On a broiling hot day, much like the day they fell, two Union soldiers were borne to their graves Thursday in Arlington National Cemetery, 156 summers after they died at the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862.
Two horse-drawn caissons, moving side-by-side, each carrying a flag-draped casket, bore the remains to a new section of the cemetery as officials of the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Army looked on.
The beat of a muffled drum marked their approach, as the sun glinted off the sword of a soldier marching before the Army’s Ceremonial Band. The cortège stopped and 16 perspiring soldiers lifted the caskets from the black caissons. Commands echoed in the quiet.
“There is something that stirs within us, when men are willing to sacrifice their lives for a noble cause,” an Army chaplain, Maj. Willie Mashack, said as he stood before the caskets. “They fell on the battlefield of Manassas . . . and consecrated it with their blood. . . . May their sacrifice . . . [inspire] each of us to stand for causes that are noble.”
And shortly after 3 p.m., the life of the 154-year-old cemetery was again bracketed by men who perished during the Civil War.
The first military burial, in May 1864, was that of William Christman, 20, a Union soldier from Pennsylvania who had died of disease in a Washington hospital. The cemetery was formally established a month later, according to its website.
Much has changed since.
The Manassas soldiers were killed when Arlington had just been vacated by the family of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, when the outcome of the Civil War was in doubt and when the Washington Monument was an unfinished stub across the Potomac River.
On Thursday, the two soldiers were buried as unknowns in the country they helped preserve.
“We have thousands of Civil War unknowns here already,” cemetery superintendent Katharine Kelley said earlier this week. “These two, you could argue, are coming home to join those that are already here.”
The burials were the first in the cemetery’s $81.7 million, 27-acre expansion, an effort known as the Millennium Project.
Arranged on a hill, with the Washington Monument visible at points in the distance, it is the first geographic expansion of the cemetery in four decades.
The Army believes that identifying the men after all this time would be extremely difficult.
Last month, National Park Service craftsmen built two old-fashioned “toe-pincher” wooden coffins to hold the remains of the soldiers.
The coffins were made of oak hewed from a 90-year-old tree that fell during a windstorm on the battlefield this year. A toe-pincher is narrow at the feet, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the head.
Inside the coffins, the soldiers’ bones were wrapped in Civil War reproduction blankets, the Park Service has said.
The coffins were placed inside modern military caskets and buried in a new, pre-dug and pre-lined grave.
The spot is near a new cemetery road named for Ida Lewis. A renowned 19th-century Rhode Island lighthouse keeper and life saver, she is the first woman to have an Arlington Cemetery road named for her. A second new road is named for 34-year-old Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan W. Gifford, who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism after he was killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
The fairly complete skeletons of the two Manassas soldiers were discovered in a “limb pit,” a feature on the battlefield where the amputated limbs of wounded soldiers were buried.
The pit was probably near a field hospital where injured and dying men were treated after the fighting at the second battle there, in the summer of 1862.
Nothing like the limb pit had been found before, said Brandon S. Bies, a Park Service archaeologist and the superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, who helped unearth the remains.
Bies was present Thursday along with much of his staff. “It was very important to pay our respects,” he said later. “This is an emotional event for the park staff. We have a real connection.”
Evidence of the pit was discovered in 2014 during excavation for a utility line, but it was not fully examined until 2015. The Park Service unveiled details of the discovery in June, after months of research by the park and the Smithsonian.
The Second Battle at Manassas, which came early in the war, involved almost 125,000 combatants in the Union and Confederate armies.
It was fought Aug. 28-30, 1862, over much of the same ground as a battle the year before. The Union army lost both fights, but the second was especially bloody and devastating.
Roughly 1,700 Union soldiers and 1,200 Confederates were killed, and more than 14,000 were wounded.
Amputation of a damaged arm or leg was common, and surgeons worked feverishly with saws and knives. The severed limbs were often placed in a pile or special pit.
In this case, the limbs appeared to be from 11 different people.
The soldiers — referred to as Burial 1 and Burial 2 — were placed side by side. The amputated limbs were carefully arranged next to them.
The Burial 1 soldier had been hit in the right thigh by a Confederate bullet that shattered his leg and buried itself in the bone. It was still embedded there when Bies removed the bone from the earth.
The man in Burial 2 had been buried in his Union coat. Its four eagle-imprinted buttons were found in the pit with him.
He had been wounded by one large bullet that smashed his upper right arm, a smaller one that hit him in the groin and a smaller one that struck near his right shin. Several of the rounds were found in the dirt near him.
The Park Service says the men may have been hit during a doomed Union attack in the sweltering weather of Aug. 30 against Confederate forces hunkered down in an unfinished railroad cut at the top of a ridge.
The fighting there was so desperate that the combatants threw rocks at each other, and the Union attackers were driven back with heavy losses.
Their burial in Arlington was fitting, said Karen Durham-Aguilera, executive director of Army National Military Cemeteries.
A rifle salute was fired over the graves, and taps was sounded.
“They’re soldiers,” she said. “They are casualties on the battlefield. . . . It’s the right thing to do. . . . It feels right. It is right.”