ByGeorge! Online

Summer 2003

Digging Around a Gettysburg Address

Professor Starrs Turns Search for Civil War Graves into a Living Laboratory for Higher Learning

By Claire Duggan

At a rustic farm outside historic Gettysburg, PA, dozens of volunteers busily dismantle the pastoral setting searching for history. During one of the few pleasant days in May, everyone is abuzz, digging holes, sifting dirt, and taking copious notes at The Daniel Lady Farm, site of a battlefield operating room during one of the nation’s goriest events — the Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg.

Despite the sweat and dirt, only smiles crack the focus of the crews. After all, everyone wants to be here — they’re volunteers. Their leader is James E. Starrs, professor of forensic science and of law. The team is hoping to uncover the graves of two Confederate soldiers who history reports were buried on this farm 140 years ago.

“The scientific goals of this project include not only locating the remains of Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Gettysburg,” says Starrs, “but the identification of them by DNA to Confederates whose units were embattled in the vicinity of The Daniel Lady Farm and who are still unaccounted for.”

The group of volunteers is quite eclectic. Their ages range from a high school student on her first dig to a retired 73-year-old professor and pathologist participating in his umpteenth project. Students and their professors from five colleges, as well as a few local residents, have joined the mix. Starrs’ invaluable daughter-in-law, Traci (“my left and right arms,” Starrs says), a videographer, and three body-detecting dogs and their trainers are in town, too.

Starrs is co-directing the project with his friend and colleague, John “Jack” S. Levisky, chair of anthropology at York College in Pennsylvania, who has joined Starrs on at least five other archaeological digs. Starrs was alerted to the potential project after The Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association contacted Levisky.

Nine Confederate Army soldiers were believed to be buried on the farm after the three-day battle. It also is believed that seven of the men, all generals, were later removed, leaving two men for whom the team now searches. But once Starrs and his team began working, they realized the bodies were not buried where they were believed to have been — there were only signs of undisturbed earth.

On an previous trip to the site, two human clavicle bones were found near a large, red barn used as a Confederate Army hospital. The house on the property served as a hospital for Confederate Army officers — blood stains still are visible on the original wood floor boards.

Members of the excavation team traveled back to Gettysburg earlier this month to begin the second phase of searching. “There’s no sense in letting the iron get cold,” Starrs says. This trip incorporated a backhoe to more easily remove surface and subsurface dirt.

Though Starrs is busy leading this project of volunteers, he is working pro-bono. His primary goal is teaching and imparting wisdom to those who have joined him on this quest.

“We’re taking philosophy, law, and science out of the classroom and into the arena,” Starrs says. “They get to see real science at work — including all of the hard knocks and sweat.”

“Professor Starrs is teaching people like me as he is working,” says David Morfin, a second-year GW Law School student. “And then, almost immediately, you see people instructing others on what they just learned from Dr. Starrs.”

“It’s very rewarding working with the various students,” Morfin adds. “I have a legal expertise and they all bring their own backgrounds to the equation — archaeology, geology, forensics. It’s a wonderful experience.”

So it was fitting that before the lunch break on this final day of the first visit, that two students, Morfin and Brian Joy, a student in the master’s of forensic science program, happened upon a large bone — one of the biggest finds of the week.

Tests still need to be conducted to determine if the bone is human. Starrs allows time for proper documentation of such important items before they are subjected to DNA or Carbon-14 test since they can be quite destructive.

Morfin explains that the first excavation was a success.

“It was never intended to completely fulfill the goal, it was just an introduction,” Morfin says. “And we’ve now ruled out areas of where to search.”

Starrs knows his captivating expeditions would not be possible without the assistance of his students and colleagues.

“I can’t describe the sense of exhilaration I get from the excitement level of these active, interesting minds,” Starrs says of his volunteers. “They’re so willing to give their time. Their dedication is just remarkable.”

In addition to the knowledge they receive and the accomplishments they make, the students and other volunteers also receive food, T-shirts specific for each dig, and sometimes lodging and other expenses. These costs are usually borne at Starrs’ expense because there is rarely outside compensation. Starrs is quick to add, however, that GW is vital in providing many services, and other institutions such as York College have shared facilities.

His projects rely heavily on donated equipment. For instance, George Stephens, a GW professor of geology, a friend, and a regular on Starrs’ projects, was instrumental in soliciting the donation of a ground-penetrating radar system and the search dogs used to determine where to begin digging.

In addition to this project, Starrs has a full slate this summer. The Discovery Channel wants him to narrate a story about a vandalized tomb in the Bronx, NY, while he may be helping to obtain scientific evidence to support that a death in the Berkshires, MA, was really a homicide and was misclassified due to sloppy forensic investigation.

Among his other exploits Starrs helped investigate the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Sacco and Vanzetti murders, the Lizzy Borden case, confirmed the identity of Jesse James, and unearthed evidence suggesting Albert DeSalvo, the alleged Boston Strangler, was not involved in the murder of Mary Sullivan. Starrs insists he will only take cases if it has a scientific and historic value, as well as all necessary legal permissions.

“A day doesn’t pass without a call for help,” Starrs says. “People are dying to be exhumed,” he chuckles.

Though he is sometimes forced to turn down projects due to constraints, Starrs said it’s hard for him to do so because he is so enthusiastic to accept any challenge. The ‘E’ in James E. Starrs stands for Edward, but Starrs tells of how his father used to say it stands for ‘eager.’ But Starrs also mentioned changing the ‘E’ to an ‘F’ because “fascination is my middle name.”


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