Three members of the famed post-Civil War-era Buffalo Soldiers, whose remains were disinterred during a federal grave-looting investigation two years ago, were given full military honors and reburied Tuesday at a national cemetery.
In an emotional tribute more than 130 years after their deaths, U.S. Army Pvts. Thomas Smith, Levi Morris and David Ford were laid to rest in wooden boxes at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Sketches of their faces adorned posters nearby.
Members of the Tucson-based Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association, in full period dress, served as pallbearers. Later, they sang a rendition of the calvary song "Boots and Saddles," as about 100 people, including veterans and government officials, watched on.
Smith, Morris and Ford died between 1866 and 1877, and were among hundreds of so-called Buffalo Soldiers, all African-American regiments of the Army who served at remote outposts on the Western frontier in the years after the Civil War.
The three men's remains were among those of more than 60 people exhumed at the historic Fort Craig cemetery in southern New Mexico in 2007 during an investigation into widespread looting at the site. Forensic experts with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. identified the men.
Mark Hungerford, one of the Bureau of Reclamation archaeologists involved in the case since the discovery of looting at the Civil War-era fort, was overcome with emotion during the ceremony.
"It took us five years to get to this point and it's a good feeling to know these people will never be desecrated again," Hungerford said. "It's thrilling to see those headstones and know we were part of making that happen."
Agency archaeologist Jeff Hanson describes the moment as "the greatest thing he's ever done in his life."
Jim Scott, a veteran who traveled from Atlanta to attend the burial, said a tear came to his eye as "Taps" was played at the service. He said the ceremony served as a celebration of both Western history and black culture.
"There were plenty of stories written about Civil War soldiers, but up until recently you didn't hear about the work of the Buffalo Soldiers. A lot of times people use movies as facts to tell the story of the West, but movies are entertainment and not historical fact," Scott said. "If young black children knew what has been accomplished by black people here, it would change their whole perception of things."
Soldiers were former slaves
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Julius Parker, one of the Army's highest ranking black military intelligence officers, said in the eulogy that soldiers such as Smith, Ford and Morris, who were also former slaves, faced hostility not only from their military adversaries but also from society.
"They volunteered to serve, to be a part of something greater than themselves. They swore to protect and defend this country despite the many roadblocks they had to endure," said Parker, who saluted the soldiers' remains as he left the stage.
Assistant Interior Secretary Anne Castle said the end to the looting investigation also brings attention to the extensive damage criminal looters can cause.
"This investigation has allowed Pvt. Smith's skull to be reunited with his body and laid to rest," said Castle, her voice cracking with emotion. "That's an example of the extent of damage that criminal looters are doing across the U.S. Our collective heritage is being taken away."