Grave by river may solve Civil War mystery: Drowned soldier's body never found

     Young Mason Bryant left the family farm near Olney, Ill., to fight
for the Union army in November 1863 and wound up drowned in the
Chattahoochee River as his company prepared for the assault on Atlanta in
the summer of 1864.
     The whereabouts of his body has remained a mystery ever since.
     But archaeologists soon will open a remote grave on the
Chattahoochee's north bank near Roswell that could solve the mystery.
Roswell police Officer Michael Hitt, an amateur historian who discovered
the grave, is convinced the pile of gray stones marks Private Bryant's
final resting place.
     "Everybody wants to know if it's him, that's for sure," said Harvey
Cash, a Civil War buff from Clay City, Ill., near the soldier's hometown.
He said historical society discussions about the possible find have
spilled over into local coffee shops.
     But no one is more anxious than Agness Bryant, Private Bryant's
great-great-niece, who has kept his memory alive by having a government
marker erected in his honor in the family cemetery.
     "I can't believe after all these years it might actually be him,"
she said. "It's always been an unanswered question in our family."
     Three years of research convinced Officer Hitt that Private Bryant's
remains probably lie beneath the stack of stones he first discovered in
1988 at the base of a ridge where Union Gen. William T. Sherman's left
flank camped for two weeks. The stones are only a few hundred yards from
where the soldier reportedly drowned.
     "It almost has to be him," Officer Hitt said.

Ten of 11 bodies accounted for

He spotted the grave while researching the area's Civil War history, but he didn't connect it with the missing soldier until later. "I didn't know enough then," said Officer Hitt, who since has dug through government records, archives and personal diaries of the period to find out what happened to 11 Union soldiers who died in the Roswell area during the two weeks they were encamped there. His search took him to Marietta National Cemetery, where he accounted for 10 soldiers who were killed during a violent lightning storm the evening of July 14, 1864. Now he's hoping to clear up the mystery surrounding the missing 18- year-old farmer from Olney, who stood 5-feet-7 and had dark hair and dark eyes. Private Bryant drowned while swimming or bathing in a shallow ford across from what today is the Martin's Landing subdivision. It made sense to bury the soldier near the river rather than to drag his body back up the steep ridge where his company was camped, Officer Hitt told members of the Greater Atlanta Archaeological Society at a briefing last week at Emory University. Members have volunteered to help with the project. Because of its remote location at the base of the ridge, the grave probably was overlooked after the war, Officer Hitt said. The grave is in the heart of what is now the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area's Island Ford Unit. The area has been closed because of structural deficiencies found in an upstream dam. Park Superintendent Sibbald Smith said he expects the park to reopen in the next few weeks and the excavation can take place then. If the grave does contain the remains of a Union soldier, the Civil War Commission probably will mark the site with a plaque, said John Ehrenhard, chief of interagency archaeological services for the National Park Service. He said there are no plans to move the remains or fully exhume the body. "He probably feared dying unknown more than dying itself," Officer Hitt said. "Many Civil War soldiers pinned notes on their backs before they went into battle or scratched their names on their bayonets or something else metal so they could later be identified." color photo: "It almost has to be him," Officer Michael Hitt says of the Union private he thinks is buried by the Chattahoochee. / DIANE R. STEPP / Staff

Copyright 1992, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, All rights reserved.

By Diane R. Stepp STAFF WRITER, Grave by river may solve Civil War mystery: Drowned soldier's body never found., 01-20-1992, pp B/01.