- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A group of descendants of Confederate soldiers and two archaeologists last week used ground-penetrating radar to try to discover the exact location of the buried remains of thousands who died at the Point Lookout prison during the Civil War.
Archaeologist James Gibb of Annapolis and Peter Quantock, an archaeologist from Bowie who is currently studying at the University of Denver, used the radar to map about a 100-by-50-foot patch of land behind a federal memorial dedicated to those who died at the prison camp. The memorial is located just north of the gate to Point Lookout State Park in Scotland.
The radar unit, which is dragged across the ground, is attached to a portable computer to record vertical sections of soil. That information is then processed into a horizontal map that allows the archaeologists to find changes in the soil that could indicate where burial pits are located.
“The collection went well,” Quantock said this week. He said he planned to process the data and have a report available by the end of next week, but warned that the results could be inconclusive, in part because of the wet soil and heavy clay that make ground radar images difficult to collect.
Jim Dunbar of the Descendants of Point Lookout Prisoners of War Organization and others hope that the two-hour process of mapping the area last Thursday will clear up years of uncertainity surrounding the memorial and the buried remains. The group hired the archeologists for the work, which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The remains of more than 3,400 people were moved after the Civil War due to erosion, most recently to a mass grave where a federal monument was constructed in 1911.
While there is an 80-foot granite obelisk marking the site, the actual boundaries of the burial pit are not marked, Dunbar said. The radar may not show evidence of actual remains, but it could give an idea of where any burial pits, or trenches, are located.
“There’s a pretty good chance of not much surviving,” Gibb said. “If anything, it would be the teeth,” which can hold up better than bones in saturated, acidic soil like that at the Point Lookout memorial.
Dunbar and others suspect the burial pit is located behind the actual memorial, but the veterans department has said the pit may be under the actual obelisk and that there may be multiple burial trenches on the property.
A veterans department spokesperson said last year that it is not common to mark actual burial pit boundaries unless done when the burials occurred.
“At this point, nobody knows. We’ve speculated that there might be more than one pit,” Gibb said.
The National Cemetery Administration, which oversees the memorial and grave site, denied the request of the group to hire Gibb to dig “shovel test pits” to determine the boundaries of the burial pit, which is believed to be about 20 by 20 feet.
The veterans department has given the descendants group permission for the radar investigation, and veterans department representatives were on hand Thursday to oversee the project, Dunbar said.
“I’m sure they will be happy to see what we come up with, too,” Gibb said.
Dunbar and the descendants group hope to mark the corners of the burial trench with small marble markers, similar to those used in family plots.
“While NCA would be interested in learning the outcome of the [ground-penetrating radar] data collection, it will not change how we memorialize the soldiers interred at the site,” a National Cemetery Administration official who declined to be named said in an emailed statement this week.
The email said the veterans department prohibits excavation in its national cemeteries and other cemeteries under its care where human remains may be disturbed, but that the radar technique is considered nonintrusive.
Point Lookout’s use as a prison camp began after the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863. Between 1863 and 1865, more than 50,000 prisoners passed through the prison camp, according to the veterans department.
The obelisk monument includes 12 bronze plaques that bear the names of 3,382 Confederate soldiers and sailors and 44 civilians known to have died at the prison camp, according to the National Cemetery Administration.
The late St. Mary’s historian Edwin Beitzell, author of “Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates,” said the number who died there was at least closer to 4,000.
A National Cemetery Administration historian acknowledged there probably are people who died at the prison camp whose names did not make it to the memorial plaques, and there is a separate place at the monument that lists some names discovered since the original names were inscribed.
Dunbar said he would like to see those names and several hundred others that the group has gathered inscribed on bronze plaques and added to the monument.