- Associated Press - Monday, April 10, 2017

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) - The return of the remains of about a dozen fallen American soldiers to the United States made headlines last fall, not because of the number of war dead but for the number of years it took for them to be brought home.

Several soldiers killed in the Mexican-American War received military honors when their remains arrived at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base in September 2016, more than a century and a half after they lost their lives in the service of their country.

Like most descendants of soldiers killed in that war, Nancy Pittman has no idea where her Mexican-American War-veteran ancestors are buried. But nearly 170 years after their deaths, the Pitt County native has seen to it that they received the honor that was due.

Memorial stones for veterans William Griffin and his son, Wright Griffin, have been erected in their native Martin County. In a solemn memorial service last month, the men who died in Mexico in 1847 were remembered with a 21-gun salute.

The ceremony was the culmination of years of genealogical research that Pittman had done in order to receive recognition for her third great-grandfather and her second great-uncle, who both died in military camps within months of enlisting as volunteers in the war in 1846.

Pittman is not sure if either of the men ever saw battle. It is likely that William and Wright were among the thousands of soldiers on both sides who succumbed to illness that was rampant in the camps.

“Most of the volunteers in the Mexican-American war died of disease,” Pittman, of Rocky Mount, said. “It was a death trap. Mexico was like a third world country.”

While some 750 U.S. soldiers were buried in the Mexico City National Cemetery, Descendants of Mexican War Veterans, a Texas-based national lineage society, estimates that nearly 11,000 American servicemen still lie buried in forgotten graves in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. William and Wright Griffin are among them.

“Unfortunately, when men died during that era, especially due to the climate and conditions, bodies were quickly buried,” said Craig Bone of Sons of Confederate Veterans, who gave the eulogy for the two on March 18 in the Gardner Griffin cemetery near Williamston. “… To this day, we don’t know (where they are buried).”

William is believed to have died near Carmargo in May of 1846 at age 40. Wright reportedly died less than two months later near Buena Vista, 12 days after his 21st birthday.

“Apart from the few whose remains were brought back home, the graves of most Americans that died in Mexico during the war are left unmarked and unattended to this very day,” Pittman said. “That’s what got me, the fact that they are forgotten.

“I couldn’t let that (go) … That’s not right. That’s not acceptable to me.”

But Pittman had almost none of the information she needed to have her ancestors remembered, at least by the American government. Initially, all she had to go on was a bit of family history that her mother, Margie B. Langley, had shared: that Langley’s great-great grandfather had died in Mexico during the Mexican-American War.

The little-known war, often confused with the Texas Revolution or the Spanish-American War, began April 25, 1846, and ended nearly two years later with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Still in force today, the treaty set the Rio Grande as the boundary of Texas. It also added more than 500,000 square miles to U.S. territory, including land that today makes up California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Why either of the Griffin men chose to join the war effort is as much a mystery as their final resting place. The elder Griffin was a father of six. He and his oldest son were ranked as privates in the war, which earned them only $8 a month.

“The only thing I know is that given the time in history, just that they were unsettled somewhat and adventurous,” Pittman said. “I don’t have an answer for why.”

For years, she did not even have an answer as to where the men joined the service. Pittman, who took up genealogy as a hobby in the 1970s, had first looked for evidence that William Griffin enlisted in Martin County. Years later, she discovered that William and Wright had gone to nearby Tarboro to enlist in Company E of the first North Carolina volunteers.

“Genealogy without any kind of documentation is a myth, is nothing,” Pittman said. “You have to get that documentation. You have to find that piece of paper that verifies, and that’s been the problem with William and Wright Griffin. There wasn’t anything. I couldn’t get my hands on anything.”

Several years ago, Pittman was handed an old Claghorn family Bible that included some information about William Griffin and his oldest son, Wright. Following this discovery, she was able to use the National Archives to locate their military records. Then, using microfilm, she found an article in an 1859 Williamston Mercury newspaper that listed the Griffins among Martin County’s war dead.

When she provided the information to the Veterans Administration last fall, Pittman said she was initially told that she would be required to provide documentation of where her ancestors’ remains were located.

“In this case, they were never returned,” she said.

In November, Pittman finally got the approval. But she still needed help getting the memorial stones installed, so she contacted Sons of Confederate Veterans for help. Though William and Wright Griffin did not live to see the Civil War, William’s youngest son, William Jordan Griffin, who was only 5 when his father went to Mexico to fight, later served as a Confederate soldier. He is buried in the Gardner Griffin cemetery.

Members of the Robert Henry Ricks Camp of Sons of Confederate Veterans volunteer their time to clean and preserve cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are buried. While the Robert Henry Ricks Camp’s efforts do not extend to Martin County or to Mexican-American War veterans, the group signed on to help.

“I couldn’t say no,” Bone said, “I mean, not in my heart. It’s just one of those things; you know when somebody contacts you it’s obviously meant something to them.”

Nearly as many volunteers from the camp as members of the Griffin family attended the memorial service, which included a reading of the poem “The Field of Monterey,” inspired by one of the bloodiest battles of the Mexican-American War. Members of the cannon crew Latham’s Battery, as well as other artillery volunteers, also participated, some driving three hours to pay their respects.

Members of the Robert Henry Ricks Camp also placed a Southern Cross of Honor at the grave of William J. Griffin in honor of his Civil War service.

The ceremony, originally scheduled for January, had to be postponed due to an ice storm. The temperatures were milder in March, but pouring rain kept some away.

“It doesn’t matter to me how many people show up,” Bone said. “… It’s not about numbers. There are a few people out there that care. It just means something to them.

“We just want to let people know these people (William and Wright Griffin) were here. They were in our community. They were part and parcel of who we are today,” he said, “and just to let people know they have a final resting place that is presentable. We should be respectful of that and have some dignity about it.”

Having a crowd of mourners or the firing of a cannon was not important to Pittman. What mattered was having something to show that her ancestors were remembered, that the fact that they had lived was not simply a casualty of the passage of time.

“To me, an unmarked grave says no one remembers and no one cares, that’s what made this event so sad,” Pittman said. “For me, it might as well say they never existed. I just wanted them to be remembered.”

___

Information from: The Daily Reflector, http://www.reflector.com

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