While cadaver dogs, also known as human remains detection dogs, typically search for the remains of recently deceased or missing persons who are presumed dead, a well-trained cadaver dog can sniff out human remains that have hundreds of , and in some cases thousands, of years. old.
Two body search dogs were at the site of the Brown’s Mill battlefield last week, looking for places where soldiers killed in the 1864 battle might have been buried.
The Brown’s Mill Battlefield Association invited K-9 trainer Tracy Sargent and her cadaver dogs Taz and Draco to tour various sites on the battlefield property where they believe soldiers may have been buried.
few graves remain
Most of the Union casualties in the battle were unearthed in the years after the war and reburied in Marietta National Cemetery, said Dr. David Evans, historian and author of “Sherman’s Horsemen,” a book on Union Cavalry operations in the Atlanta campaign. Federal government graves registry workers were extremely diligent in 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 on July 30, 1864, when Union Cavalry General Edward McCook passed through Newnan from Lovejoy. He was heading for the Chattahoochee River, which he hoped to cross so he could meet General William Sherman, who was in Marietta. McCook had been breaking up the railroad tracks, and when he got to Newnan, there was a stopped train full of Confederate soldiers waiting on the tracks 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 General Joseph Wheeler caught up with him.
The battle was one of the few Confederate victories of the Atlanta campaign. Approximately 100 Union soldiers were killed and more than 1,200 soldiers and horses were taken captive; approximately 50 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured.
While there was no agency to re-intern Confederate soldiers, families often traveled to battlefields to find deceased loved ones and bring them home for burial, Evans said.
Because Union soldiers had been buried at the site for a few years before being unearthed, the dogs were still able to point out those areas as possible graves.
Validation of previous research
One person known to have been buried on the battlefield was a girl who lived on the site with her uncle, George Cook, and his family.
The girl ran into the fray and died, according to an account in Union soldier Josiah Conzett’s memoir.
Members of the Brown’s Mill Battlefield Association had searched for his grave for years, association president Carolyn Turner said.
In recent years, volunteers, including members of the association’s board, have used “rhaesthesia” to search for graves at the site. Dowsing, a traditional art used to find underground water, graves and even precious metals, uses metal rods that move to indicate something underground. The dowsers found several possible graves on the property.
One appeared to be a child’s grave, due to its size, and was later marked with field stones.
The dogs also identified the site as a grave: one alerted to one side of the stones, the other to the other. When the dogs pick up the scent of human remains, they sit on the spot. Sargent would walk one dog around one spot and then put it back in a crate while the other dog covered the same area.
“I was very, very excited to see when they both flirted with the girl’s grave,” Turner said.
The work the dogs did validates all the research that has been done on the battlefield, Turner said. “The official records, what the officers wrote, the diaries that we have read,” he said. “This is another test.”
Another step in the National Registry process
The association decided to bring in the cadaver dogs at the suggestion of the state’s historic preservation office.
For several years, the association has been working to place the battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places.
The state has returned the application with comments multiple times.
“It’s a long, arduous process,” Turner said of approving a battlefield for the National Registry. 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’re very particular,” she said.
The state office wanted the border lines to expand beyond the 185 acres owned by the county; the entire battlefield site is approximately 2,000 acres.
The state returned the most recent version of the application in October. The application should include some ideas for future research, Turner said. One type of investigation the state suggested was to bring in cadaver dogs and see if they could find any graves that weren’t exhumed in 1867.
The use of cadaver dogs to search for older battlefields and burials is a relatively new phenomenon and is at the forefront of battlefield archaeology.
Newnan was a hospitable town and many of the soldiers who died there were buried in Newnan’s Oak Hill Cemetery. At that time, they were buried in an empty area away 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 that searching for corpses with dogs was a great idea. The dowsers have found several potential grave groupings.
In one area, the dogs alerted very close to where the dowsing had indicated a grave.
Each dog was taken out and taken to a separate designated area.
The two dogs alerted in a space of about 10 feet apart. That’s not unusual, especially for older burials, according to Sargent. The area is heavily forested, and as tree roots grow through the areas where the remains are buried, they can carry some of the decomposition products with them, spreading the odor. Fire ant mounds can also make it easier for dogs to spot older remains, as they bring soil to the surface.
At historic sites, Sargent recommends investigators use a 50-foot radius around where the dog alerted.
The dogs also found possible graves near the park entrance along the wide walking trail, but did not report anything near the monument at the end of Millard Farmer Road. That was surprising, as it is known to have been the site of the first ambush by McCook’s men.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t graves there, Sargent said.
The best time for cadaver dogs to search for older burials is winter, according to Sargent. The smell conditions that Thursday morning, with cool temperatures and thick fog, were perfect. But at noon, with the sun shining and the air warm, conditions were not conducive for the dogs to discover 160-year-old graves.
Each dog wears a GPS collar and software is used to map all the places they go. Sargent will create a map report for the Battlefield Association, which can be included with the app. The report will also be sent to the archeology company that the association has hired.
“She was so excited to be able to look around and see that what her dogs found was where we already thought there were burials,” Turner said. “It just all came together, like one big puzzle piece.”
Most of the time, Sargent uses his dogs to search for missing people, both living and dead. In his years of searching for people and researching, he has found patterns in where different killers bury their victims. She said her ultimate goal is to create some software or a book that police can use to help narrow down the search for a missing person.
Doing archaeological research on battlefields is definitely different than what you normally do. “It’s a lot of fun, to be honest,” she said. “There’s a lot less pressure … and the people who are involved in these projects are also a lot of fun,” she said.
Evans said he was initially skeptical that dogs could sniff out 160-year-old graves, but became 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.”