Tucked away in the quiet Mexico City residential neighborhood of San Rafael sits a largely forgotten resting place for hundreds of American soldiers killed in the area as the U.S. military stormed into city during the Mexican-American War.
The cemetery holds the remains of 750 American officers and soldiers, collected from a number of hastily-dug battlefield graves in and around the city after it fell in 1847.
Hector de Jesus, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the cemetery’s current superintendent, explained that the soldiers' original burial conditions and distance from home made the proper identification and repatriation of their remains impossible.
“The graves dug after the battle had wooden markers. Many of them couldn’t be read, were knocked down or were lost,” he told Fox News Latino.
It was a different time, a different place — remains weren’t sent home then.
“Back then, soldiers were not taken back to the States like they are today. There was no way to get them back, besides using horse-drawn carriages or going on foot,” he added. “So these unknowns were buried in two large vaults beneath the memorial.”
In addition to the war dead, the cemetery includes the remains of 813 veterans, family members and members of U.S. diplomatic missions in Mexico. The veterans include men who fought in the American Civil War, the Indian campaigns and the Spanish-American War.
The cemetery was first established in 1851 after the facility, then spread over two acres, was sold to the U.S. government for $3,000. The location was administered by the State Department until 1873, and then by the War Department until 1947, when an executive order by President Harry S. Truman transferred responsibility to the American Battle Monuments Commission, an independent government agency.
“One of the reasons they picked this area was because there was a British cemetery nearby,” de Jesus said.
“Originally the site looked a bit like Arlington National Cemetery, with gravestones. But in 1976 the grounds were reduced in size and the British cemetery was eliminated … But the U.S. owns this land, so we stayed.”
According to de Jesus, the location was also chosen because the area immediately surrounding the cemetery was the scene of heavy fighting during the U.S. Army’s drive into Mexico City in 1847.
“At the time there was nothing here. It was a marsh,” de Jesus explained. “But the area sat alongside a main road, which was then known as Calzada Veronica (Veronica Causeway). It was one of the few approaches into Mexico City.”
Among those who fought in the area immediately surrounding the cemetery was Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become famous for his military successes during the American Civil War, and who would eventually become the 18th president of the United States.
As a young second lieutenant, Grant led a reconnaissance mission which discovered a weak point in a Mexican strongpoint located about 100 meters from the cemetery’s current location.
Grant later returned with a group of volunteers and led a successful attack on the position. Grant’s performance in the battle — which later became known as the Battle for the San Cosme Gate — marked the first occasion Grant led troops in combat.
“It’s a historical place,” said Glenn Gardner, a U.S. veteran living in Mexico. “It deserves a place in history like the memorials on the beaches of Normandy.”
De Jesus added that while the majority of visitors to the cemetery are Mexican, occasional inquiries and visits from family members of the fallen soldiers stateside still occur.
“Every once in a while we get great, great grandsons who have come to look for a family member,” he said.
Additionally, the cemetery hosts Memorial Day and Veterans Day events held by the Mexico City American Legion Post and the U.S. embassy, which in the past have also been attended by foreign military attachés and members of the 201 Squadron — a Mexican Air Force unit which supported U.S. military efforts in the Philippines during World War II.
Retired infantry officer Jay Van Heuven, a Vietnam veteran who now lives in Mexico, said many veterans wish the cemetery was still open for new burials.
“We think the American cemetery grounds are outstanding,” he said. “We lose veterans here every month. Some would like to be buried in Mexico at the cemetery but that’s no longer possible.”
Richard Earley, another Vietnam veteran living in Mexico, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s a sign of our respect for those who died,” he said. “I think many people would love to be buried there, it’s easily reachable and beautiful.”
The Mexico City National Cemetery and Memorial is one of 24 American military cemeteries operated by the ABMC, which also maintains cemeteries and monuments in various European countries, Panama, Tunisia and the Philippines.
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is a freelance journalist in Mexico City.