DOVER, Del. — Remains thought to be those of U.S. troops who died in the Mexican-American War have been flown to a military mortuary in Delaware in an effort to determine whether they belonged to militia members of a Tennessee regiment known as "The Bloody First."
An Army twin-engine turbotrop bearing two aluminum cases topped by American flags arrived Wednesday afternoon at Dover Air Force Base, home to the nation's largest military mortuary. White-gloved members of the 3rd Infantry "Old Guard" unit, which stands vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery near the nation's capital, solemnly transferred the cases to a vehicle bound for the mortuary.
The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System will work with a team of scientists to analyze the remains, discovered in 2011, in the hopes of gleaning more information. The scientists will use DNA testing, elemental analysis, forensic dentistry and other methods in examining the commingled bones, which officials say appear to be those of at least 11, and possibly 13, individuals.
"We don't know how much we can get, but we have a number of experts who can try a number of different things," said Hugh Berryman, a forensic anthropologist and director of the Forensic Institute for Research and Education at Middle Tennessee State University.
Berryman, who is leading a team of more than 20 scientists and historians that will work with the Army, acknowledged that the odds of actually identifying the remains are "very remote."
"But if it can be done, it's spectacular, and we're going to see if we can do that," he said.
Troops from several states, including Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, fought in the Battle of Monterrey in 1846. Berryman said the skeletal remains were found in an area of the Mexican battlefield where a large number of Tennesseans had died.
"We're hopeful that they're going to be found to be Tennessee men, and then we're going to bring them home to Tennessee as Volunteers," said U.S. Rep. Diane Black, part a Tennessee contingent that traveled to Dover to witness the repatriation of the remains.
The Battle of Monterrey, a U.S. victory in which more than 160 Americans were killed or reported missing, was part of a larger conflict waged from 1846 to 1848 that marked America's first extended conflict in another country. The war significantly altered geographical boundaries, with the U.S. adding about 1 million square miles of territory that today include the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The conflict also proved to be a training ground for a host of West Point graduates who later fought on both sides during the Civil War.
Berryman suggested that skeletal analysis could help scientists determine what was in the water the men drank as they grew up, which could help narrow the possible locales where they had lived.
Army Col. Louis Finelli, chief medical examiner and director of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, said analyzing the remains will take at least a couple of months. He expects that the effort will be able to determine the number of individual remains but said it's difficult to say whether it will result in identifying particular individuals.
"We can do everything in our power to generate unique sequences for DNA, but without references and accurate family genealogies, we may not be able to put a name to it," he said. "Like fingerprints, like dental exams, we have to have a reference to compare, otherwise we just have sequences and numbers."