Chris Dickon

Published September 2011 by McFarland Publishing

The Foreign Burial of American War Dead

From the Preface:

This book was inspired by a glint of sunlight on sparkling water in the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbour one summer day in 2007. Quiet waves lapped up against a small promontory across the Arm from the bobbing vessels of the Armdale Yacht Club, and the feeling of the place – the moving water, the sunlight, the small piece of land and a gentle breeze – was peaceful in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It made no sense. This was not a place with a happy history. The clubhouse of the yacht club across the water had once been the warden’s house of Melville Island, one of Britain’s most notorious prisons of the early 19th century. And within the steep hill that rose up from the promontory were the bones of about 400 souls who had come to rest during that time as the dead of war, victims of disease and famine, and refugees from American slavery. Deadman’s Island, as it was known, was covered with deep forest and bramble.

Its residents had been remembered and forgotten a number of times over the hundreds of years. Occasionally they showed up as curiosities in the form of stray bones and skulls while the promontory supported other uses. Then, in the late 1990s, a developer had gained ownership of the land and made plans to convert it into a condominium project. The residents of the Arm began to mobilize against the effort on aesthetic and environmental grounds, but they were not able to succeed in their protest until it was discovered that the hill held the remains of approximately 180 American war dead who could be identified by name, age, hometown and cause of death. The land was saved, and enshrined by three nations in subsequent events that are described in the following pages. In 2007, it was a very comfortable place on a summer day in Nova Scotia.

One wondered: if almost 200 named Americans had been buried forgotten for 200 years in a hill in Halifax, where else in the world were American war dead still buried? The vast majority of them, of course, rested in the wonderful cemeteries of the American Battle Monuments Commission in ten nations from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. But it turned out that there were many more to find.

The expedition begins in England, France and Libya before and after the turn of the 19th century. From there, it moves to Spain and Mexico. Then it pivots on the American Civil War and the Spanish American War before it returns to Mexico, and moves on to all of Europe, then up to Arctic Russia. It stops in prisons and prison ships, in forgotten and isolated places, and in official and unofficial cemeteries, large and small. It is accompanied by melancholy poetry and Royal music. The story’s arc traces the evolution of American attitudes and practices about its war dead from the days when a loved one lost overseas may as well have been an unreachable star in the sky to the current era of immediate return of the loved one’s remains to a grieving family. It goes deeply, more than I expected, into the human results of war and remembrance: the seemingly endless potential of reverence for war dead, even over long measures of time, distance and hardship.

Selected Works

History
Coming mid-2017. A biography of the World War I American poet killed in action with the French Foreign Legion on July 4, 1916.
A survey of American war dead still buried abroad since the Revolutionary War.
A sailing USN frigate, now a watermill in England: . . . a gem of a book. Virginian Pilot, Norfolk.
"Readers seeking untold tales of dedicated Americans serving under foreign flags during the world wars will read this book avidly, wondering perhaps why they’re learning about these adventures for the first time."
At the end of the 19th century an audacious railroad sets sail across the Chesapeake Bay.