" . . . we buried them as decently as in our circumstances we could."
Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne: a Pensioner of the Navy of the Revolution, Written by Himself. 1831
It was on a prisoner's march in the summer of 1780 that Americans Andrew Sherburne and his fellow captives of the British arrived at a bay near Placentia, Newfoundland,. There they found the bodies of fourteen men and a boy scattered on the shore amidst the wreckage of an American merchant ship that, under the Letters of Marque in force at the time, would be considered a military ship. The Americans buried the bodies as best they could in a bank above the shore and moved on. It was perhaps the first recorded burial in a foreign land of Americans killed in conflict.
When we think of American military members still buried abroad in modern times, attention goes to the cemeteries of the American Battle Monument Commission in ten nations stretching from the Philippines to Italy. They hold many of the casualties of American participation in two World Wars. But, in the service of a nation that is more than 200 years old, Americans killed in combat since the Revolutionary War are still buried in sometimes forgotten places from Asia, across the Pacific to Mexico and Canada, Europe and North Africa and up to Arctic Russia. Another group of Americans who fought under foreign flags with the implicit encouragement of the U.S. government are buried in places that extend to the most obscure corners of the world, alphabetically from Algeria to Yemen. Almost all of those buried sunce the Barbary Coast Wars at the turn of the 19th century can be named and located, but many more burials may be yet to be found.
The ethic of burial "as decently as in our circumstances we could" has been followed, with some exceptions, since the time of Andrew Sherburne. But it was not until after the American Civil War that real protocols were put in place for the disposition of those Americans killed in war beyond our borders. The following decades matched those practices with an evolving philosophy about our relationship to those who die in our names abroad. The full history of the burial of American war dead abroad offers a unique perspective on the full history of America at war.
And it offers a challenge to use the power of the Internet to continue the search for those Americans still buried abroad and forgotten.