Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas

 

Excavation of historic graves is always a sensitive issue that must be approached carefully and respectfully, especially when living relatives or descendant groups are involved. When the recent $4.7 million renovation of the Texas State Cemetery required the exhumation and relocation of numerous graves of Confederate veterans and their spouses, Prewitt and Associates, Inc., stepped in to play a crucial role. From 1995 to 1997, PAI undertook an intensive archeological project that yielded significant historical information while balancing the scheduling and financial needs of the project sponsors and the desires of the descendant community.

The State Cemetery is the official cemetery for burial of the states important officials and heroes, and after the Civil War it became the unofficial military cemetery for Confederate veterans and their spouses. There are now over 2,000 Confederate veterans interred in this prominent 147-year-old cemetery in East Austin.

Early in the 1990s, plans were made to renovate this venerable old cemetery to restore it to its former grandeur. PAI became involved in project planning in 1995, working under the direction of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas General Services Commission, and the project manager Emily Little Architects. Many other state agencies were involved, and the entire process was overseen by Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock. From the start, it was clear that the planned construction would necessitate the relocation of 57 graves in the Confederate veterans section. Because of the sensitivity of such work, PAI immediately began consulting with the local chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), while the General Services Commission tried to identify family members of those persons whose graves would be moved. These descendant groups were intimately involved throughout the process -- from planning the exhumations to reburial.

PAI conducted archival research, an archeological survey, and extensive test excavations to search for unmarked graves in the planned construction zones. The most important archeological activity was the excavation of burials containing 51 Confederate veterans and 6 spouses who died between 1884 and 1951. The PAI research team included a historian, six archeologists, and an illustrator. Two of the archeologists were osteologists, or experts on human bones, and one also served as the project photographer. Excavation tools ranged from a backhoe and a Gradall used to reveal the grave shafts, to trowels and dental picks used to expose fragile human remains. Working in two crews of three, two burials were carefully exposed each day. The remains of each burial, which generally consisted of remnants of wooden or metal caskets, a human skeleton, and remnants of clothing (e.g., buttons) and personal items (e.g., dentures), were transferred to an on-site laboratory where they were photographed, measured, sketched, and documented. At the end of each day, the remains were placed into new reburial boxes, then sealed and stored in a vault on the premises.

The archeological work uncovered a vast amount of interesting data that were used to infer health conditions, socioeconomic status, and burial traits associated with an elderly population of former Confederate soldiers. Bioarcheological analysis of the skeletal remains provided a unique opportunity to examine the lives and deaths of the deceased, and offered valuable information about the times in which they lived. Many of the men obviously had received relatively good medical and dental care. The bones of some individuals revealed wounds that almost certainly were received in Civil War battles.

Since most of these people had no close relatives to care for them and lived at the state-run Confederate Home for Men in Austin, it was somewhat surprising to find that these deceased soldiers were not treated as paupers. Each one was buried in a wooden casket with fairly elaborate hardware. Many of the caskets had glass-covered viewing windows, and evidence of clothing or jewelry was present in 93 percent of the burials. Although it was evident that the wealthier individuals were dressed in finer clothing and interred in more elaborate caskets, the men from the Confederate Home were still treated with respect. The UDC, one of the groups that helped establish the Confederate Home for Men, made sure that these men received honorable burials. The archeologists recovered 16 different styles of casket handles, casket thumbscrews, fasteners, and other hardware. These burial remains document changes in mortuary patterns from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. For example, the elaborate geometric designs of the 1907-1908 casket hardware are quite a contrast to the simpler art deco styles of the 1930s. Other artifacts discovered in the burials include plastic hair combs from 1923 and 1931 burials; a brass coat button stamped with the United Confederate Veterans logo from a 1920 burial; a plain gold wedding band and a moss agate inlay ring from a 1907 grave; bottom dentures made to fit around two existing teeth from a 1925 burial; and imitation silk bow ties from burials dating to 1907-1908. With the exception of a few artifacts withheld for exhibit at the State Cemetery museum at the request of family members or the UDC, all of the remains were reinterred to a new location a few hundred yards from their original resting place. Forty-five of the burials were reinterred on July 31, 1995, and the last two burials were laid to rest during a Confederate Reinterment Memorial Service held on August 7, 1995. Relatives of the deceased, members of the UDC and SCV, and the archeologists who participated in the project were all on hand to commemorate the soldiers and spouses whose lives were intertwined with the former Confederate States of America. The solemn occasion ended with the playing of taps on a distant lone bugle. The Texas State Cemetery work is an important addition to PAI's list of successfully completed projects. Because of good planning and attention to critical details by all of the parties involved, this potentially controversial work received only good publicity and was completed with the full blessing of the descendant community. The work was done on time and within budget, with the technical report being produced in 1996. Going a step further, PAI also produced a popular article on this project that appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Heritage magazine (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45403/). Staff members have presented numerous programs on this interesting work to professional historical associations and archeological organizations, descendant groups, and local civic groups.

For more information on the Texas State Cemetery or the archeological work done there, check out the State Cemetery web site . A more detailed article on the archeological investigations appears there, in addition to many drawings of burial artifacts (such as casket hardware and personal items).

 

Prewitt and Associates, Inc.
2105 Donley Drive, Suite 400
Austin, Texas 78758-4513
TEL: (512) 459-3349
FAX: (512) 459-3851