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Dr. Douglas Owsley: Forensic and Archaeological Investigation of Civil War Military Remains

A century and a half after the end of the Civil War, the bones of Confederate and Union soldiers are still being found. This presentation will demonstrate how a forensic investigative process contributes to American military history.

Over the past three decades, Smithsonian forensic anthropologists have examined the skeletons of several hundred soldiers.Unmarked military burials have been disturbed by construction projects, exposed by natural processes such as erosion or animal burrowing, and found by relic hunters using metal detectors. Under specific circumstances, military burials have been recovered and evaluated through archaeological investigations including the underwater recovery of the Confederate submarine, H. L. Hunley.

From Dr. Owsley: Our case files are used to illustrate the types of Civil War investigations that my lab has assisted with, noting circumstances that prompted this research and methods used in these examinations. This research can identify a soldier, provide information on health, nutrition, and medical procedures, and reveal the cause of death. As a case in point, the recent discovery of a battlefield burial containing amputated limbs demonstrates the work of skilled surgeons operating under challenging conditions. The complexity and results of these investigations have increased over the years through gained experience benefiting from advances in scientific methodology. Although uncommon, these unusual glimpses into military history provide very personal perspectives that reflect the sacrifices and harsh circumstances faced by brave
soldiers.

Dr. Douglas Owsley: Forensic and Archaeological Investigation of Civil War Military Remains