Virginian who died in 1870 reveals facts to descendants even he didn't know

November 11, 1990|By Rob Urban | Rob Urban,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Uncle Walter's had quite a year -- his busiest since the Civil War.

Or at least since Aug. 11, 1870, when Walter Weir was buried in an expensive cast-iron coffin in the family cemetery behind his estate in Manassas, Va.

Until a year ago, Weir's descendants -- including about 20 great-great-great-great-nephews and nieces in Charlotte -- knew next to nothing about him. Now they know some things about Uncle Walter even he didn't know before he died at 31 of an infection.

Since his fancy coffin was unearthed -- in part to make way for a condominium complex -- Weir's remains have traveled the country. Scientists from around the world have studied them.

Using his skeleton and clothes, excellently preserved in the coffin, scientists learned to study the antibodies preserved in his bone marrow. It gave them a history of every disease he encountered.

"We never really had even heard of Uncle Walter before this," said Robert Weir "Beau" Elliot Jr. of Charlotte. "The only reason we know of him now is he just happened to be in a metal casket and his headstone was intact."

On Oct. 27, the Elliots celebrated Uncle Walter's return to the family tree -- with a funeral in Manassas for the 24 ancestors now reburied nearer the family's ancestral Manassas estate. The house, known as Liberia, belongs to the city of Manassas and will one day house a museum.

Now Walter is a favorite uncle, in effect spinning tales for his great-nieces and great-nephews from beyond the grave, awakening their interest in family history.

For them, and for a group of leading anthropologists and archaeologists, Uncle Walter's bones reveal volumes about his life and times.

"Bones are very dynamic tissue," said Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "They reflect occupation, activity patterns, all kinds of things. From my bones a pathologist could tell, for instance, that I spent a lot of time sitting in front of a computer screen."

And the technique researchers developed of studying the antibodies in his bone marrow will eventually be used on corpses hundreds or even thousands of years old.

His remains show much about the life Uncle Walter lived. He was an avid horseman but did little physical labor. He was right-handed. He and his family did not lack for money. They all had gold fillings, meaning they received the good dental care available only to the wealthy in those days.

Even so, Walter Weir died at 31 of an infection that began with an abscessed tooth, Mr. Owsley said. A dentist pulled the tooth, but too late.

After Walter's appearance in his descendant's lives last year, family members started digging into family history and uncovered even more details.

He was Lieutenant Weir, a Confederate officer with the 49th Virginia Infantry. He fought in both battles of Bull Run in Manassas, virtually in his backyard.

He was one of nine children of William and Harriet Weir, wealthy landowners in Prince William County, Va. In 1859, he graduated from the College of William and Mary. He married Joan Douglas, who bore him a daughter, Julie.

But with the revelations come new mysteries.

What happened to Joan and Julie? "We had thought Uncle Walter had died a bachelor and heirless," said Beau Elliot's brother, John Elliot.

How did the family, bankrupted by the war, afford the cast-iron casket?

"I doubt he bought it before the war -- he was only 20 before the war," John Elliot said. "Maybe he collaborated with the Yankees and made some money during the war. Who knows?"

The Elliots of Charlotte are descended from Walter Weir's brother, Robert Carter Weir, whose great-granddaughter moved to Charlotte in 1922.

"We were raised on stories about the family back in Manassas," said John Elliot. "My grandmother told stories about her mother, who was 9 at the time of the first Battle of Bull Run. She went out on the battlefield and took water to the wounded.

"And everybody in the family who told the story would always end it the same way: 'She was an angel. She even gave water to the Yankees.' "

Many of the wounded would have been Yankees. Poet Walt Whitman, who witnessed the battle, described the North's retreat: "Baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Where are the vaunts, the proud boasts with which you went forth?"

Nearly 2,000 men died in that battle.

But Uncle Walter survived the war.

The family's 1825 estate was given to the city of Manassas three years ago. But the family graveyard was several hundred yards from the house -- in the middle of a planned parking lot for a condominium complex.

Family members decided to move the graves -- where their ancestors had been buried from 1842 until 1907. When they learned it would cost $10,000, they turned to the Smithsonian, which was interested in the area and the era.

For the next three years, they sought court permission to move the graves, trying to notify all descendants.

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