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Family lot may be graveyard for 27 Confederate soldiers

By Charles D. Brunt
Journal Staff Writer
          SOCORRO — Mary Silva's vacant lot — a rocky patch of land as nondescript as any in this hardscrabble neighborhood of modest houses, ramshackle mobile homes and abandoned trailers — is among the few valuable possessions she hopes to leave to her nine children.
        But Ken Garrison, a Civil War buff and officer with the New Mexico Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Silva's lot, which likely holds hundreds of human remains in a long-abandoned cemetery, should instead be restored in honor of 27 Confederate soldiers believed to be among the unmarked graves.
        In keeping with the organization's mission of preserving the history and legacy of the Confederate soldiers, Garrison said if the abandoned cemetery can't be preserved, the soldiers' remains should be exhumed and reburied "in a respectable location."
        State law makes it nearly impossible for Silva or her eventual heirs to do anything with the land, officially designated as an "unmarked burial ground," or for Garrison to realize his dream of relocating the Confederate graves.
        For such a small lot on Socorro's west side, Mary Silva's legacy is kicking up a lot of dust.
        Civil War cemetery
        State officials have known about the abandoned cemetery since at least 1995, said Glenna Dean, a former state archaeologist who is now associate director of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area.
        Dean said the cemetery, whose exact boundaries are unknown, was likely in use from 1853 to 1875, and was probably a former Presbyterian cemetery. It likely covers at least half of the two acres the Silvas bought from another family around 1966. Silva's home — and those of two of her daughters and a granddaughter — cover most of one acre. The other acre is bare except for weeds and litter.
        Although a quitclaim deed on file with Socorro County verifies the sale to the Silvas, there are no records prior to the quitclaim, Dean said.
        "I want to pass it on to my family, and whatever they want to do later on, that's up to them," Silva said as she and three of her children sat at a whitewashed picnic table in her yard last month.
        "It would have been good if somebody would have got those bodies out a long time ago," she said wistfully.
        Those bodies, according to Garrison, include 27 Confederate soldiers who died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Valverde, a Civil War skirmish that took place on the nearby banks of the Rio Grande on Feb. 21, 1862.
        After routing Union forces at a river ford six miles north of Fort Craig, Confederate cavalrymen from Texas marched 25 miles north to Socorro, where they ousted Union troops and took over the local hospital to treat their wounded. Over the next two months, 27 were buried on a hill west of town, Garrison said, including his great-great-grand-uncle, Cpl. Thomas Garrason, who died on March 3, 1862, nine days after the Battle at Valverde.
        "I have made it my mission to get them recovered and reburied somewhere suitable," Garrison, a retired golf pro from Albuquerque, said last month.
        Silva said she can't understand why the 27 Confederate soldiers, if they're actually buried on her land, are so important to Garrison and his colleagues.
        "I understand grieving for a relative you knew," said Silva, who has been a widow since 1984. "But they don't even know who those soldiers were."
        Competing interests
        Interim state Archaeologist Jan Biella said state law requires that anyone who discovers suspected human bones stop whatever activity that led to the discovery and notify law enforcement officials, who are then required to notify both the state medical investigator and the state historic preservation officer.
        "In this case, we know there are human remains there, so the jurisdiction is with our office," Biella said. That means any excavation on Silva's property requires a permit from the state's Cultural Properties Review Committee and must be performed by a qualified archaeologist who has obtained a permit to conduct the excavation.
        Any subsequent owner of the property would be bound by the same laws, Biella said, which also covers any artifacts associated with the graves.
        Civil War buffs have kept an eye on the lot for years, Garrison said, and have notified state officials anytime a suspected grave is disturbed — such as in the 1970s when headstones and statuary disappeared from the cemetery, and in the summer of 1995 when rock-pile grave markers and the remains of a wrought-iron fence were bulldozed. Garrison declined to say who he thought was responsible for the damage.
        In 2004, when the city graded Peralta Drive — the street fronting the Silva property — at least four suspected grave sites were unearthed. Despite the discovery, the graves were paved over.
        No simple solutions
        Two months ago, Garrison found another suspected grave on the western edge of Silva's property and notified state officials.
        That led to a mid-September meeting with Police Chief Lawrence Romero, Dean, Biella, Garrison, state Deputy Medical Investigator Amy Wyman and several colleagues. Because of friction between Garrison's group and the Silvas, the property owner was not asked to attend, Romero said later.
        What followed was a discussion most of the attendees had heard before.
        "There are probably a couple of ways that this could be solved," said Dean, who dealt with the cemetery for more than a decade while employed by the state.
        "The potentially less expensive way would be to trade Mrs. Silva for another piece of land and return that property to sacred ground," Dean said. Though that doesn't immediately address Garrison's concerns, it "removes the immediate threat of damage to all of the burials," Dean said.
        "The only other way I can think of is to remove all of the remains so that it is no longer a cemetery, and Mrs. Silva can go ahead with whatever she wants to do with that land," Dean said.
        But that would be a lengthy — and costly — approach, she said.
        State law requires each of the graves — not just those of the soldiers — be treated as an archaeological site, Dean said. And no one knows for certain where the Confederates' bodies lie.
        "So you have to get a professional archaeologist with a state permit, and a work plan that satisfies the requirements of the law that is then approved by the Cultural Properties Review Committee," she said.
        "No archaeologist is going to undertake a project of that size without funding," Dean said. "This is going to take months, if not years, to excavate, analyze and report on all of the remains in the cemetery."
        But Silva, who said trespassers have been a problem for years, is against having the cemetery excavated.
        "I wouldn't like that, for them to come over here like that," she said. "I think I'd rather leave everything the way it is."
        "If they (the city) would give me land with a home on it and enough space to put (her family's) trailers on it, I might do that," Silva said.
        Socorro weighs in
        Though the city is willing to consider a land swap, Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker said the first step is to find out exactly what lies beneath the Silva property.
        At an Oct. 6 City Council meeting, Councilors Peter Romero and Chuck Zimmerly were asked to work with Biella's office to determine what is in the suspected grave Garrison found in August.
        Bhasker said the city wants to "try to outline a plan which, I would hope, begins with identifying at least one set of remains."
        "We're just in the stage of trying to document if the bones and remains are of Confederate soldiers to begin with," the mayor said. Though the latest grave appears to lie partly in the Peralta Drive right of way and partly on Silva's property, "We would certainly have to get Mrs. Silva's permission" to excavate, Bhasker said.
        "The other point that was made (at the City Council meeting) was that there are graves all around there, and that other people living there have graves on their land," Bhasker said. "I made it very clear that I want to protect their property rights."