Thursday, October 5, 2017

Known but to God...

While I was writing about two Civil War ancestors this week, I wondered how many of those who fought in that war not only never came home but were actually unknown. A little research came up with the information that 25% of the 622,000 known dead were never identified. Neither side was prepared for the horrors of the battlefield, particularly the aftermath. Rotting corpses and hastily-dug mass graves appear to be the method of coping.

Though dog tags didn’t become mandatory until 1913, some Civil War soldiers made wooden tags for themselves and wore them fastened on thongs around their necks. Harper’s Weekly touted gold or silver pins inscribed with names and units. (The same article puts the percentage of unidentified Civil War dead at a whopping 42% instead of 25%. See History of the Dog Tag.)

Click through to The Great Unknowns for more statistics on the unknowns of other wars. The number steadily decreased until there were no unknowns for the Viet Nam conflict and subsequent actions.

Even today we read the occasional article about remains of WW II service members being recovered and repatriated. In most cases, the only family remaining are younger nieces and nephews or grandchildren. In 1998, the remains of a Viet Nam soldier were disinterred for DNA testing and identified. Lt. Michael J. Blassie had for a time rested in the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Suggested reading and viewing

Known But to God by Quentin Reynolds

“The Unknowns” (video) narrated by Jason Robards

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