Daily News Journal, January 17, 2015, Michelle Willard
MURFREESBORO – When a soldier volunteers for the United States Armed Forces, the government makes one promise above all others, to leave no man behind.
But that wasn’t the case in the the 19th century when more than 1,700 American soldiers died in the Mexican-American War.
Three Middle Tennessee State University professors and one U.S. representative want to leave no man behind and are working to bring a few of those fallen soldiers home to Tennessee.
“We’ve only had this ‘no man left behind’ thing since the ’70s,” explained Derek Frisby, faculty coordinator, MTSU office of International Education, and professor in the Global Studies Program.
The notion came about when the U.S. transitioned from a conscription force to an all-volunteer army in 1975, said Frisby, who teaches military, U.S. and Tennessee history at MTSU.
It started out as part of the U.S. Army Ranger Creed and spread to all four of the Armed Forces, he said.
“You make a promise to them and they make a promise to you to bring you home, no matter what,” said the U.S. Marine veteran, who served in Desert Storm. “That is the foundation of the bond between the military and the people who serve.”
Frisby, along with fellow professors Hugh Berryman and Shannon Hodge and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, wants to fulfill that promise to some Tennesseans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Mexican-American War.
“We are the only country in the world who wants to bring war dead home and identify them. We are the only country to identify them and give them back to their families as a way to pay them back, a way to thank them,” Berryman said.
The Mexican-American War was fought from 1846-1847, following the U.S. government’s annexation of Texas. Fought under the presidency of James K. Polk, the war resulted in the addition of territories that would become California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.
When war was declared, U.S. troop strength was weak and the U.S. Secretary of War put out a call for 2,800 Tennesseans to volunteer and 30,000 responded, according to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
“This was the war that solidified the name ‘Volunteer State,'” Frisby said.
From Sept. 21-24, 1846, some of those volunteers from Tennessee were joined by regular and other volunteer soldiers from Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas for a three-day battle for the north Mexican city of Monterrey.
The battle turned into one of the bloodiest in the war.
So far, Frisby’s research of the troop rosters have found 23 U.S. regular troops, 15 Mississippi troops, 18 Ohio troops, seven Maryland and D.C. troops, and 35 Tennessee troops were killed in action in the battle.
“The Tennesseans would have been recruited from Bedford, Smith, Warren, Lincoln, Lawrence, Davidson, and Sumner counties,” Frisby said.
Those soldiers were commanded by future president Brig. Gen. Zachary Taylor being led into battle by notable figures who would meet again in the Civil War Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Braxton Bragg and Don Carlos Buell, according to “A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico” by Christopher Dishman. Bragg and Buell would meet again, but not in battle, in Tennessee, shortly before the Battle of Stones River.
Tennessee’s First Regiment, known as the “Bloody First” led by future Tennessee governor and Fort Campbell namesake William B. Campbell fought alongside Davis’s Mississippi Rifles.
Following the battle, the war dead were buried outside of the town where they laid until development resulted in their rediscovery.
Now 168 years after the last shot was fired, the professors are working to bring those rediscovered soldiers home to Tennessee.
Uncovering the past
In all about 20 fallen soldiers, both U.S. and Mexican, have been found in and around Monterrey over the past 20 years, Frisby said.
“As Monterrey began to grow and expand, they uncovered these remains,” he said.
But the main problem is, no one knows for certain which are Mexican and are American.
“The Mexicans have done the archaeology and recovered the remains. Now we have to figure out how to repatriate them. It’s a complicated process,” he said.
Frisby said historical evidence points to at least some of them being Americans, but the Mexican government wants to be sure before they turn them over to the U.S. government and a bunch of professors in Middle Tennessee.
Most of the remains were found in an area called Walnut Springs, where the U.S. headquarters was located. Others were uncovered at La Taneria, translated as the Tannery, where the Bloody First and Mississippi Rifles saw heavy combat, Frisby said.
Since the winter of 2008, development in Monterrey has uncovered a several skeletons in The Tannery, according to an article in “El Norte” newspaper from March 2011.
One compete skeleton, which is only missing its lower left leg, has been uncovered at the site, lead archaeologist Araceli Rivera from the Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History said in the article. Rivera said it is believed these remains are of a U.S. soldier because of its height and other identifying features.
As for the other remains, it has been difficult determining whether their ethnicity, because of decomposition and they are incomplete, archaeologist Victor Hugo Valdovinos explained in the article.
