Is an American cavalryman still buried on Mule Hill?

Author: Director George Hruby

The answer to this question is ‘No’.


In the 1940’s, historian and author, Arthur Woodward, raised the question as to whether or not one of General Kearny’s soldiers was still buried in an unmarked grave atop Mule Hill. The soldier believed possibly still buried on Mule Hill was twenty-five year old Sergeant John Cox of Company ‘C’, 1st U.S. Dragoons. He had died on top of Mule Hill on the morning of December 10th, 1846, while Mexican forces had General Kearny’s unit pinned down in a defensive position atop the hill. Cox had died from a secondary infection as a result of a lance wound received on December 6th at the Battle of San Pasqual. Woodward questioned whether or not Cox’s remains were still buried on Mule Hill asking “Did the burial detail of 1848 find enough bones of Sergeant Cox to transfer to San Diego?” and “Did they remember his solitary grave on the hill?”

The Rumors Began


Woodward based these questions on several statements recorded by individuals at the time.

Doctor John Griffin, the field-surgeon who had been with Cox when he died, and who revisited Cox’s grave on Mule Hill just twenty days after he had been buried there wrote:

I visited the place where we passed three anxious days, everything just as we left it except poor Sergt Cox’s grave, the wolves had scratched down to the body and eaten off part of his feet. The Californians I do not think had had any hand in it.


Two other accounts also rumored the idea that Cox’s grave had been disturbed. A sailor named Joseph T. Downey who had camped with other naval personnel at Mule Hill not long after Cox had been buried there wrote:

Upon examining the ground we found that the Californians or Indians had dug up the bodies of the killed and stripping them of their clothes, left them laying on the ground, prey for the ‘cayotes’ or prairie wolves.


In 1856, Philip Crosthwaite, who was with John Cox on Mule Hill the morning he died, told Judge Benjamin Hayes of San Diego:

Cox died and was buried here; his body was afterwards dug up by the Indians, to search for anything valuable that it might have.

The Search Began

With questions raised as to whether or not Cox was still buried on Mule Hill, the search began for the lonely unmarked grave of a serviceman atop Mule Hill. While his comrades killed at San Pasqual laid buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California, the effort to find Cox’s grave began. In Spring of 1975, Konrad Schreier wrote in the Journal of San Diego History:

An unsuccessful search was made for the grave of U.S. Dragoon Sergeant Cox who died and was buried on or near Mule Hill His body could not be found when the dead from the battle of San Pasqual were reinterred some years after the fight. The Marines commented that, under the conditions which prevailed on rocky Mule Hill when Sergeant Cox died, they believed the soldiers would have buried him in soft ground at the foot of the hill.

Glenn Wallace wrote in the San Diego Reader in 1985:

Sergeant’s Cox’s body was never found. The burial party that searched for the grave in 1848 could not locate it, nor could searchers in the 1970 study of Mule Hill.


Doctor Eugene Chamberlin wrote in 1990:

Questions about the others of the battle dead provide other unexpected drama. The name of Sergeant John Cox is on the plaque over lots 25 and 26, maybe his bones are not there at all.

Our Research Began


In 1990, I began one of the most extensive studies ever conducted into the burial and reinternment of the dead from the Battle of San Pasqual. This study eventually help solve the reason why so many had been unable to find the unmarked grave of Sergeant John Cox at Mule Hill. Although this study has involved years of research and enough data to print a book with, a following is a summary of what is now known and interpreted concerning the mystery of the lost dragoon’s grave at Mule Hill:

Sergeant John Cox took a lance wound while on his back indicating he was out of the saddle upon being stabbed. The lance entered below his left rib cage and tore through where his lower and upper intestines meet. The wound may have torn open his colon, kidney, or bladder, depending on the angle and penetration of the lance. The lance did tear into Cox’s stomach. He has difficulty breathing caused by his stomach being distended, irritating the diaphragm and causing hiccups. He continued to heave, his stomach wanting to throw-up blood as it leaked inside. It is assumed that such a wound resulted in his intestines exiting out the wound. Cox however didn’t die from the initial wound but rather, died several days later from a secondary infection. He died a very slow and painful death, marked by extreme ‘chills’ and fever. When he died on December 10, 1846 at Mule Hill, he was buried there in an unmarked grave.

It is now known that his body was buried at an angle on a slope which is why despite he was buried deep and under heavy stones, coyotes were still able to dig at his feet. His feet were the closest part of his body to the surface. Also, based on comparison to modern homicide investigations involving coyotes eating human remains, it is speculated that Cox was buried without any boots on.


