Saturday, May 25, 2013

Your Fitter Grave

Your own proud land's heroic soil
Shall be your fitter grave;
She claims from war his richest spoil--
The ashes of her brave.
These stirring lines form the second half of the ninth octet of Theodore O'Hara's venerated poem "Bivouac of the Dead." Those of you who have taken a stroll through Arlington or Gettysburg national cemeteries have probably seen excerpts from this poem on plaques throughout the placid grounds. O'Hara penned the poem in 1847 (two years into the Franklin Expedition, interestingly enough) in memory of Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican-American War. The men of Franklin's lost expedition were not the victims of bayonets and artillery; rather, they succumbed to a different type of warfare--one that pitted them against nature's onslaught of cold, wind, and ice. Most of their remains are scattered across King William Island's desolate battlefield, largely impossible to discern from the mottled ground. Yet, almost miraculously, one nearly complete skeleton was plucked from KWI's grip by an intractable man with a real sense of purpose: Charles Francis Hall. Thanks to Hall, these remains eventually made their way back to England's welcoming shores, but there is a slight possibility that events could have transpired differently.
According to Richard J. Cyriax's Sir John Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition, widely regarded as the standard source of information on the tragedy, the Inuit told Captain Hall about two Kabloona graves and traces of an encampment near the Piffer (or Pfeffer) River on the southern coast of King William Island. In May 1869, Hall's party reached this site and uncovered the remarkably complete skeletal remains of a European. Hall sent the remains to one of his patrons who, in turn, sent them to Rear Admiral Inglefield, RN. Inglefield then brought the bones back to England, where they were examined by the redoubtable anatomist Thomas Huxley. With the help of relatives, a neat little gold tooth plug, and the distinctive features of the skull, Huxley identified the remains (with considerable certainty) as those of Lt. Henry T. D. Le Vesconte of the Erebus. With that being settled, the good lieutenant was reverently interred in the Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
It would seem that the return and fairly accurate identification of these remains would lay the matter to rest, so to speak, but there exists the slightest possibility that the skeleton, upon being identified as Le Vesconte's, could have been sent back across the Atlantic to southern Canada! A singularly excellent article by polar scholar Huw Lewis-Jones, "'Nelsons of Discovery': Notes on the Franklin Monument in Greenwich", contains a great deal of meticulously researched information on the Franklin monument in the Painted Hall and the Le Vesconte skeleton, including some invaluable family history.* Lt. Le Vesconte's father Henry was also a naval officer of some distinction and, after his retirement, the family relocated to what is now southern Ontario. Henry Sr. died in 1850 and quite probably outlived his son who had ventured into the Arctic five years before. Presumably, the Le Vesconte family has a burial plot in Belleville, Ontario. If that is indeed the case, the Le Vesconte remains could have been sent back to those family members to be interred alongside the father. Stranger yet, if Hall had somehow been able to make a positive identification while still on King William Island, the remains might not have even been sent to England! Henry T. D. Le Vesconte's mortal remains would be in a quiet family plot in Ontario instead of entombed in a legendary location. To add to the intrigue, recent investigations suggest that the skeleton belonged not to Le Vesconte, but to Harry D. S. Goodsir, acting assistant surgeon of the Erebus. That, however, is another tale.
Regardless of who owned those well-travelled bones, the Franklin monument in Greenwich is a most fitting place for their eternal repose. Let us part with the final octet of O'Hara's poem, which says it best:
Your marble minstrel's voiceless stone
In deathless song shall tell,
When many a vanquished ago has flown,
The story how ye fell;
Nor wreck, nor change, nor winter's blight,
Nor time's remorseless doom,
Can dim one ray of glory's light
That guilds your deathless tomb.
*Further Le Vesconte family history can be found in my posts "Adventure Runs in the Family" and "The Viscount from the Beautiful Island", with links to the Wills family website. Also see this excellent website