Contact with the Park Service/Army and discussion about the Remains

On June 25, 2018,  Paul Davis contacted Brandon Bies, Superintendent of the Manassas Battlefield and one of the lead researchers in the excavation of the burial pit.  Davis reached out to Bies to discover if there was any possibility that the remains of the soldier with the bullet in his femur could be his Great, Great, Uncle, William Garcelon Davis.  Mr. Bies was helpful in answering his questions about details of the burial.  The following letter was then sent on behalf of the Davis family.

Dear Mr. Bies and Mr. Brown,

Our family, the descendants of William Garcelon Davis who fought with the 2nd Wisconsin Volunteers and lost his life on the Gainesville-Manassas battlefield on 28 or 29 August 1862, whose remains have never been located, request DNA testing of one of the recently found remains.  We respectfully request that you put us in contact with those at the Army mortuary service or Arlington Cemetery so that the analysis can be done before the remains are reinterred later this summer.

We have documentation that William Garcelon Davis was shot through the bowels or haunch matching the wound of the skeleton with the enfield slug in the femur. We have sent you a written account that he was buried on the battlefield at the field hospital.  He was born in New Portland, Maine, which appears to match the Isotopic study.  He was almost 24 when he died which is very close to the estimated age of 25 of the remains.

You have shown tremendous respect for those who died.  We do not want to disrupt what will be a moving and fitting ceremony at Arlington.  However, if we can spare our relative the fate of resting forever in an unmarked grave we believe that this further test is warranted. 


Paul Davis

On July 5, 2018 Davis received the following message from the Army

Mr. Davis

The Park Service has forwarded your email regarding your family member whom which you are a descendant, William Garcelon Davis, to the US Army.  We are processing your request and will get back to you.  Your case number is  #296676.

Joseph Mercer
Director, Accountability & Quality Assurance

On Sep 6, 2018 Davis received the following brief email on the day the remains were buried at Arlington

Mr. Davis,

 The Secretary of the Army has directed the interment of the unknowns to ensure they are provided a dignified burial.

Joseph Mercer
Director, Accountability & Quality Assurance
Arlington National Cemetery

The Burial of the Remains

The remains of the two "unknowns" were buried in a very dignified ceremony to open a major expansion of Arlington, Cemetary.  The Park Service had made period type coffins out of an old tree from the Manassas Battlefield and the bones were put in replica US Army blankets.

To see the ceremony click here AP News

Reaction and Action

The family was stunned that the Army showed no interest in the possible identification of the remains.  We reached out to family members on active duty in the Army to ascertain the best way to ask the Army to reconsider. We contacted the Park Service once again. We reached out to the Smithsonian as one of our family had been a Doctoral Fellow there.  We contacted Matthew Barakat, an AP Reporter who had written a story on the Burial Pit.

No one from the Army or the Smithsonian would agree to an interview with Mr. Barakat.  The army sent the following email to him.

“The Army was given disposition of remains this past June and fully reviewed and considered the details of the discovery of the remains as well as multiple requests for identification. The Army made the decision that the costs associated with obtaining, storing, and testing of the DNA from these two Unknown U.S. Soldiers was not justified due to the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely.  The Army feels strongly that the dignified burial of these two sets of remains is in keeping with the over 2,000 Civil War Unknowns who were killed in action near the national capital region and are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The Army is honored to care for these two unknown U.S. Solders at Arlington.”

Our discussion with the Park Service and our research has determined the following facts:

  • The remains were from Union Soldiers from the time of the Battle of 2nd Manassas/Bull Run
  • The Burial Pit (whose location has not been disclosed to the public) was close enough to the Brawner Farm battlefield that it would be possible for an ambulance of that time to reach it
  • The skeleton was in good enough shape with several teeth found that could be used for DNA testing.  [One of Will's relatives is a Paleontologist with expertise in recovery of ancient DNA]
  • Isotopic testing of the bones revealed that the person had grown up in New England. [Will was originally from Maine]
  • The skeleton's mortal wound was from a shot through the haunch. [Will's injury was described as through the bowels.  Both could describe the fatal wound]
  • Researchers were able to narrow down the identity of the other skeleton to one of three individuals, but DNA testing was not pursued 
  • The Army's reasons for not doing DNA testing have not been consistent or rational:

1) They said they did not test because they wanted, "to insure a dignified burial."  -Secretary of the Army as quoted by J. Mercer

2) They said they did not test "due to the cost associated with obtaining, storing and testing of the DNA from the two unknowns."  -Army email to Matthew Barakat [The skeletons had already gone through months of extensive study at the Smithsonian]

3) They said they did not test "due the significant passage of time as the possibility of identifying comparator DNA is extremely unlikely." -Army email to Matthew Barakat [Our family self identified as potential relatives and would offer to provide DNA samples]

We believed a lot of pressure was put on the Park Service and Smithsonian to turn over the remains, and not to try to further identify them. The Army has in the past rushed to bury an "unknown" in order to have a ceremony.  Were the unknowns  needed to open a new section of Arlington?

Still we waited.  We have the upmost respect for the Park Service. They have a very hard job, to preserve the ground, where many may still be buried.  They work with limited resources. They did their scientific work on the remains and yet recognized that they were men and not just bones.  We believe that in most cases the Army does what it can for those who have paid the ultimate price. D.P.A.A.  routinely does the impossible to find, return and identify the remains of our soldiers killed in action.

We realize that our relative died a long time ago.  We realize the "unknowns" have been given the honor of a distinguished burial.  They are no longer unknowns in a shallow grave.  They rest in Arlington.  

However, just like the soldiers who have died in more recent wars, the ultimate respect is to have your own identity, to have your name, to have your wishes honored and not to rest forever as an "unknown."  The ultimate respect is for a grateful nation to do what needs to be done to return our soldiers who have paid the ultimate sacrifice from the battlefield and to do what is necessary to identify their remains.

William Garcelon Davis was one of the first to respond to the call to save our Union. He endured hardships.  He volunteered and was given one of the most dangerous and important assignments in the Army.  He died carrying the flag and rallying his comrads-in-arms.  He suffered from a horrible wound and died far from his home.  He lies in an unmarked grave.  He wanted to come home. He questioned if anyone remembered him.  He can no longer speak for himself.

Please read his story, and if you feel he deserves his name, join us by signing our petition demanding that that the Army fulfill their duty to a soldier who did his duty.

Next: Death of a Lewiston Boy