by Joe Wagner
The following article is based on information contained in the November 6, 1998, issue of the Pentagon newspaper, the “Pentagram”, written by James Darcy.
Each February, before participating in Alexandria’s Washington Birthday parade, the members of the recreated First Virginia Regiment gather at the Presbyterian Meeting House on South Fairfax Street to pay honor to the Revolutionary War Unknown Soldier buried there. We have given this individual a special role in our annual activities, as a focal point for our remembrances of the people we try to represent. Here is what we really know about this individual, what might be surmised, and how we came to honor him in this place.
The Presbyterian Meeting House in the 300 block of South Fairfax St. opened in 1775, and through the years, its attendant graveyard expanded over an area larger than the current confines directly behind the building. Early in the 19th century, a Catholic Church, St. Mary’s, was built on the other side of the block, backing up to the Presbyterian property, and in 1826, the Catholic Church expanded their building towards the rear, into the grounds of the Presbyterian cemetery. The excavation for the Catholic Church foundation uncovered what is described in contemporary records as “an old ammunition box”, in which were found human remains, along with buttons of a Continental Army uniform.
Most likely it was not an “ammunition box”, but rather a musket shipping case in which the body was buried. Ammunition boxes, because of the weight associated with the lead bullets in each round, were normally rather small, as they remain today – on the order of a shipping carton – too small for a body. Muskets, on the other hand, were shipped in lots of ten to twenty, in long wooden crates with interior racks to hold them securely. At the time of our unknown’s demise, such a case would have been over six feet long, and could well serve as a very adequate coffin in a needful situation.
When the church authorities searched the Presbyterian burial records for a clue to the identity of the remains in the box, the only likely entry was one dated January 19th, 1821. It stated “An old Revolutionary War soldier from Kentucky.” That’s all – no name, family, birth date, military unit, or anything else. Connecting the buttons in the coffin and the burial entry seemed logical to the churchmen – both tied the person to the Revolution as a soldier.
Rather than make the Catholic Church, which had overextended their building boundaries, stop construction, the Presbyterian Church decided to move the remains into their present cemetery property. This was done, and for another century, the grave went quietly unnoticed. Then, in 1928, the American Legion began a restoration of the church cemetery. It came to the attention of the restoration committee that the Revolutionary War soldier was buried in the cemetery, and the National Society of the Children of the American Revolution provided the funds to erect the current monument over the site of his grave. It was dedicated in April of 1929 by Secretary of War James Good.
So who is the unknown – what do we know about him, and what can be surmised? A lot can be learned based on the few facts and some knowledge of the times. In 1821, the year of the burial entry in the records of the Presbyterian Meeting House, a soldier of the Revolution would be in his 60’s. The cryptic burial entry surely indicates he was not a well-known or notable person in Alexandria or at the Meeting House – he was buried without even his name. He was probably poor, without family or social position. It was January, a cold and harsh time for a poor elderly veteran from Kentucky near to death.
After the war, until statehood in 1792, Kentucky was still western Virginia and the open frontier, where land was given away by the state in lieu of payments to its veterans. Many ex-soldiers, particularly from Virginia, moved to Kentucky for land, either as grants from the state to veterans, or as part of the general westward movement. A good assumption for our story would be a Virginia vet is given land in western Virginia by a grateful state. He lives there, and then, in failing health or an economic failure, he moves back east, and ends up at Alexandria – perhaps his place of origin. It is as a Kentuckian and war vet that people remember him – and that is how his death is recorded.
But then . . . there are the buttons. “Buttons of a Continental Army uniform” says the record of the Alexandria historian. How could an old veteran, 30 years removed from the war and his service to the cause, with long years on the frontier, end up being buried in an ammunition/musket box, a pauper, in the uniform of the nation he helped create? It does tell us one thing – it reinforces the theory that he was not a man of substance, nor a person of note or means in the community. For no one of stature in those times was buried in their clothing, much less a uniform. Not Washington, nor any other military notable. They were buried in a shroud.
We have two pieces of evidence here – an entry in a church burial record, and a set of bones and uniform buttons in a wooden box. Both lead us to a revolutionary war soldier. But suppose the two are not connected? There is a body buried in a uniform of the Revolution that was found in the churchyard. Suppose the burial record for 1821 is not for this person. The connection was made by church officials in 1826. There was no archeological or other form of scientific research. Suppose the grave discovered by the builders in 1825 is not that of the “old Revolutionary War soldier from Kentucky.” What are other possibilities?
The Presbyterian burial yard had been there since 1775. If the body that was found when the Catholic Church was expanded in 1825 had been buried in 1821 – the year of the written entry, it had only been there four to five years. Is it likely such a burial would be “forgotten” in such a short period of time? Surely someone of the church at the time of the research (1825) would have remembered the burial of the “unknown soldier” from 1821. How could he have been so forgotten and the limits of the cemetery grounds in which he was buried become so unknown that only four years later the Catholics are allowed to dig into the graveyard for their foundations without realizing they are intruding on graves?
What might be another answer? Suppose the grave with the musket box and buttons is not from 1821, but rather much earlier – say 1778 or so. Now the story gets a lot more plausible. The body of a soldier is buried, during the war, in his uniform. He is not an old veteran, but a young, active soldier who has died in Alexandria. His grave, over the years, is lost because it has no headstone – he is a stranger to the town, buried quickly – with no family, no friends, no shroud, to mark his passing. Now, 45 years later, when the Catholics start digging in 1825, there is no record, no memory, perhaps no one left at the Presbyterian Church who was even alive when he died. The cemetery has changed, the gravesite was lost, and now it is found again.
Back to the original question – who might it be and why did he end up here?
In the spring of 1777, the state of North Carolina had finally completed the raising of nine regiments of infantry, in response to the request of the Continental Congress. The First through Sixth North Carolina Regiments had served in the Southern Department for a year or more, and in 1777, with the raising of three more units, all were ordered to march north and join the Main Army at Philadelphia.
So it is likely that, sometime in May or June 1777, elements of the North Carolina line reached Alexandria, on the road from Carolina to Philadelphia. They would have paused here, if for no other reason than it was the most civilized location between Dumfries and Annapolis. Apparently they paused for another reason as well. There was a hospital here, and the opportunity for receiving their smallpox inoculations. This opportunity would be an important one for troops marching to join the army, since Washington had decreed that new troops joining his forces should undergo the inoculation process before entering camp.
If you remember your Joseph Plum Martin diary, receiving a smallpox vaccination was as likely as not to bring death from the disease. Such was the case among the North Carolina troops. Many did die right in Alexandria, and there are documented records of Carolina troops buried in the nearby Christ Church graveyard. Suppose one or more of these Carolina soldiers ended up in the Presbyterian graveyard? They would be buried in their uniform since it was all they would have had. They were far from home and loved ones, and so their unmarked resting-place could easily have dropped from memory. Their friends and comrades of the Carolina regiment would have handled the burial, using materials at hand while on the march – a musket case for the casket? And 45 years later, bones and buttons in a box are rediscovered by local churchmen who have no knowledge of the events.
If the above should be true, and we have a North Carolinian interred under our memorial, what about the 1821 burial record? An interesting possibility is that maybe we have another unknown – an “old Revolutionary War soldier from Kentucky” – still out there in the Presbyterian graveyard somewhere. There are two soldiers of the Revolution in that ground – not one.