For 164 years, the granite block marked “Mexico” lay mostly undisturbed in the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Wooden plaques placed to commemorate the men buried around it had rotted away. A low-hanging tree grew above it.
With its circular rough patch, iron urn and cryptic inscription, the block was a mystery to the cemetery workers who came across it several years ago. It took some searching through cemetery archives for the cemetery historian, Jeff Richman, to determine that 10 men — 8 veterans of the Mexican-American War and 2 who brought their bodies back to New York in 1848 — were buried around the granite block.
On Friday, 164 years to the day when the first coffins in the group were interred, cemetery officials and a military color guard unveiled bronze plaques for the men. Six military flag bearers and a drummer marched up Battle Hill from the cemetery’s main gates, stopping at the block. A trumpeter played the national anthem and taps as a guard stood over the new plaques.
Of the five men who were first buried in the lot, the best known was Lt. Col. Charles Baxter, who was so eager to fight that he quit his original regiment to join New York’s First Regiment, to which most of the veterans in Green-Wood’s Mexico lot belonged. (Baxter Street in Manhattan is named for him.) Placed near him were Lt. Edgar Chandler, who was mortally wounded at Churubusco, Capt. James Barclay, who died of exposure, and Lt. Charles Gallagher, who died of sickness near Mexico City.
New York City’s Common Council, the equivalent of today’s City Council, asked Lt. Alexander Forbes to find their remains in Mexico and bring them back to New York. He got as far as New Orleans with the coffins before dying of a fever. A soldier who found him sick in New Orleans, Lt. Robert Floyd, brought Lieutenant Forbes’s body and the four others back to New York by steamship.
According to historical accounts, the five men received a grand funeral. Their coffins were raised on biers in front of City Hall, where 20,000 people, including the mayors of New York, Brooklyn and Albany, gathered to hear the son of former President Martin Van Buren eulogize the men. Flags flew at half-staff and city streets closed for the procession into Green-Wood.
Sometime later, however, one of the people the city had charged with building an obelisk over the graves made off with the money for the monument. Instead, only the plain granite block that was intended as the base for the monument memorialized the deaths. “The visitor is impressed by its unfinished and neglected state,” a 1901 article in The New York Times observed.
In the days and years after the funeral, seven more soldiers were interred around the Mexico block. One was later moved to a different plot, as was Lieutenant Chandler. The others were Lt. John Kline, Capt. Morton Fairchild, Private Alfred Lombard, Lt. Francis Boyle and James McCabe, who all fought in the Mexican-American War, and Lieutenant Floyd, who died of fever in Panama in 1849.
About 40 veterans of the Mexican-American War are buried at Green-Wood, where there are also the graves of about 3,800 Civil War veterans and many famous New Yorkers.
Today, the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848, is known primarily for inflaming the tensions over territorial acquisition and slavery that would lead to the Civil War. Though the Mexican-American War inspired intense patriotism, it was controversial even at the time: abolitionists accused the Army of provoking Mexican aggression in an attempt to acquire future slave territory. Mexico eventually ceded the territory of Texas to the United States, among a number of concessions.
For Mr. Richman, who is also directing a project to identify Civil War graves in Green-Wood, the Mexico lot is one of the many bits of history waiting to be brought out of obscurity in the vast cemetery.
“We still walk around and say, ‘Wow, I never saw that before,’” he said. “I’m glad we were able to do the right thing here.”