The skeletal remains of as many as 12 individuals have been discovered in a mass grave in New Jersey at the site of a significant battle of the Revolutionary War, Gloucester County and Rowan University officials announced.
Believed by researchers to be the human remains of Hessian soldiers, who suffered their worst Revolutionary War defeat at the hands of outnumbered-but-emboldened American defenders, the remains were uncovered at Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park (Gloucester County).
The remarkable discovery of the mass grave, a rarity for battlefields during the American Revolution, was announced during a press briefing at the site on August 2.
For 245 years, the remains rested in a trench four-and-a-half feet deep until June 26, when a human femur was uncovered during a public archaeology dig. Additional excavation at the site, which was part of a trench system that surrounded the battlefield’s Fort Mercer, uncovered more remains.
All of the remains have been excavated and turned over to the New Jersey State Police Forensic Unit. There, forensic anthropologists are extracting DNA from the bones and teeth to identify their origin.
Skeletal assessment, isotopic, genetic and radiological analyses are also ongoing to provide in-depth analysis of the human remains and to gather biological data and indicators of life history, health and disease, and other factors. The remains have been excavated with extraordinary attention to preserving the dignity of the war dead.
DNA analysis, including from additional items found during the archaeological dig, such as a uniform knee buckle containing human blood, musket balls, and other items found in the trench, also may help the team to identify the remains…and even eventually find descendants of those who lost their lives on the battlefield.
“We’re hoping that eventually, perhaps, we can find some of these individuals,” says Rowan University public historian Jennifer Janofsky, director of Red Bank Battlefield Park. “If we can extract their stories, and if we can tell their stories, it lets us put a name to a face. And that, to me, is a very powerful moment in public history.
“History is an ongoing process,” continues Janofsky. “It’s not like we’ve written the Battle of Red Bank and we know everything that happened. Archaeology is helping us better understand what happened on the battlefield. Now, we have a better opportunity to tell a more complete story of these individuals…Who were they? Why were they here? What was their fate? It gives the public a more nuanced understanding of the history.”
Victory at Fort Mercer
On Oct. 22, 1777, the Hessians, fighting for the British Crown, suffered approximately 377 casualties
during the battle compared with 14 American casualties. Crown forces went into battle with 2,000 soldiers. The Americans, integrated regiments of Black and white soldiers fighting for freedom side by side, numbered 500. The regiments were comprised chiefly of soldiers from Rhode Island, plus a contingent of New Jersey militia.
The victory at Fort Mercer, located just south of Philadelphia, was huge boost for American forces in the war for independence. The fort was a key defense for Americans to delay the British from advancing supplies up the Delaware River to Philadelphia.
Rare battlefield mass burial
The items found around the remains—including pewter and brass buttons and an extremely rare King George III gold guinea (a soldier’s pay for a month)—are consistent with items Hessian soldiers would have had, according to Janofsky and Wade Catts, president/principal archaeologist for South River Heritage Consulting of Delaware. Catts led the archaeological dig of the site.
“Based on everything we’ve found and the context of what we’ve found, these appear to be Hessians. We will do more research on that, but, right now, our working hypothesis is that these are Hessian soldiers,” says Catts, adding that a Revolutionary War battlefield mass burial is highly unusual. “The trench is a remarkable space. It’s a significant archaeological site.”
Owned and maintained by Gloucester County, Red Bank Battlefield Park sits on 44 acres on a bluff above the Delaware River. Part of the Fort Mercer trench extended onto a quarter-acre site acquired by the county in 2020. The fort itself was destroyed by American forces in November of 1777.
Public education and outreach
A $19,000 New Jersey Historical Commission project grant secured by Janofsky in 2021 funded an initial archaeology survey of the trench, as well as a public education and outreach program.
The county committed $30,0000 in additional funding for the second phase of the project and, over four public dig days this summer, more than 100 private citizens had the opportunity to dig at the site, recovering items including the first human femur.
When the study of the remains is complete, they eventually will be reinterred at another site. The trench eventually will be refilled and the land will be incorporated into the park. The site will give historians the chance to offer the public a more nuanced understanding of the park’s historical significance, the Battle of Red Bank, and the sacrifices soldiers made.
“Too often, the revolution is viewed as a sanitized event. It’s one thing to discuss the battle in the abstract. It’s another to witness firsthand the violence of that day,” Janofsky, the Megan Giordano Fellow in Public History at Rowan.
“We now have the opportunity to work with our visitors to understand the emotion, pain, loss—and absolute horror—of war.”
SOURCE Rowan University