Six weeks after the guns of Fort Sumter sounded, 17-year-old Albert Wentworth enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Less than two months later, he and several of his comrades would be among the first soldiers killed in the Civil War, shot by Confederates at the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford in Northern Virginia, on July 18, 1861. Yet Albert and five of his fallen friends would not return home for a military burial in Bourne, Massachusetts until June 2006.
The soldiers came to be known as the Centreville Six, since they were hastily buried in shallow graves in that town as the Union Army retreated, disorganized and demoralized, to Washington following their defeat at First Manassas. The gravesite was lost for more than a century until 1994, when local relic hunter and Civil War historian Kevin Ambrose discovered the remains of one of the soldiers while using a metal detector in a vacant lot slated to become the location of a McDonald’s.
A subsequent excavation of the grave site was led by Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley and Fairfax County archaeologist Mike Johnson. Their teams found the remains of six Civil War soldiers buried side-by-side. Forensic analysis at the Smithsonian and research of Civil War records by Dalton Rector, a relic hunter and Civil War historian, and Massachusetts historian Thomas Hayes, helped to solve an intriguing mystery about who the soldiers were and how they died. Ambrose reveals the solution as he tells a tale that spans 145 years.
Ambrose is a writer and photographer for the Washington Post.