Until a few years ago, the memory of three African-American soldiers was buried beneath the sandy, desert in New Mexico, their remains left behind by the military and to the mercy of looters.
With some investigating and modern forensics, government archeologists excavated the remains and identified them as Army privates Thomas Smith, David Ford and Levi Morris. They were among the famed Buffalo Soldiers, African-American members of the US Army who served at remote outposts on the Western frontier in the years after the Civil War.
On July 28, more than 130 years since their deaths, they will finally be laid to rest with full military honors at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
They will have named headstones with birth and death dates, and forensic sketches of what they looked like when they were alive will be displayed alongside each casket during the hour-long service.
Retired Army Major General Julius Parker, one of the highest ranking African-American military officers, will deliver the eulogy while members of the Tucson-based Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association, dressed in period uniforms, will serve as pallbearers.
The ceremony marks the end of an exhaustive project by the US Bureau of Reclamation, which exhumed more than 60 sets of human remains of men, women and children in 2007 after widespread grave looting was discovered at the historical Fort Craig cemetery in southern New Mexico.
The three soldiers were among the remains found during the looting investigation.
“It’s a feeling of intense satisfaction and relief to know [these soldiers] will not be forgotten and that they will be remembered and taken care of,” said Jeff Hanson, an archeologist with the agency’s Albuquerque office.
Fort Craig protected settlers from American Indian raids in the late 1800s. During the Civil War, Union troops stationed there fought the secessionist Confederacy as it moved into New Mexico from Texas in 1862. The three soldiers belonged to the US Colored Troops, the African-American military regiments created after slavery ended.
The soldiers were identified using high-tech equipment and Army enlistment and medical records from Fort Craig.
Though the Bureau of Reclamation recovered Smith’s skull early in the investigation, agency archeologists could not find the rest of his remains. Looted coffins left several skeletons without their skulls, Hanson said.
After exhuming the cemetery, agency archeologists and staff began cataloging and identifying the remains.
However, they couldn’t ensure accuracy without modern forensic equipment, Hanson said.
In May, the agency called on Doug Owsley, a renowned forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Over three weeks, Owsley and his team used CT scans, X-rays, bone density scans and isotope tests to analyze the remains.
Medical records showed that Morris died from an ax wound to the back, Ford succumbed to a spinal infection and Smith suffered complications from typhoid fever.