Gary Lancaster leaned over the computer set out in Friendship Cemetery among clusters of land surveying equipment Friday afternoon.
On the screen in front of him was a rough underground map of the grave sites of about 1,000 soldiers who died in Columbus after the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 — soldiers whose lives and deaths he’s been researching for years.
“Should have had a different major in college,” he later said wistfully. “… I majored in engineering, but I’d have had more fun in archaeology.”
It was the second day of a project initiated by the research he and fellow local historians Carolyn Kaye and Rufus Ward have conducted on the soldiers buried in the cemetery. Now a team of archaeologists from University of Mississippi are using non-invasive archaeological equipment to survey the western section of the cemetery, gathering data on the Confederate soldiers buried there and hoping to pinpoint an area where there may be up to eight unmarked graves of Union soldiers.
“The early newspaper reports said about 40 Union soldiers were buried here,” Ward said. “Thirty-two Union remains were moved from here to Corinth National Cemetery (in 1867). But on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1877 and again in 1919, the ladies in Columbus were decorating those Union graves that still remained in the southwest corner.”
More graves than headstones
The archaeologists spent Thursday afternoon and evening setting up land surveying equipment, including a magnetometer, which measures the magnetic differences in soil, and ground-penetrating radar, which emits electromagnetic pulses that detect buried objects.
Tony Boudreaux, director for the Center for Archaeological Research at Ole Miss, said the rough map produced by the magnetometer already shows a densely-packed graveyard confirming what historians’ records have claimed for years — there are far more soldiers buried in the cemetery than there are headstones.
“We’ll have to figure out the density, but basically (there’s) grave shaft, small space, grave shaft, small space, grave shaft,” he said. “They’re lined up through here in a much higher density than those stones are.”
Unfortunately, the magnetometer didn’t to produce a good map of the area just west of the headstones, where Ward think it’s most likely the Union soldiers are buried. For a more accurate map of that area — and the entire Confederate section of the cemetery — they’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to process the data from the radar back in Oxford. There, archaeologists can combine data from the two machines to create a three-dimensional map that shows exactly how far the graves are underground and how close they are to each other.
Unfortunately, Boudreaux said, if the Union soldiers were buried close to the Confederate ones, there may be no way for the data to tell which soldiers are which.
“Let’s say you had a situation where you had a cluster and a separate cluster,” Boudreaux said. “You might be able to say, ‘One of those might be Union, one of those might be Confederate.’ Those look solid all the way through.”
Still, Boudreaux said, they won’t know for sure until all the data has been processed.
Connecting to the past
While Lancaster looked at the magnetometer’s map, seniors from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science’s Western Civilizations class gathered in the cemetery talking to archaeologists and learning about the equipment.
For Victoria Waller of Tupelo, the project provided new insight into a chapter of history she’d learned about last year, when she performed in Tales from the Crypt, an annual project in which students write and perform skits based on their research on Columbus historical figures.
Waller had played two of the Decoration Day ladies referenced in the newspapers Ward and Lancaster found.
“It was essentially in my script how the Decoration Day ladies were the first to recognize both the Union and Confederate soldiers, and that was what my performance was about,” she said. “…This could potentially change the Tales from the Crypt performances in the future if we find out where the Union soldiers are buried or more about them.”
Her classmate Jack Shelton was more interested in the equipment, which was familiar to him because his father works in land surveying.
“It was pretty cool to see in a cemetery because, really, I’ve just seen it when they’re trying to survey land so they can build something,” Shelton said.
Boudreaux and the other historians planned tours in the Confederate section Friday and Saturday, explaining the equipment and talking about the data so students and other members of the public could see the project for themselves.
“Hopefully people can have a connection,” he said. “They’re living in the same place where all these events took place in the past. For me, that connection’s always been very important. For folks to have that same connection … that’s kind of an enriching experience.”
While the data won’t be completely processed for several weeks, Ward said the final step, he hopes, will be a memorial in the cemetery to the unknown Union soldiers who died in Columbus.
“Whether we find them, we know somewhere in this area is where they are,” Ward said.
Likewise, Lancaster said he’s happy with the project even if the data doesn’t point to where the soldiers are. With just the data processed so far, they’re already confirming theories and learning information.
“A couple of days ago, that was just entirely speculation as to whether they were individual graves, trench burial or just how it went,” Lancaster said. “… So we’ll get some good information out of this even if we don’t find the Union graves.”
“It’s been great to interact with folks,” he said. “…Obviously people in Columbus care a lot about their history, so it’s nice to be able to contribute whatever we can to that.”
The project is a partnership between Ole Miss, the U.S. Grant Association and the U.S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University and the Billups-Garth Foundation of Columbus.
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