• Many ‘Unknowns’ in national cemetery

  • People behind place names

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  • Quentin Schillare | Special to the Fort Leavenworth Lamp
    Fort Leavenworth has lots of places to research history. One often overlooked resource is the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. It is an easily accessible historical archive with more than 23,000 tombstones providing information on the history of this 190-year-old fort.
    The Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery was among the first 14 established by an act of Congress in 1862 to accommodate the growing number of dead from the Civil War. By 1872, there were 74 national cemeteries and many more soldier gravesites on military installations.
    The national cemetery was not the first burial ground on post. Two were opened on Arsenal Hill soon after the post was established. The enlisted cemetery was located where No. 1 Scott now sits. The officer cemetery was located near where Wagner Hall is today. Later a third, established during the Civil War near today’s Patton Junior High School, accommodated “colored” troops who died while in service.
    They were burial grounds not just for soldiers, but anyone associated with the Army. Disease was the most common cause of death in the 19th century with cholera, smallpox and malaria endemic on the Great Plains. Like all cemeteries, they were established to show respect for the dead and to isolate them from the living.
    The land occupied by the original cemeteries subsequently became construction sites. In 1858, post leaders directed that the remains be removed and reinterred in what became the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. It served as both the post and a national cemetery. A walk in the national cemetery, especially in the older sections reveals many tombstones marked “Unknown.” Why so many?
    The answer is both obvious and complex. The national cemetery we see today with white marble grave markers in serried rows with a grave locator was not what the initial post burial grounds looked like. Some graves had tombstones but most, if identified at all, were marked with wooden headboards, iron crosses or a pile of stones. Time and weather took a toll on the cemeteries.
    The process of moving these relatively unorganized burial grounds was often incomplete and poorly supervised. Henry Schindler, an early 20th century chronicler of post history now resting in section F, wrote that for years afterward, isolated bones found on Arsenal Hill were collected and buried in the national cemetery in unmarked graves.
    Some of the unknown graves were the result of Civil War combat, but most unknown graves in the national cemetery are the result of decisions made in Washington in the 1870s. As the threat to travel and settlement decreased, the Army consolidated its installations to save money. Small “hitching post” forts in the northern and central Great Plains were abandoned, leaving behind post cemeteries. Starting in 1873, the Quartermaster Department was directed to remove remains from these former installations to national cemeteries.
    Page 2 of 2 - The mission to close cemeteries was difficult from the start. Serving as post quartermaster on the frontier was usually an additional duty and harried officers often had little time to devote to the local burial ground and record-keeping. Over time, wooden grave markers deteriorated, records were lost and the names of the occupants were forgotten. Frequently, when the Quartermaster Department contractors started work, the identity of the remains was already unknown. The process of disinterment, moving remains by wagon, steamboat and rail, and reburial further contributed to the loss of identity.
    From 1885 to 1907, Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery was one of the destinations for remains from closed fort cemeteries. Even when the records were properly kept and the identity of the remains known at the start, loss of identity was common. An example is Fort Larned, Kan., the “Guardian of the Santa Fe Trail,” established in 1859 and abandoned in 1878.
    In 1888, all identifiable remains in the Fort Larned post cemetery were removed and reinterred in section B of the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in unmarked individual graves. Although the names of most were known, the state of forensic science in the late 19th century did not permit individual identification.
    On Sept. 19, 2009, a memorial service and monument dedication recognized the Fort Larned soldiers and civilians moved in 1888. A bronze plaque in section B of the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery lists the names of the fallen, mostly privates, but the list includes two lieutenants and a major. It’s worth a visit to contemplate the fate and identity of all those listed as unknown.
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