Mexican War soldier remains return

Staff Reports • Updated Oct 1, 2016 at 11:00 AM

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — 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 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 1846, 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 on the project is Shannon Hodge, a Lebanon resident, associate professor and 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.

Hodge and her husband, Phillip, a state archaeologist, are members of the Wilson County Black History Committee and work on restoration and archaeology efforts at Pickett Chapel in Lebanon.

“Most folks from Tennessee are aware that the Tennessee Volunteers got that name from the Mexican American War,” said Hodge. “This was almost a training ground for some of the high ranking officers who went on to fight in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. The Tennessee soldiers that were there in Monterey where from the first and second Tennessee volunteers.”

Hodge said this is a tremendous opportunity to apply her skills to something interesting. 

“From the research perspective, it’s an amazing opportunity to get to learn so much about the people who lived in Tennessee and fought in the war for us. It’s also an honor and privilege to be a part of bringing these fallen heroes back home. They’ve made the ultimate sacrifice for what was a very young country at the time,” she said. 

“We owe them the same debt of gratitude as someone who died on the battlefield yesterday. They were instrumental in building what is our great nation today. It’s an honor and privilege to be a part of that, as well.”

Congresswoman 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 joined Berryman in Dover on Wednesday.

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, presided over Wednesday’s movement.

“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 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, Congressman 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 U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, also signed the letter.

Congressman Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also joined the congressional effort. 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.”

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