WINCHESTER — Nearly 160 years after the First and Second Battles of Kernstown, the battlefield is still giving up secrets.
Right in the heart of the open, sloping field in southern Winchester is a small burial plot. Only one headstone exists, but members of the Kernstown Battlefield Association's board of directors have long heard rumors that at least a dozen bodies are interred there.
On Thursday, board members pooled their own personal money to hire a firm that used ground-penetrating radar to determine exactly how many graves are hiding beneath the surface of the Civil War battlefield. The answer is 14.
Steve Chesley, a member of the association's board of directors, said the graves that constitute the Pritchard family cemetery are located in a large field on the former Pritchard farm that was at the center of the First Battle of Kernstown on March 23, 1862, and the Second Battle of Kernstown on July 24, 1864.
The lone headstone that remains at the cemetery marks the final resting spot for Susan James Baldwin, a member of the Pritchard family and the third wife of Cornelius Baldwin. Susan Baldwin was born on July 18, 1778, and died on Mary 9, 1836.
"You can still read her headstone," Chelsey said as he pointed to a small granite marker that bears the words, "Let sorrow find no sacred dorm, no more in sacred sighs, but hope beyond the tomb, bid every tear be dry."
If there were other headstones, they're long gone, erased by decades of plowing and harvesting or obliterated by artillery and gunfire.
"This graveyard is right in the middle of the back and forth [fighting between Union and Confederate soldiers]," association President R. Gary Sheppard said.
Matt Turner of GeoModel Inc. in Leesburg visited the battlefield on Thursday morning and utilized ground-penetrating radar to find the 14 graves. Using a device that resembles a push mower with a flat bottom, he found what has been quietly lying beneath the earth's surface for more than a century, then used orange spray paint to outline the locations of the tightly clustered graves.
"The tops of the graves are 2 to 3 feet down," Turner said.
Almost everyone in the family cemetery died before the Civil War began in 1861, but officials have only been able to identify a half-dozen of the people buried there: Susan Baldwin; her father, Stephen Cornelius Pritchard (1745-1819); her grandfather, Reese Pritchard Jr. (1710-1760); her brother, Stephen Cornelius Pritchard Jr. (1776-1858); her sister, Margaret Pritchard (1772-1819); and the 2-year-old daughter of Helen and Samuel Reese Pritchard, whose name was also Margaret Pritchard (1862-1864).
Research into the identities of the remaining bodies is ongoing.
"If there are 14 bodies there, we want to know who they are and how long they've been there," Sheppard said.
However, there are no plans to exhume the corpses. "I think there would be too many hoops to go through to do that," Sheppard said.
The Pritchard family cemetery may not be the only burial plot hidden at the former farm, but officials believe it's the only one still intact.
"We've heard the slave cemetery was out near the entrance [to the battlefield] off Valley Pike," Chelsey said.
But that area now accommodates the Creekside Town Center shopping plaza. If the slave cemetery is there, Chelsey and Sheppard said, it is now most likely covered by asphalt and buildings.