With dignified precision befitting the honors due to fallen American soldiers, as many as 13 skeletal remains unearthed from what was a Mexican War battlefield were welcomed home Wednesday (Sept. 28) after 170 years.
The solemn movement of the two flag-draped transfer cases, believed to contain members of the Tennessee militia who died in the Battle for Monterrey in 1848, was the culmination of more than five years of diplomatic negotiation, sparked by the urging of a Middle Tennessee State University anthropology professor.
That professor, Hugh Berryman, director of MTSU’s Forensic Institute for Research and Education, stood on the flight line, at the home to the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, to witness the transfer of the remains from the Army C-12 aircraft and pay his respects.
For Berryman, his work is just beginning. He will lead a team of MTSU professors, along with colleagues from other academic institutions, who have volunteered to assist the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System in the historical, bio-archaeological and forensic analysis of the remains.
Joining Berryman in Dover on Wednesday was U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, as well as MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, interim Provost Mark Byrnes, interim College of Liberal Arts Dean Karen Petersen and retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Huber, the university’s senior adviser for veterans and leadership initiatives.
Also, presiding over Wednesday’s movement was U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Robert Moore, a native of Murfreesboro and Riverdale High School graduate, who received his master’s degree from MTSU’s Jones College of Business in 1990.
“We hope to have findings that allow a deeper understanding of the men who gave their lives in the engagement at La Teneria,” Berryman said. “The skeleton is excellent at recording its own history.”
Berryman said analysis of the remains may allow interpretation of the quality of life of mid-19th century American soldiers, their overall health conditions, and perhaps how their wounded were treated. There’s a remote possibility, he said, they may even be able to identify the remains.
“The bones can provide a window through which to examine the aftermath of battle during the Mexican-American War,” he said.
Berryman’s involvement with the repatriation of the remains goes back to 2013 and began through his work as a consultant to the military’s forensic efforts. The project earned a $55,000 grant from the Tennessee Wars Commission and picked up support from members of the state’s Congressional delegation.
The remains were first discovered in 1996 at the site of an apartment and parking complex being built in Monterrey near the Tannery Fort site. Historical evidence, including uniform buttons and coins, indicated that the remains were likely those of Tennesseans or Mississippians who fought in the battle.
Berryman, intrigued by the potential tie to Tennessee, mounted a concerted effort to have the remains brought to the U.S.
“After five years of ongoing negotiations with the Mexican government, we have finally returned our fallen Volunteer State heroes back to American soil,” said Rep. Black, whose office joined the push in 2011.
“I am grateful to the dedicated faculty and administrators at Middle Tennessee State University who joined with me in this personal journey, as well as the State Department and U.S. Army personnel who answered our requests for help.”
In 2013, U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-South Pittsburg, asked the Department of Defense to secure the remains and for Tennesseans to be buried in the Gallatin City Cemetery, the site of a Mexican-American War memorial. Black, as well as Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, also signed the letter.
The Congressional effort was also joined by U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker’s office first reported confirmation Tuesday that the remains were aboard U.S. military aircraft and headed for Dover.
McPhee thanked Black and the entire Congressional delegation for the work that led to Wednesday’s solemn movement at Dover. He also praised Berryman and the other MTSU professors affiliated with the project.
“The work by professor Berryman and his colleagues reflects the very best of our university’s commitment to innovation, dedication and public service,” he said.
Huber, who attended Wednesday’s movement in full dress uniform, said Berryman’s work was “yet another example of how MTSU shows respect for those who have served in our armed forces.”
Joining Berryman on the project is Shannon Hodge, an associate professor and a bio-archaeologist with a specialty in paleopathology, and Derek Frisby, a faculty member and military historian in the Global Studies Department. Both Hodge and Frisby also attended Wednesday’s ceremony.
ABOUT THE BATTLE OF MONTERREY
The Mexican-American War and the Battle for Monterrey is an oft-forgotten part of U.S. military history. This war cemented Tennessee’s reputation as the “Volunteer State” and fostered the careers of many national figures.
American soldiers, both regulars and volunteers, engaged in urban combat for the first time at Monterrey, and the lesson proved costly, particularly for many Tennesseans.
In September 1846, American forces caught the Mexican army in retreat at the city of Monterrey in northern Mexico, referenced as “a Perfect Gibraltar” for its formidable defenses.
Instead of a frontal assault, U.S. commander Zachary Taylor sent regular soldiers and Texas militia as the main attack force to the western sector to block Saltillo Road sealing off the enemy’s line of reinforcement.
At the same time, a regiment of regulars led by West Point officers such as Ulysses S. Grant and Braxton Bragg, along with volunteer regiments from Mississippi and Tennessee, attacked El Fortin Del Teneria (or Tannery Fort), dominating the northeastern sector.
The diversionary attack unknowingly stepped into a deadly crossfire from reinforced Mexican forts. Tennessee and Mississippi troops soon found themselves under heavy artillery fire from batteries supporting Tannery Fort.
According to one Mexican account, a cannonball tore through the Tennesseans’ ranks, “releasing fragments of human beings in the air and covering the living with their blood. So terrible in fact was the fire that the killed and wounded lay in pyramids.”
Although vital to overall success, the capture of Tannery Fort proved extremely costly. The First Tennessee suffered approximately 26 killed-in-action and 77 wounded-in-action (many mortally), nearly twice that of the Mississippi Regiment.
From that day forward, the Tennessean regiment would be referred to as the “Bloody First.” Fourteen percent of all forces engaged were killed or wounded (about 394 men), representing one of the bloodiest days in West Point history as 11 former cadets fell in action.
Due to the logistical difficulties in transporting the dead, many of those killed were likely buried near the Tannery Fort site. Mexican records indicate that the dead were buried in hastily covered mounds on the roadside. On many occasions observers noted that these makeshift graves were disturbed by animals and partially exposed.
Over the next 150 years, Monterrey expanded rapidly around and over the battlefield, and the historical memory of the impromptu cemetery was lost. In 1996, construction of an apartment/parking complex revealed human remains believed to be those of Americans killed during the Battle of Monterrey.
Historical evidence strongly indicates that these burials are likely those of Tennesseans or Mississippians who fell taking Tannery Fort.