By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press
VICKSBURG — Authorities said Thursday they fear dozens of veterans could lie in unmarked graves at a Mississippi military cemetery after they found two unidentified coffins and used radar to detect other possible plots.
The two coffins and other potential graves were found in sections of Vicksburg National Military Cemetery that were opened in the 1940s for World War I, World War II and Korean War veterans, National Park Service officials said at a news conference. The sprawling cemetery is the final resting place for more than 18,000 veterans, mostly Union soldiers from the Civil War.
The problems were discovered after workers preparing a burial site for a World War II veteran found a coffin in August. Another coffin was found nearby. The veteran was buried elsewhere in the cemetery and the graves were left alone, authorities said.
The cemetery stopped offering burials in 1961, except for veterans who had prior arrangements. There have been 109 burials since then.
The park service asked for help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which used ground-penetrating radar devices to search for graves. Those sites were then checked by pushing metal rods into the ground, which in several cases hit solid objects that could be coffins.
The National Park Service’s Southeast Archaeological Center has also been helping. Officials said a preliminary analysis of their research identified “eight probable and 48 possible unmarked graves.”
Vicksburg National Military Park Superintendent Michael Madell said officials haven’t found any documentation to help identify the unmarked graves, despite searching cemetery records, archives and looking for lost documents.
Madell said federal authorities are trying to respect the dead by using research methods that don’t physically disturb the graves, like the radar devices.
The park service is confident it will be able to determine how many of the sites are indeed graves by using the minimally intrusive detection methods, searching archives around the country and contacting veterans groups, said spokesman Bill Reynolds.
Digging up a grave is considered the last resort and would likely be considered only at a family member’s request, Madell said. It would be unlikely in any case, due to federal policy and the Park Service’s desire to respect the dead
Madell said his staff has contacted former employees and directors of the park, but nobody seems to have a clue why the graves are unaccounted for. Twenty of the graves were marked with small white blocks of granite similar to what is used for the graves of unknown soldiers, but these had no identifying numbers. And, the small markers were probably set flush with the ground years ago and had been buried over time, allowing grass to grow over them.
“We apologize to these individuals and their families,” Madell said, vowing to use all available resources to identify the graves.
Walking along the long rows of white granite markers, Madell shook his head, saying one of the most confusing things about the situation is that no one has complained that they couldn’t find a relative buried at the cemetery.
“We just find that very odd,” he said.
Authorities plan to continue using radar to search a 1.9 acre site, then overlay that with historical data and any other information available in an attempt to solve the mystery.
The suspected unidentified graves are spread out among rows of known burial sites. Workers were busy Thursday using radar devices to search the area.
Madell said another news conference would be held in the spring to give an update on the situation.
The cemetery is at the site one of the Civil War’s decisive battles, the siege of Vicksburg, a key Confederate stronghold on the bluffs of the Mississippi River.