Cox may have had his feet eaten off in the grave by coyotes just twenty days after being buried but figuring that his fellow soldiers recovered the foot of the grave, there was no hard evidence to actually suggest that Cox’s entire body had been dug up out of the grave. Downey’s account was hearsay or gossip, especially since he describes several bodies being buried on Mule Hill and we know there was only one.

Although Philip Crosthwaite was there on Mule Hill when Cox died, we have no evidence he actually had first-hand witnessing of Cox’s remains being removed from the grave. It is speculated that Crosthwaite was merely repeating local hearsay or gossip concerning the grave.

Furthermore, those historians who have written that the reburial party never found the body of Sergeant Cox had absolutely no historical evidence to support this allegation. Historical research conducted by this office found the following to be the case:

Orders from a Lieutenant

On April 13, 1848, a letter was directed from a Colonel Mason of Monterey, California to a Colonel Stevenson in Los Angeles. The letter read as follows:

Sir, Colonel Mason desires that as soon after the receipt of this as in your opinion it can be prudently done, having a view to the state of affairs in your district, that you send Lieut. J.W. Davidson 1st U.S. Dragoons with a sufficient party to San Pasqual, have the remains of the officers & soldiers who fell at that place disinterred. Hasten to San Diego & there reburied. If Lieut. Davidson can by any means recognize the remains of the different officers, he should cause them to be buried in San Diego in separate graves, marked with the name of the officers separately. I enclose herewith a letter received from the father of Captain Johnston, which be pleased to hand Lieut. Davidson that he may comply with Mr. Johnston’s request if it be possible to identify the body of his son burying it with a view to its being again disinterred & sent home when an opportunity offers.


This letter, which I found in the National Archives, was signed by a young Lieutenant adjutant at the time who was later to become one of the most famous Generals of the Civil War — William T. Sherman

Lieutenant J.W. Davidson, who fought at the Battle of San Pasqual, did proceed to San Pasqual with a burial detail and later wrote:

In consequence of this I repaired immediately to San Pasqual in compliance with instructions from the Col. comdg this district, and disinterred the bodies of the officers and soldiers there buried, and reinterred them in San Diego from which place I but returned on the 13th of this month, marching 320 miles in 13 days including the days necessarily employed in disinterring and exposing the bodies to the air.


This letter from Lieutenant Davidson is very significant in that it tells us the decomposition rate of the bodies at the time of reinternment. Davidson’s comment of “exposing the bodies to the air” tells of that the bodies were still in a state of decomposition as opposed to totally skeletonized. The officers were also able to be clearly identified.

Digging the nineteen bodies up at the San Pasqual Battlefield was witnessed by the Indians there. This eyewitness account came from a San Pasqual Indian named “Felicita” and was recorded in a book entitled, Indian Stories of the Southwest by Elizabeth Judson Roberts:

The soldiers have come to carry away the dead that were buried here after the battle of San Pasqual, he told us. They will carry them to San Diego and lay them in the white man’s burial place. The next day many Indians visited the soldiers’ camp and I went also, with my mother and other women. It was near the evening time when we reached the camp, and the soldiers had finished their work for the day. Some were cooking near the white tents by the willows, others were wrestling and playing, as men play, on the sandy bank of the river.


The dead from the battle of San Pasqual were then transported to San Diego Old Town for burial. A man named Joseph Evens who witnessed the burial detail ride into Old Town with the dead soldiers later wrote:

Sometime after our arrival there, a detachment of dragoons from Los Angeles came into town with the bodies of their comrades who were killed in San Pasqual… It was determined to bring these remains to San Diego and rebury them altogether. We assisted the troopers to do this, and they returned to Los Angeles.


Of course, this reburial detail had to pass by Mule Hill, both to get the dead from the battlefield and, to leave back for San Diego with them. So the question was … did they stop at Mule Hill and take the remains of Sergeant John Cox with them? Were there even any remains of Cox left to take? This riddle became solved as I continued to research the reinternment process of the San Pasqual dead.


The author, George Hruby, checking out a reported gravesite of John Cox near Mule Hill

The Riddle Solved


The dead from the Battle of San Pasqual were buried alone in a field just southwest of Old Town which is today, at the section of Interstate-5 underneath the overpass at the Old Town-MCRD exit. The three officers were buried in separate marked graves while First-Sergeant Otis L. Moore and sixteen remaining personnel were buried in separate unmarked graves. In 1850, five Army officers, some of whom were at the Battle of San Pasqual, made the field into an official cemetery called the San Pasqual Cemetery. It later became known as the Government Graveyard. Later that same year, the family of Captain Johnston had his remains exhumed and shipped back home to Piqua, Ohio for burial.

