Shortly before construction began on the Centreville McDonald's restaurant in early 1997, the unmarked graves of six Civil War soldiers were unearthed on the site.
The astonishing discovery led to an excavation under the direction of forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution. Skeletons and historic artifacts from the gravesites were measured, cataloged and removed.
And now, five years later, a local historian and member of the Northern Virginia Relic Hunters Association — which also participated in the dig — believes he's unlocked the mystery to the soldiers' identities. What's more, he says as many as 10 Civil War soldiers may have actually been buried in that spot.
"They were found in what's now the drive-through lane for fast-food pickup," said Dalton Rector, who presented his theory Monday night at the Centreville fire station to more than 150 people riveted by his every word.
Speaking at the quarterly meeting of the Historic Centreville Society, he said, "I can make a compelling case that they were [Union soldiers] from Massachusetts and died during the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, halfway between Centreville and Manassas."
He said a member of his group, Kevin Ambrose, actually discovered one of the graves in 1995, but no one investigated further until Jan. 30, 1997 — day one of the three-day archaeological excavation.
"Digging human remains is an experience I can't explain," said Rector. "My friends and I started debating, right then and there, who they were and where they were from. We thought they were from the early part of the war, so I used March 10, 1862 — the date of the Confederate evacuation of Centreville — as my research cutoff date."
The research became so fascinating to him that it took up the last five years of his life, and his conclusions — based on forensic evidence, genealogical records and extensive historical data — do, indeed, seem quite plausible.
"To me, they do," said newly elected Historic Centreville Society president Spencer Marker. "I was fascinated with what he came up with, and I haven't heard of anyone else working in this vein with these soldiers."
Besides the skeletons, also found in the graves were metal uniform buttons, glass buttons from undergarments, pieces of fabric and even musket balls. And one soldier was still wearing his shoes. Some of the buttons from the state-militia jackets had an "I" on them, signifying "infantry," and Massachusetts used this type of button for its officers.
The fact that the soldiers had been buried in coffins also provided a clue. "That meant they were buried by their own men," said Rector. "Therefore, they were in control of Centreville at the time." He also noted that the Battle of Blackburn's Ford was fought July 18, 1861 — three days before the Battle of First Manassas, which is considered to be the first battle of the Civil War.
The Smithsonian determined the soldiers' approximate ages and heights, and Rector took it from there — eventually identifying the men by name, military unit and company. He even learned about their childhoods and family backgrounds.
Companies G and H of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment fought in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, and Rector obtained a list of those soldiers' names and ages and discovered how each man died. From 24 names, he painstakingly concluded which ones were in the Centreville graves.
At the time of this battle, he said, "The Confederates were already waiting in Fairfax County for the Union soldiers. Ten were killed in action from the 1st Massachusetts unit and three more were mortally wounded [and died later]."
Company G was the first company on the battlefield, and these soldiers arrived in their jackets. When the 17th Virginia entered, hand-to-hand combat ensued and Company H came in as reinforcements, fighting with their jackets off. These details proved important because the men in graves No. 1, 3 and 6 all had jackets, but the others did not.
After grave 1 was uncovered, the McDonald's developer cleared away brush from the site to discover the five other graves. A week later, said Rector, a relic hunter found another cluster of buttons — probably from a seventh grave. From his research and the type of buttons, Rector identified this soldier as Ebenezer Field, 27, of Company G.
He noted, as well, that — a week before the dig — Owsley used a steel probe on the site and reportedly stated nine to 10 graves were there. Owsley later denied the remark, but Rector said a relic hunter he's known for years swore he heard Owsley say it. Rector also determined who these men would be.
The six soldiers' remains are in boxes in the Smithsonian, and Rector is trying to have DNA testing done to confirm their identities. "I don't want them buried as unknowns," he said. "I want them to have the chance to have their identities restored and them returned to their families."
Afterward, Ron Savage, Historic Centreville Society vice president, said he was pleasantly surprised by how many people attended Rector's talk and how well-received it was. "People sat there mesmerized," he said. "I was impressed — it was a well-done, professional presentation."
Savage said residents were truly interested in learning what happened after the dig. "There's a great thirst for the history in and around Centreville," he said. "If [Rector's] hypothesis works out, I think he should put it in a book."
As for Marker, he hopes to have more such programs in the future, saying, "I think people who live here need to be aware of what we walk over every day — the history beneath our heels."