GPR Survey at Riverside

GPR Survey at Riverside

On another webpage, the Confederate tragedy at Hopkinsville is described, and a proposed search for the burial ground of 227 soldiers laid out. After several dead-ends, the ground penetrating radar survey was finally carried out in the old Potter's Field section of Riverside cemetery on October 16-20, 2012.

Initial efforts to begin a search for the 227 Confederate graves recorded by Sgt. George Anderson in 1862 were rebuffed. A detailed proposal to the mayor of Hopkinsville was politely turned down (two sentences), and emails to all twelve City Council members went unanswered, even after a very sympathetic article was published in the Kentucky New Era newspaper.

It then occurred to me to enlist the aid of some state agency, and a query with the Kentucky Heritage Council led to Mr Roger Stapleton, site identification manager. He was very supportive and discussed the proposal with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey (KAS). They were interested and agreed to do the GPR survey for costs (ca $500 for two days). I then made inquiries about where a grant might be obtained, and eventually applied to the Kentucky Dept of Veterans Affairs for $1000 to cover a possible third day and other expenses. This was approved by their Trust Committee. Finally, the stage was set to obtain permission from Hopkinsville, and the cemetery manager, Mike Perry, was very supportive since the survey did not require any disturbance to the ground.

Meanwhile, correspondence with Christian county historian William Turner and local blogger Genevieve Netz focused on identifying the exact area of the burials. Genevieve found several 19th century deeds relating to land now within the cemetery, and one of them dated 1854 seemed to be the first land acquired for the "new city cemetery." Fortunately, alone amongst the others, that deed contained a simple plat which at first meant absolutely nothing to any of us.

[the plat and text from the deed]

Coming back to it later, I was struck by the fact that it referenced a "a small lot to be used as a burying ground beginning at the corner of the above described lot nearest to the N.W. corner of the present burying ground on said premises." This was reserved as a burial plot for Dr John Carroll (who was selling this land to the city) and his heirs. The plot is indicated by the dotted lines on the plat. Working through the arcane 19th century survey terms, I was able to translate the description given in the deed into modern terms and put them onto the plat. Mike Perry pointed out the location of the old Carroll plot, enabling the plat to be overlaid onto an aerial photograph of the cemetery. This gave us an idea of where the "northeast corner of the city cemetery" cited in Sgt Anderson's notebook would have been in 1862. What remains unclear is whether the city acquired any additional McCarroll land to the east by purchase or rental between 1854 and 1862.

[the plat translated to feet and modern bearings]

[the plat overlaid on an aerial photo of Riverside]

The stage was thus set for the GPR survey, and a date was chosen in mid-October, at the end of the relatively drier period in Hopkinsville. Dr Anthony Ortmann of Murray State University (MSU) had been contacted at an early stage, and was interested to conduct his own GPR survey as a teaching exercise for his class. The KAS team lead by Donald Handshoe arrived early on October 17 and got straight to work. It was a perfect day and two large grids of 22x44m were surveyed. That night it rained heavily (0.8 inch according to a rain gauge near the cemetery), posing serious problems for the next day's GPR survey. However, another test that was planned was electrical resistivity, which sometimes works when GPR does not, especially in wet ground. The KAS team had brought the resistivity machine, but it failed to start so that test couldn't be done. Another large grid (Grid 3) was done by GPR in the afternoon.

[plan showing areas surveyed]

[Donald Handshoe and William Turner]

[The GPR survey in progress]

Two short videos are now posted on Youtube showing the survey in progress. It is a most unexciting process, like watching someone mowing their lawn for several hours, and only later is the raw data translated into meaningful terms. When some initial results from the computer analysis were available the next day, they were disappointing. No grave cuts could be discerned, not to mention rows of graves. Further analysis of the data is still underway by KAS.

The MSU team arrived early on October 20 and did a full day of GPR surveying. They used a different system, and focused on a smaller grid within or overlapping those done by KAS. They also did runs both N-S and E-W to obtain better resolution. Sadly, they came to the same conclusion as KAS -- namely that the data showed no evidence of grave shafts or any patterning that could be interpreted as rows of graves.

[The MSU GPR survey in progress]

The county historian William Turner and I are convinced that the Confederate burial ground is indeed within the surveyed area. There are several possible reasons why GPR failed to locate it. Most likely is that the soil conditions simply masked the grave cuts and GPR was not able to distinguish them. We knew at the outset that GPR would not always work, and the soils of the southeastern US are less favorable to GPR than elsewhere due to clay content, moisture retention and other factors.

MSU concluded: "Further research is warranted to determine the locations of the unmarked graves in Riverside Cemetery." The search for these soldiers in unmarked graves will continue, hopefully with the support of one of the Hopkinsville City Council members that I met during the project. Those men made the ultimate sacrifice, without ever seeing "glory" on the battlefield. And sadly, adding insult to disease and death, the information about their grave locations came to light thirteen years too late for 101 of them to be properly commemorated in the place where they were laid to rest. We owe it to the 126 others still lying out there to find and mark their graves.

For reports on the excavations in 2014 and 2015 click here