The Bonedust Files
Originally published in Spring 2007 in the Surgeon’s Call
The following article is based on letters discovered at the National Archives in the Quartermaster’s Consolidated Correspondence files (Record Group 92, Entry 225, Box 176):
In June of 1866, an outraged resident of New York City wrote to his Congressman, H. J. Raymond, to report what he called “nothing less than the wholesale desecration of the graves of our dead on the battle fields near Richmond.” Allen Basset said that a large, three-masted schooner was in New York harbor and had just unloaded three hundred tons of crushed horse and mule bones to be ground by local factories into bonedust, presumably for use as fertilizer. According to Mr. Bassett, the schooner’s captain said the ship had a contract to deliver ten such shipments and that the bones were collected from burial sites around the Richmond area. What prompted Mr. Bassett’s ire was his claim that fully 25% of the bones were human, and he had seen at least one human skull exhibiting what he believed to be a saber cut. While he recognized that he could not tell what he called “rebel” from “patriot” bones, he called on his Congressman’s consideration for humanity to take some action.
Congressman Raymond forwarded Mr. Bassett’s letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. One of Stanton’s assistants transmitted it to General Montgomery C. Meigs, the Army’s Quartermaster General, for investigation. General Meigs in turn sent the letter to General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the area about Richmond. The Secretary’s office also asked General Stewart Van Vliet, the Quartermaster in New York, to investigate from his end.
In August, General Terry responded that while there was traffic in bones from his area, it did not amount to anything like the volume Mr. Bassett reported and that for the preceding three months the bones from Richmond had been shipped to Baltimore. He offered no comment on the allegation that human bones were being disinterred along with animal bones. This brief report went back up the chain of command. General Meigs somewhat enigmatically wrote the Secretary of War that no such trade to New York from the Richmond area could be identified and that he was sure that now General Terry was aware of the situation he would not allow a repetition. General Meigs emphasized that the officers of his department were engaged in bringing the remains of all loyal soldiers into the National Cemeteries, and certainly would not approve anything that would be contrary to that effort. He further stated that no response had yet been received from General Van Vliet in New York. Presumably Meigs’ report found its way to the Hon. Raymond and Mr. Bassett, but no records have been found.
How common was this practice? We simply do not know. Considering the hundreds of thousands of animals who died in service, there certainly were ample opportunities for entrepreneurs. The Army, however, seemed disinclined to permit the practice. On August 5, 1865, nearly a full year prior to Mr. Bassett’s letter, a Captain C. Baker offered to pay the United States $1,000 for the privilege of disinterring animal bones in and around Washington, DC and Arlington, VA. The War Department disapproved without comment. In October 1865, one Jacob Groat made a proposal to remove bones in Virginia. General Meigs declined, stating that the animals died in service and deserved to rest in peace. There was also some concern that the owners of the burial sites might make claims against the government if digging was approved. A similar exchange of correspondence occurred in November with Thomas R. Wilson & Co., prompting General Meigs to again refuse permission to “disturb victims of Rebellion.”
This leaves open numerous issues. Why would the War Department refuse to allow the disturbance of animal graves in 1865, but within the year had perhaps approved a large operation being carried on between Richmond and New York? Where did these bones actually come from? Who profited from this alleged disturbance for the honored dead? Did General Van Vliet discover and report on any of these questions? Perhaps the answers, as the correspondence and reports cited above, await fortuitous discovery in some corner of the National Archives.