The cemetery eventually fell into disrepair. In 1874, the remains of the fallen San Pasqual soldiers were again removed and reinterred at a location near Mission Bay referred to as Hill-80. This site today would have been located just south of West Point Loma Boulevard at Midway Drive. The hill was destroyed in the 1940’s by earth moving equipment as they excavated the hill for local land fills and area housing construction. The San Pasqual dead however had long since been removed.

When the dead soldiers from San Pasqual were reinterred at Hill-80, the two remaining officers (Moore and Hammond) were again buried in separately marked plots. The remaining First-Sergeant and sixteen enlisted were placed all together in one very well constructed wooden box and reburied under a marker that read: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF A SERGEANT MAJOR AND 16 PRIVATES KILLED AT THE BATTLE OF SAN PASQUAL.

Although the Sergeant Major was actually a First-Sergeant, and the sixteen remaining dead consisted of various enlisted ranks including two civilian volunteers, the men that boxed the remains were sure on at least one thing . . .the number of skulls that were placed inside of the box. That number was seventeen. From this, we were able to solve the riddle where the remains of Sergeant John Cox were at. Cox was in fact inside the box with the rest of his comrades killed at San Pasqual. The reburial detail in 1848 had found and exhumed Cox’s remains as they passed by Mule Hill that Summer. Here is how we know this.


The Seventeenth Skull


Nineteen (not eighteen as is often erroneously reported) bodies were buried in a pit at the Battlefield of San Pasqual. Therefore, if the reburial detail left the battlefield with 19 bodies, upon exhuming Cox’s body, they would have returned to San Diego with 20 bodies. If the three officer’s remains were kept separate, the only way there could be 17 bodies left to place inside the box was if the remaining enlisted (including two civilians) included Sgt. John Cox. There is no other way to account for the number of skulls inside of the box unless Cox was included.

Some historians contend that the 17th skull inside the box does not belong to Cox but rather, a Private Joseph Kennedy who did not die at either San Pasqual or Mule Hill. Kennedy died several weeks later on December 21, 1846 in San Diego from wounds sustained at the Battle of San Pasqual. He would have received a military or Christian burial in Old Town if his body was not shipped back home. It is also noted that Kennedy would have been buried for approximately eighteen months before his fellow dragoons killed at the battle would have been brought to San Diego. There has never been any record to suggest that Kennedy was exhumed in San Diego and reburied with the San Pasqual dead.

It should be noted that Hill-80 was never formally recorded as a military cemetery but our knowledge of this site comes from eye-witness and newspaper accounts which documented its existence. This also includes one testimony of one soldier who was actually part of yet another reburial detail for the fallen dead of the Battle of San Pasqual. Sometime between 1888-1889, the remains of Moore and Hammond, and the box containing the 17 enlisted remains were exhumed and transported by wagon to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. There, the two officers were buried in individually marked plots. The large box containing the 17 remains was buried in plots 25 and 26 of the cemetery. But here is where an interesting quirk happens.


San Pasqual Battlefield Memorial at Fort Rosecrans


Whoever was assigned to placing a new marker over the grave, left out the “First-Sergeant” part of the inscription and merely wrote: 16 UNKNOWN SOLDIERS. On July 31, 1922, the San Diego Parlors of Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West placed a large boulder (brought from the battlefield) bearing an inscription incorrectly stating there were eighteen bodies buried there — seventeen soldiers and one civilian. In 1949, a new inscription was placed on the boulder but it also incorrectly showed eighteen bodies buried there as well. The eighteenth body erroneously listed as being inside of the box is that of Joseph Kennedy.


So, is an American cavalryman still buried on Mule Hill?


The reason that Cox’s remains have never been found at Mule Hill is because he had been exhumed and taken with the rest. Excluding the three officers killed at the Battle of San Pasqual, the following was established:

  1. Every man killed at the Battle of San Pasqual including two civilians, and the remains of Sergeant John Cox who died on Mule Hill, were all exhumed together, transported together, and buried together in the field by Old Town.
  2. In 1874, the 17 remains were placed in a large box (which to date has never been opened) and reburied on Hill-80. A gravemarker inscription read: “Sacred to the Memory of a Sergeant Major and 16 Privates” was erected over the grave containing the box. The gravemarker indicated that 17 bodies were inside the box. Since the gravemarker and box were probably constructed when the remains were buried at Hill-80, those who boxed the remains knew that there were 17 remains to account for on the gravemarker.
  3. The only way the grave could have contained 17 remains was if the remains of Sergeant John Cox were included inside of the box.
    • First-Sergeant Moore = 1
    • Sergeant Cox = 1
    • Civilian Volunteers = 2
    • Remaining Enlisted = 13
    • 17 Remains inside of box.