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Cadaver dogs search for 160-year-old graves at Brown’s Mill

  • By Sarah Fay Campbell
  • |
  • Mar. 25, 2022 - 8:50 PM

Cadaver dogs search for 160-year-old graves at Brown’s Mill

Sarah Fay Campbell / The Newnan Times-Herald

K-9 Handler Tracy “Trace” Sargent, with cadaver dog Taz, talks about findings at the Brown’s Mill Battlefield site.

While cadaver dogs – also known as human remains detection dogs – usually search for the remains of the recently deceased or for missing persons presumed dead, a well-trained cadaver dog can smell human remains that are hundreds – and in some cases thousands – of years old.

Two cadaver dogs were out last week at the Brown's Mill Battlefield site, looking for sites where soldiers killed in the 1864 battle may have been buried.

The Brown's Mill Battlefield Association invited K-9 trainer Tracy Sargent and her cadaver dogs Taz and Draco to cover several sites on the battlefield property where they think soldiers may have been buried.

Few graves remain

Most of the Union casualties in the battle were disinterred in the years after the war and reburied at the Marietta National Cemetery, said Dr. David Evans, historian and author of "Sherman's Horsemen," a book about Union Cavalry operations in the Atlanta campaign. The federal government grave registration workers were extremely diligent taking records, Evans said, and some of those soldiers, whose graves were originally marked "unknown," have since been identified.

The Battle of Brown's Mill took place July 30, 1864, when Union Cavalry General Edward McCook came through Newnan from Lovejoy. He was heading for the Chattahoochee River, which he hoped to cross so he could meet back up with Gen. William Sherman, who was in Marietta. McCook had been tearing up railroad tracks, and when he arrived at Newnan, there was a stopped train full of Confederate soldiers waiting on the railroad to be repaired. That meeting led to a skirmish; McCook then turned south and east, heading near the area of what is now Pine Road and Millard Farmer Road. Near the intersection of Millard Farmer and Old Corinth Road is where Confederate Gen. Joseph Wheeler caught up to him.

The battle was one of the few Confederate victories of the Atlanta campaign. Approximately 100 Union soldiers were killed, and over 1,200 soldiers and horses were taken captive; approximately 50 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

While there was no agency to reinter the Confederate soldiers, families would often travel to battlefields to find their deceased loved ones and take them home for burial, Evans said.

Because the Union soldiers had been buried on-site for a few years before they were disinterred, the dogs could still indicate those areas as potential graves.

Validating previous research

One person who is known to be buried at the battlefield was a young girl who lived on the site with her uncle, George Cook, and his family.

The girl ran out into the fray and was killed, according to an account in the memoir of Union soldier Josiah Conzett.

Members of the Brown's Mill Battlefield Association had looked for her grave for years, said Association President Carolyn Turner.

In recent years, volunteers, including association board members, have used "dowsing" to search for graves at the site. Dowsing, a traditional art used to find underground water, grave sites and even precious metals, uses metal rods which move to indicate something underground. Dowsers found several possible grave sites on the property.

One appeared to be the grave of a child, because of its size, and it was then marked with field stones.

The dogs also identified the site as a grave – one alerted on one side of the stones, and the other on the other side. When the dogs catch the scent of human remains, they sit down on the site. Sargent would take one dog out over a site and then put him back in a crate while the other dog covered the same area.

"I was very, very excited to see when they both hit on the little girl's grave," Turner said.

The work that the dogs did validates all of the research that has been done on the battlefield, Turner said. "The official records, what the officers wrote, the diaries that we have read," she said. "This is another proof."

Another step in National Register process

The association decided to bring in the cadaver dogs on the suggestion of the state historic preservation office.

For several years, the association has been working to have the battlefield placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The state has sent the application back with comments several times.

"It is a long, arduous process," Turner said of getting a battlefield approved for the National Register. She said the state office has never had the National Park Service reject a National Register application. "They don't want to break their record, so they are very particular," she said.

The state office wanted the boundary lines expanded beyond the 185 acres the county owns; the entire battlefield site is about 2,000 acres.

The state sent back the most recent version of the application in October. The application needs to include some ideas for future research, Turner said. One type of research the state suggested was to bring in cadaver dogs and see if they could find any graves that were not exhumed in 1867.

Using cadaver dogs to search battlefields and older burials is a relatively new phenomenon, and is on the cutting edge of battlefield archeology.

Newnan was a hospital town, and many of the soldiers who died there were buried in Newnan's Oak Hill Cemetery. At the time, they were buried in an empty area far from the main part of the cemetery. Now, the Confederate section is surrounded by newer graves. There is only one person who died in the battle buried in the Confederate section, Turner said.

The association's board members thought the cadaver dog search was a great idea. The dowsers have found several groupings of potential graves.

In one area, the dogs both alerted on a spot very close to where dowsing had indicated a grave.

Each dog was taken out and taken over a certain area separately.

The two dogs alerted on a space about 10 feet apart. That is not unusual, especially for older burials, according to Sargent. The area is heavily wooded and as tree roots grow through areas where remains are buried, they can take some of the products of decomposition with them, spreading the scent. Fire ant hills can also make it easier for dogs to detect older remains, as they bring soil to the surface.

On historical sites, Sargent recommends researchers use a 50-foot radius around where the dog alerted.

The dogs also found possible graves near the entrance to the park, along the wide walking trail, but they didn't alert on anything near the monument at the end of Millard Farmer Road. That was surprising, as it's known that was the location of the first ambush of McCook's men.

However, that doesn't mean there are no graves there, Sargent said.

The best time for cadaver dogs to look for older burials is in the winter, according to Sargent. The scent conditions that Thursday morning – with cool temperatures and heavy fog – were perfect. But by midday, with the sun shining and the air warm, the conditions weren't conducive to the dogs discovering 160-year-old graves.

Each dog wears a GPS collar, and software is used to map everywhere they go. Sargent will create a report with maps for the Battlefield Association, which can be included with the application. The report will also be sent to the archeological firm that the association has hired.

"I was so thrilled at being able to watch and to see that what her dogs found was where we already thought" there were burials, Turner said. "It just all came together, like a huge piece of the puzzle."

Most of the time, Sargent is using her dogs to search for missing persons, both alive and dead. In her years of searching for people and in doing research, she has found patterns in the places different killers bury their victims. She said her ultimate goal is to create some software or a book that law enforcement can use to help narrow down a search for a missing person.

Doing archeological research on battlefields is definitely different than what she normally does. "It's really fun, to be honest," she said. "There's a lot less pressure … and the people that are involved in these projects are a lot of fun too," she said.

Evans said he was initially skeptical that dogs could sniff out 160-year-old graves, but was convinced after reading research on the use of dogs in archaeology.

“This is just fascinating. And anything that adds another piece to the puzzle of what happened here in 1864 is a good thing.”