Johnson seeks to return Mexican War veterans bodies home

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Anyone who knows Tim Johnson knows he is passionate about history.

Particularly intrigued by the Mexican War, Johnson, professor of history at Lipscomb for more than 25 years, has devoted decades to researching and writing about the leaders, soldiers and battles of that war, which took place between 1846-1848.

This past fall, Johnson got to help write a new chapter in the annals of Mexican War history when a dozen sets of remains, some of which are believed to be the remains of Tennesseans who fought in the Mexican War’s Battle of Monterey, were returned to the United States. On Sept. 28, six years of work by Johnson, and numerous other locals, paid off when the remains were transferred to the Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, for further forensic study.

Since then, Johnson has continued to doggedly work to confirm if any of the skeletal remains belong to Tennessee volunteers and to complete a book on Tennessee’s role in the Mexican War.

Mexican War_1Johnson was one of the small delegation invited to be part of a September “dignified transfer” ceremony to honor the fallen soldiers and transfer them to the Center for Mortuary Affairs, the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest joint-service mortuary facility located at the Dover AFB.  The delegation from middle Tennessee also included Congresswoman Diane Black and several forensic anthropologists.

“It was a remarkable honor to be among the delegation of Tennesseans who welcomed these soldiers home after 170 years,” said Johnson, one of Lipscomb’s designated research professors who has penned three books on the Mexican War. “It was a great day and a great event. The remains were given full military honors, and the transfer ceremony was both solemn and meaningful. I was impressed that after 170 years these American servicemen were accorded the same kind of respect as someone who gave their life in military service today. The chaplain who prayed during the observance expressed the hope that the ceremony underway would honor those men who gave their lives at the Battle of Monterey.”

Now Johnson wants to help determine if any of these soldiers were from Tennessee and if so to find any of their ancestors who might still be in the state. He said there is a high likelihood that some of these remains are Tennesseans because of the large number who fought there and because of the location of the burial sites.

In 1846 the United States and Mexico went to war over a border dispute along the Rio Grande precipitated by the annexation of Texas. The federal government immediately called for volunteers from the states to augment the small U.S. Army. 

“When the War Department requested 3,000 volunteers (the equivalent of three regiments) from Tennessee, nearly 30,000 Tennesseans turned out forcing state officials to resort to a lottery to determine who would be permitted to serve,” said Johnson. “This solidified Tennessee’s reputation as the Volunteer State, a nickname it had initially won during the War of 1812.  Ultimately over the next two years, nearly 6,000 Tennesseans volunteered to fight in the Mexican War.”

Mexican War_2One of the earliest battles in the war was fought at Monterey, Mexico, in September 1846. Johnson said some of the toughest fighting during the battle was for control of an old tannery that had been fortified by Mexican troops trying to hold off U.S. troops. Regular U.S. troops, together with volunteers from Tennessee and Mississippi, captured the tannery after a daring charge by the First Tennessee and First Mississippi Volunteer Regiments. 

Twenty-seven Tennesseans were killed in the attack and another 75 were wounded according to Johnson’s research. The First Regiment Tennessee Volunteers, commanded by Col. William B. Campbell, became known as “The Bloody First.”

“About a half dozen of the Tennesseans were brought back to the state by their families for burial but the rest were buried near the battle site. And there they lay until a building project uncovered some of their remains in 2009. More have been found since,” said Johnson.

Coins and buttons that were discovered at the site quickly showed that the remains included Americans. The identities of the deceased soldiers are unknown, but historians believe that some of them could be Tennesseans.  However, Johnson said that repatriation of the remains ran into numerous roadblocks over the years from both the Mexican and U.S. governments.

In 2010, Capt. Jim Page, the division historian for the 101st Airborne Div. at Fort Campbell, a U.S. Army installation at the Kentucky-Tennessee border named for The Bloody First’s commander Col. Campbell, began a crusade to bring the remains of the Tennesseans who were killed in the Battle of Monterey home. John O’Brien, director of the Pratt Museum at Fort Campbell, and Johnson soon joined the effort.

The discovery of the remains convinced Johnson, to begin work on a book on Tennessee’s role in the conflict. Along the way, Johnson contacted state representatives and members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, as well as one of his former students who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in an effort to resolve the issue.

A few years later he learned that an anthropology professor at Middle Tennessee State University was also interested in the skeletal remains and wanted to bring them to Tennessee for forensic research.

Mexican War_3With different groups involved in this repatriation project, Johnson thought that more progress might be made if they all joined forces. In 2015 he organized a meeting in Tennessee State Rep. Steve McDaniel’s office. The meeting included McDaniel; staff from the office of House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick; one historian and two anthropologists from MTSU; the director of the Fort Campbell history office; Fred Prouty of the Tennessee Wars Commission; and a representative from Governor Bill Haslam’s office. 

“That meeting bore fruit,” Johnson recalled. “Soon thereafter Prouty’s office granted to the forensic lab $40,000 to do scientific research when and if the remains were returned.”

The remains have undergone a battery of procedures and tests at Dover with the ultimate goal of positively identifying them. Johnson and MTSU history professor Derek Frisby continued to work with the military over the last few months to track down descendants of those killed in the battle so that DNA analysis and comparisons can be made. At this stage DNA is the only way to establish the identity of these Mexican War soldiers, Johnson said.

After the story broke regarding the repatriated remains this past September, two Nashville area residents immediately came forward to say that they had ancestors who volunteered and then died in Mexico.

“They were interested to know if their ancestors were among the repatriated remains, and that research is ongoing,” said Johnson. “Ironically, both individuals have Lipscomb connections.” 

Tim Northcutt, a Lipscomb Academy graduate and Hendersonville resident, had at least three ancestors who went to Mexico and one who died there, but Johnson was quickly able to determine that he was not one of the Monterey dead.

Jim Thomas, a 1950 Lipscomb graduate and retired minister in Chapel Hill, is the descendant of Joseph B. Burkitt who was one of the Tennessee soldiers killed and buried at Monterey. Johnson said it is possible that Joseph Burkitt’s remains are among those returned to Dover in September. Testing continues to try to determine a match. Another descendant from one of the Tennesseans buried at Monterey recently came forward and research on that family line is ongoing.

Today, Johnson is in the final stages of his work on a book manuscript inspired by the experience which is tentatively titled: For Duty and Honor: Tennessee’s Mexican War Experience.  Johnson has committed to send the manuscript to the University of Tennessee Press when it is completed in 2017 for publication. He is currently working on the latter chapters and is also looking for old portraits, drawings and pictures that might be in private hands of Tennesseans whose ancestors fought in Mexico. 

In the meantime, Johnson continues his hope that before he finishes the book, the lab work in Dover can confirm that at least one of the sets of remains belongs to a Tennessean and that he can help bring him home to the Volunteer State.