Soldiers from looted cemetery reburied

July 29, 2009

The remains of three buffalo soldiers were among 60 Civil War era men, women and children laid to rest in the Santa Fe National Cemetery near Fort Craig in New Mexico on Tuesday. The remains were disinterred over a two-year period as part of a federal criminal investigation into grave looting.

The El Defensor Chieftain of Socorro County, N.Mex. reported that the three Buffalo soldiers were U.S. Army Pvts. David Ford, Levi Morris and Thomas Smith. They were members of the 125th United States Colored Troops, a regiment of black soldiers stationed at Fort Craig during the Civil War. They fought Texas Confederates at the Battle of Valverde in 1862.

Full or partial remains of 25 children, four women and 34 men, most who could not be identified, were also reburied.

The investigation began to unfold five years ago following an offhand comment made by a local resident to a Bureau of Reclamation official. It was claimed that a local historian possessed the remains of a buffalo soldier at his home, prompting a bureau archaeologist to visit the cemetery at Fort Craig where he found signs of looting.

The tip was passed on to a special agent with the Bureau of Land Management, who was able to recover partial remains at the residence. The suspect, who died in 2004, is believed to have taken the remains, along with those of another buffalo soldier, 40 years ago.

“An excavation team made up of volunteers from the FBI, State Police and Socorro County Sheriff’s Department assisted archeologists in the recovery. They initially found coffins with no bones and a handful of artifacts. Looters had hit every corner of the soccer field-sized cemetery, leaving behind artifacts of their own. Among them were a Pepsi can from 1973, plastic cigarette filters dating from the 1960s and a plastic cup with the picture of then Baltimore Colts player Bubba Smith,” the El Defensor Chieftain noted, adding: “A second excavation took place in the fall of 2007 to exhume the last of the remains and prevent further looting.”

On Tuesday, the soldiers were laid to rest in wooden boxes following an emotional ceremony. Members of the Tucson-based Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association, in full period dress, served as pallbearers. About 100 people, including veterans and government officials, attended.

Forensic sketches showed the faces of the soldiers.

The Fort Craig cemetery has since been backfilled, re-graded and reseeded with native grasses.

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