Wednesday, Feb 15, 2012
On February 14, 2012, the National Park Service announced the final results of an 18-month study of unmarked and unrecorded burials in Vicksburg National Cemetery. Research performed by Vicksburg National Military Park staff and archeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center identified a total of 13 previously unknown graves. The interments are located in newer sections of the cemetery that, according to records, were opened beginning in the 1940s, and used to bury veterans of World War II and later, the Korean War.
Superintendent Michael Madell indicated that although relieve to know these results, the park was still sad to learn that 13 individuals have rested in anonymity for several decades, and should have been accorded more respect and recognition. It is not known whether the gravesites contain remains of veterans or spouses of veterans, but Madell offered an apology to the unknown individuals and their families.
The investigation began shortly after cemetery workers, preparing a grave site for the burial of a World War II veteran in August 2010, discovered the shaft they were preparing was occupied by a casket. There was no headstone, nor record of interment in the space. An adjacent grave site, also believed to be empty, was also found to be occupied by a casket. It, too, was unmarked and unrecorded. Those graves were immediately closed without disturbing the remains, and the veteran was buried in another plot.
In December 2010, NPS officials asked for assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine additional sites within the same sections using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to determine if there were other potential unknown burials. Findings indicated a significant number of unmarked graves, and appeared to be confirmed when NPS workers physically probed some of the suspected sites with metal rods and made contact with solid objects beneath the surface.
In January 2011, Madell requested assistance from the NPS Southeast Archeological Center to further investigate the anomalies. Professional archeologists from SEAC conducted field research in the cemetery in January, May, and June of 2011, utilizing more extensive GPR and probe testing, and a shallow mechanical scraping method to get a more precise picture of subsurface features. This technique allowed the archeologists to differentiate between false readings created by soil conditions, rocks, and other subsurface debris, and that of the actual grave shafts, while not disturbing the interments. Data analysis provided a high degree of probability of the existence of 11 previously unknown graves, in addition to the two discovered in August 2010.
NPS staff also conducted a comprehensive review of archives and records in an attempt to identify the individuals who were buried in the unmarked graves, as well as searching all files and storage facilities located in the park with no pertinent information found. It was noted however, although there appeared to be no records to indicate the names of the 13 individuals in the unmarked graves, the records search did result in the discovery of the names of approximately 130 spouses of veterans who had been properly recorded in files and buried next to their loved one, but whose names were never inscribed on the headstones. The National Park Service is now working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to arrange for the names of those spouses to be added to the proper headstones, and to also provide a headstone inscribed with ‘unknown’ for each of the 13 unmarked and unrecorded graves that were discovered. Through collaboration with local veterans groups, commemoration of the 13 unknown individuals will be part of the park’s Memorial Day ceremonies.
Vicksburg National Cemetery was established in 1866, with the first burials occurring in 1867. The cemetery was closed for interments in 1961, with exceptions made for those veterans or descendants of veterans who had previously “reserved” a gravesite.
NOTE: A complete copy of the report on archeological investigations can be found at: