Gettysburg battlefield skull won't be sold

Possible remains of Civil War soldier will be buried with honors if verified

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Gettysburg memorabilia dealer Brendan Synnamon was relieved to hear that a skull that might have belonged to a soldier killed at Gettysburg would not be auctioned off.

"I have seen the item," he said Tuesday. "It was my opinion that it should be re-interred and properly honored."

The remains currently are stored at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center pending verification of their authenticity.

The donation to the Gettysburg Foundation on Monday came one day before a planned auction in Maryland of the human skull along with other Civil War artifacts.

Foundation president Joanne Hanley accepted the donation from auctioneer Tom Taylor. The sale was scheduled for Tuesday, but it was canceled after questions were raised about the appropriateness of selling a human skull. The owner of the collection has not been identified.

The seller said the remains and other relics had been dug up in 1949 near a barn on the farm of Josiah Benner, north of Gettysburg. The barn and farmhouse had been the site of a Confederate field hospital during the battle.

If the remains are proved genuine, the foundation will donate them to Gettysburg National Military Park for burial with full honors in the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg.

That cemetery is where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863. More than 3,500 Union soldiers, including many whose identities remain unknown, are buried there.

"We are thankful to have the opportunity to honor what is very likely an American veteran and have his final resting place recognized," Ed W. Clark, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park, said in a statement.

"We are extremely grateful to the owners of the collection for making this decision, and to Tom Taylor, the auctioneer, for helping make it happen," Ms. Hanley said in the statement. "It truly was the right decision to return these remains to Gettysburg, providing the integrity and dignity this veteran deserves."

"I am very honored that we can do this with the Gettysburg Foundation and the National Park Service so that the remains are properly handled and his service will be recognized," Mr. Taylor, president and CEO of Estate Auction Co., said in the statement.

Although the Josiah Benner house and barn are now part of the national park, the land where the skull and other relics are said to have been found was privately owned in 1949 when the remains were discovered.

The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation plan to call in experts to date and evaluate the remains, park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon said Tuesday. She could not estimate how long the analysis of the skull would take.

The Gettysburg Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization that works with the National Park Service to help preserve and interpret events at the battlefield.

The Benner farm is about a mile northeast of downtown Gettysburg. Farm buildings were used as cover by skirmishers on July 1, 1863, the first day of the battle.

It is not unprecedented for soldiers' bones to turn up so long after the battle, Ms. Lawhon said. In 1996, erosion near old railroad tracks uncovered about 60 percent of the skeleton of a man who was in his 20s when he died. Lead spatter was found on his skull, suggesting he fell victim to artillery fire during the battle.

"We don't know his name or which side he fought for," she said.

His remains were interred in a vault with the bones of other unknown soldiers at the national cemetery. If the skull from the Benner farm is confirmed as being that of a battlefield casualty, it likely will be ceremoniously placed in that vault, she said.

Mr. Synnamon, the owner of the Union Drummer Boy artifact and relic shop in Gettysburg, often has been called in to appraise historical items for museums and government agencies. The provenance, or ownership chain, for the Benner farm skull appeared thin, he said.

"The only documentation was a one-paragraph item saying the item had been recovered in 1949," Mr. Synnamon said.

Mr. Taylor, the auctioneer, couldn't be reached for comment.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. First Published June 3, 2014 2:12 PM

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