“If we could find the skull, we could associate in a more precise manner if it was a Caucasian,” Valdovinos said about an incomplete skeleton found in 2011.
To identify the origin of the remains, scientists from the Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History and the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Examiner are testing the mitochondrial DNA and doing isotopic analysis, said Berryman, who heads MTSU’s forensic anthropology program.
Either technique can point to the skeletons’ ancestries.
Using the genetic route, the scieintists can trace the remains’ mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). It is passed from mother to child and easier to track over generations than nuclear DNA (nDNA) because it is does not mutate as often and is more stable over time.
Scientists can take mtDNA samples and compare them to possible descendants to determine their origins.
Isotopic analysis, on the other hand, takes samples of residue left in bones and teeth from water that the individual drank over a lifetime. Water in different areas leave different isotopic signatures, so scientists can determine where an individual comes from and where they have been by analyzing that signature.
The Armed Forces Medical Examiner has made progress in analyzing the remains, said Greg Gardner, chief, Past Conflict Repatriations Branch Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center at the U.S. Army.
“They have been able to get mitochondrial DNA results, but not from all sets of remains,” he said. “Unfortunately, some remains were just too deteriorated.”
The isotope analysis is going well also, he said.
“Unfortunately, the group conducting this analysis (in Mexico) is running into the same remains deterioration problem that is affecting our ability to get DNA from the samples,” Gardner said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper’s office has been following this process closely, because the government’s job is to identify the remains and then get any fallen veterans home as quickly as possible, he said.
“Our fallen veterans are worth bringing home. We never leave anyone behind. Even if it’s a war fought 168 years ago, we will work to bring them back,” Cooper, D-Nashville, said.
Once the remains are repatriated, then Berryman and Hodge will get to examine them for evidence of trauma and what the soldiers’ daily life was like.
“We get to meet Tennesseans who volunteered to fight for their country 160 years ago. That’s not an opportunity you get every day,” Berryman said.
Berryman said Hodge and himself can learn all kinds of things from the bones and teeth, like diet, overall health, what life was like for a soldier in the mid-19th century and how the battle might have unfolded.
“We can tell what happened to the soldiers before and after their deaths,” Berryman said.
He also said historians, like Tim Johnson from Lipscomb University, and archaeologists from across the nation have expressed interest in examining the bones.
While the scientific possibilities are myriad, the professors want to thank the fallen soldiers by leaving no man behind, even if it is 160 years late.
Aside from their desire to examine the remains, Frisby, Berryman and Hodge want to give the fallen soldiers a full hero’s welcome when they are repatriated back to the U.S.
“What we hope to do is have full military honors—color guard, the whole deal—as they come onto campus,” Berryman said.
The professors also want to have the remains lay in state on campus for the student body and public to come and pay their respects, Berryman said.
“That’s just one way to show our appreciation,” he said.
Another way to thank them, would be to reunite them with their descendants if possible.
“My job is to find the background, if possible, for the soldiers who fought there. I’m trying to track their genealogy so we can find DNA to compare to the remains,” Frisby said.
Frisby is working on a database of all the soldiers who fought in the battle by combing through the historical record.
He has scoured libraries and archives to read unpublished letters home and newspaper accounts from the soldiers to try and piece together their family histories.
He is interested in any possible data about the soldiers, wound locations, identifying features like eye color, hair color, date of birth, and so on, “and any clues as to their burial locations to narrow down our search in census and county records before getting into specific genealogical research for potential sources of DNA,” Frisby said.
He is still in search of a diary kept by the Tennesseans’ regimental doctor, William Dawson Dorris, which is rumored to have documented the battle’s casualties and injuries.
“Of course if found, this would potentially be of great assistance,” Frisby said.
Interested people or groups can contact Frisby at email@example.com or call the MTSU Global Studies and Cultural Geography Program offices at 615-494-7744.
“We have to know who died,” Frisby said. “Once we get that listing, we can find out where the formations were and compare the two to figure out where the Tennesseans fought.”
Once they figure out who is who and where they belong, the soldiers will get the heroes welcome they have deserved for a century and a half.
Contact Michelle Willard at 615-278-5164 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichWillard.
If anyone has historic records about the Mexican-American War, contact Dr. Derek Frisby at email@example.com or call the MTSU Global Studies and Cultural Geography Program offices at 615-494-7744.