Digging Around a Gettysburg Address
Professor Starrs Turns Search for Civil War Graves
into a Living Laboratory for Higher Learning
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 nations goriest
events the Civil Wars Battle of Gettysburg.
Despite the sweat and dirt, only smiles crack the focus of the crews.
After all, everyone wants to be here theyre 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. Theres 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.
Were 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.
Its 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.
Its 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
masters 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
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 weve 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 cant describe the sense of exhilaration I get from the
excitement level of these active, interesting minds, Starrs says
of his volunteers. Theyre 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 doesnt 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 its 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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