bill brought along. I told him I wasn't sure where the coffin is being stored because we are still concealing it at Wallace's garage. Tag tells one story after another about old friends of his who are buried here.
Lt. Colonel Mike Landree from the National Sons of the Confederate Veterans drives up from the HQ in Columbia, Tennessee. Mike was made Executive Director only last year. His Marine Corps training is telling in his walk and manners. He focuses on what we discovered about the soldier in the metal coffin. Bill and Mike discovered that Pate was married before he enlisted. And the wife was apparently pregnant when Pate, the father died.
On the Ninth day we move some of the work over to the brick foundation Bill found on a rise near the graves. After some brushing and shoveling the bricks track a twenty feet square. Bill's suspicion is confirmed. Here is the foundation for a civil war powder magazine. The Confederate brigades stored their gunpowder and other armaments here a distance from the campground and the graves.
The Christian County Historian, William Turner stops by to look at the powder magazine dig. William tells us that there was a brickyard nearby. The bricks of the foundation were certainly made there. He borrows a shovel and he walks down toward the creek. There he finds a little of the red clay that was used to make the bricks. The bricks are larger than the normal modern ones, and the edges are a little rough. William Turner says that the bricks may well have been made by slaves.
Meanwhile Nick and Debbie continue the brushing and documentation of other graves for the next two days. They find glass plates and more brass and milk glass buttons.
On the twelfth day the Hopkinsville Mayor, Carter M. Hendricks and some of his aids show up. Eighth Ward Council Woman Marby Schlegel arrives to see the work. Marby was an essential supporter for clearing all the official City permissions for the dig. Respectfully Bill walks her and the Mayor through a little guided tour of all the discoveries.
CBS TV Channel 5 crew and reporter Amy Watson from Nashville arrive and make a clip for the evening news.
Later that day, the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Girls Middle School show up for a tour of how Archeology works. The kids have all heard of the science and they've seen it in the movies, but they fall in love with what Bill and the crew have done here. Digging up dead people makes them all smile. Halloween is only a few days away.
We are waiting for word from the Kentucky authorities about permission to take William Pate over to a facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Forensic Anthropology Center has celebrity as the “body farm." The Center's staff and equipment rival the better-known Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Bill goes into the details of forensic medicine. "By some new advanced analysis we may find out what killed William Pate and the other soldiers. We think it may be simply flu. In 1918 Spanish Flu (the same H1N1 virus of today) killed tens of millions. The doctors of those times just did not know how to treat the illness. Pate's bones and teeth will tell us a lot about his life as a soldier and about his growing up in Mississippi plantation times. Hopefully his uniform will be intact. If we're lucky they may have put a sword beside him or some other keepsake. All of the contents will tell us more about a regular Confederate soldier's life in 1861 America at war."
The Science and a Detailed Proposal
for a One-hour TV Special on the Discovery
of the Confederate Cemetery at Hopkinsville, Kentucky
by Bill Meacham
Focal Point and Finale of the Program
The opening of a sealed, cast iron coffin containing the remains of a young soldier who died in October of 1861. Such coffins were designed in the 1850s to be airtight, thus preventing decomposition. It is thus quite possible that the corpse inside has been preserved, and as such would be the first Civil War soldier’s body ever found intact. The opening of the coffin could be broadcast live, and would offer high drama for viewers at the conclusion of the program.
The saga begins with the tragic epidemic that killed several hundred soldiers in camp at Hopkinsville in the winter of 1861. Following that are the post-war events: the 1886 exhumation of 101 skeletons that were re-buried with huge pomp and circumstance under a magnificent monument to “The Unknown Confederate Dead”. A supreme and sad irony followed with the discovery 13 years later, in 1899, of an old notebook recorded by a sergeant, with the burial layout providing the names of 227 soldiers and location of each grave. This created a unique situation among all the unmarked Civil War burial sites in the entire country – names and description of the burials, but only the exact location of the graveyard unknown.
More than a century later, a search for the burial ground began in 2004. Remote sensing techniques failed to locate it, but trenching by hand provided the vital clue, as did the discovery of an 1854 deed for the purchase of land for the city cemetery. A major excavation then took place in October 2015, and was successful. It was filmed professionally along with interviews of the principal people involved (ca. 10 hours of film in total). Several rows of burials were uncovered, by machine and also by hand, a process which is quite visually impressive as each burial pit is revealed.
The program could include elements of Civil War history, archaeology, historical geography, genealogy, community involvement, personal initiative and veterans’ commemoration. But the ultimate focus will come down to the “star” of the excavation—the cast-iron, sealed coffin, discovered with a name plate that identified the soldier buried within. His name was found in the old notebook, and the census of 1860 showed him to be a 15-year-old boy in Mississippi.
The coffin is a time capsule waiting to be opened, and that is planned for later this year at the Forensic Anthropology Center (the world famous “body farm”) at the University of Tennessee. Very few such coffins have been found with seal unbroken, as this one appears to be. It may well contain clues as to what disease killed so many men (300 out of 2000) in the prime of life. It was called “black measles” at the time but modern science is uncertain of its nature. It is not believed to be ordinary measles.
If the coffin opening is not broadcast live, the program could end with the planned full military re-burial of the coffin, with Civil War re-enactors as honor guard.
Resources for the Program
Relevant Civil War facts--withdrawal from the Confederate “line of defense in western Kentucky” due to the approach of a powerful Union force led by then little appreciated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant; the presence in the camp of a Tennessee cavalry unit commanded by then unknown Capt. Nathan Bedford Forrest (the brilliant cavalry tactician and later infamous reputed founder of the KKK); the fact that twice as many soldiers in the war died of disease than from combat.
The “black measles” epidemic--Unclear to modern science what this disease was; some propose an extremely virulent strain of measles, others believe it was a deadly strain of influenza precursor to the 1918 pandemic that killed millions worldwide. Samples from the remains preserved in the metal coffin may solve this question.
Letters written by the soldiers-- both officers to the HQ and enlisted men to home. Some tell of the debilitating disease affecting more than half the men, longing for home, frightening death toll.
Documents relating to the coffin individual--1860 census showing him at age 15 and his future bride at age 14, his 1861 marriage record and muster papers, 1870 census showing his presumed son with maternal grandparents but the mother missing; final proof of his paternity in the estate papers of his father in 1882.
The 1886 exhumation and 1899 discovery of the “old notebook”--a noble endeavor by a Hopkinsville native who prospered in NY after the war, desiring to give proper commemoration to his former comrades in arms; the sad irony that a record of all the names and locations of graves was discovered after almost half had been exhumed and buried as “unknowns” in a common grave.
The research of 2004-11--conducted by William Meacham, archaeologist with 30 years fieldwork experience in Hong Kong, whose father was raised in Hopkinsville; motivated by the tragedy that befell the soldiers and the post-war events, he was convinced the burial ground could be found.
The remote sensing survey of 2012, and trenching of 2014--how the general area of the Confederate burials was finally narrowed down.
The 1854 deed—found by a local blogger, it had a seemingly useless “plat” (sketch map) that provided the final clue.
The excavation of 2015--covered professionally on 4K digital video with general excavation scenes and close-ups as discoveries were made. Included are interviews with all involved in the project.
Timeline and other detailed information at these links:
Motivation for the project
General description and background
First effort foiled by local opposition
The remote sensing survey
What was the epidemic?