November 11, 2023 at 9:49 a.m.

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier

source: Natl. Park Service
source: Natl. Park Service

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Most Americans are familiar with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but many are not aware of another such tomb.  This being Veterans Day weekend, a day to honor all who have served, it seems an appropriate time to tell more about the

Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier

When most Americans think of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the images that come to mind include the eternal flame, Arlington National Cemetery, and the bodies of three soldiers who perished in WWI, WW2 and the Vietnam War. That tomb in Arlington is not the only tomb marking unknown soldiers. There is a Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier located within Washington Square in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The memorial honors the thousands of soldiers who died during the American Revolutionary War, many of whom were buried in mass graves in the square. The tomb and Washington Square are part of Independence National Historical Park.

The memorial was first conceived in 1954 by the Washington Square Planning Committee and was completed in 1957. The monument was designed by architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh and includes an eternal flame and a bronze cast of Jean Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington as the monument's centerpiece. The tomb includes remains which were disinterred, after archeological examination, from beneath the square. The remains are that of a soldier, but it is uncertain if he was Colonial or British. An unknown number of bodies were buried beneath the square and the surrounding area. Remains are still occasionally found during construction and maintenance projects.

Engraved in the side of the tomb are these words:

"Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness"

"The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts of common dangers, suffering and success." (Washington Farewell Address, Sept. 17, 1796)

"In unmarked graves within this square lie thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington's Army who died of wounds and sickness during the Revolutionary War."

The plaque on the tomb reads:

"Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington's army who died to give you liberty."

This is not the only memorial housing the remains of an unknown Revolutionary War soldier. In the tiny cemetery behind a still-active Alexandria church, lies the grave of an unknown soldier of the American Revolutionary War.

He was found in his Revolutionary War uniform, buried in a munitions box that was unearthed during excavations in 1826. In 1929, the American Legion took up his cause and formalized an annual commemoration with readings and wreath-laying ceremonies that coincide each year with the Alexandria President’s Day ceremonies and festivities.

And there are more. This memorial is well marked but not as well known, tucked away on a side street yet perched over a busy highway. Blue signs point the way in West Bethlehem, but are missed by those hurrying by. The flagpole on the hillside overlooking Route 378 is only noticed by drivers who dare glance up. This is Bethlehem’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is the final resting place for some 500 of America’s earliest defenders.

Their exact numbers and location are a mystery. They are buried — and occasionally, accidentally found — under the roads, sidewalks, homes, and gardens in the neighborhood around First Avenue. From those houses, one can look across the valley through which the Monocracy Creek flows and see the buildings lining Main Street, the street where, more than two centuries ago, a Moravian dwelling was pressed into service as a war hospital, where carts arrived laden with hundreds of men sick and wounded in the fight for independence.

It was the winter of 1776, about six months after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in Easton, and just a few months after Washington’s army was driven from New York by British forces. Hospitals had been established in New Jersey and Philadelphia, but the threat of contagion made Gen. George Washington look north to the Lehigh Valley — new hospitals were established in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, according to information from the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History. It was the Single Brethren’s House that became the main hospital in the system.

Until that point, the Moravians who had settled in Bethlehem adhered to their peaceful ways and did not participate in the war effort. “The Moravians were pacifists,” late local historian Charles G. Hafner told The Express-Times in 2002. “They did not want these soldiers occupying their Brethren House, but what could they do?”

The large building at the end of Bethlehem’s Main Street was built in 1748, a dwelling for the single men of the Moravian community at the time, according to the website of Moravian College.  As a hospital, the brethren tended to patients while women made bandages, the medical history says. Before survivors were moved back to Philadelphia the following spring, 110 soldiers died and were buried on the hillside across the Monocracy Creek, less than half a mile away, in coffins made by Moravian carpenters.

The coffin-makers were not able to keep up the following year when the Continental Army returned after a terrible defeat. Philadelphia fell following the Battle of Brandywine in the fall of 1777, forcing evacuations and the re-establishment of hospitals outside the range of British troops. That meant a return to the prior facilities in the Lehigh Valley, and the Brethren’s House in particular.

Within weeks, there were 400 soldiers being treated in the 360-person-capacity Bethlehem house, with more arriving from subsequent battles. Some stayed in tents outside, though physicians tried to cram as many inside the building as possible, the Army medical history says. Near the end of December, some 50 wagons of men arrived, bringing the total number of sick and wounded to more than 700. Conditions deteriorated rapidly, and many began succumbing not to their wounds but to disease.

“The Brethren House, especially the crowded and unventilated attic floor, had become a reeking hole of indescribable filth,” wrote Bishop Joseph Levering in a historical work cited in a 2016 Morning Call story. “The intolerable stench polluted the air to some distance around it. A malignant, putrid fever broke and spread its contagion from ward to ward. The physicians were helpless, and the situation became demoralized.”

As Washington’s troops set up camp for the winter in Valley Forge, his wounded in Bethlehem required the Moravians to provide food, clothing, and blankets. Soldiers were also treated in farmhouses and other homes in the area. The Continental Congress recognized the Moravians’ efforts and called for the protection of their property.  The hospital remained in Bethlehem until the spring of 1778.

“We cannot imagine the pain and suffering of these men, many of whom were no more than 15 or 16,” said Hafner, the historian. “Remember, there were no anesthetics then, nothing to dull the pain. Amputation was frequently the only course of action…Under the darkness of night,” he said, “the dead would be brought to this burial ground.” With hundreds more dead than the previous winter, bodies were buried not in coffins but in trenches on the hillside, beneath what is now First Avenue but was then an open field on the outskirts of town.

As the area developed over time, the site was forgotten. Few records were kept identifying the dead — the Call report noted a language barrier between many Moravians and their patients and said that service records were destroyed when the British invaded Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812.

In 1892, more than 100 years after the soldiers were buried, the Sons of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque to honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Another memorial was dedicated in the 1930s by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and Pennsylvania historic groups. More have been added since.

The exact dimensions of the burial site are unknown. A Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office blog posits that Route 378 is the eastern boundary, but the others are unclear. The burial ground could be more than an acre. That means soldiers’ remains are still there, under the roads, sidewalks, homes and garden beds.

In February 1995, human remains were unearthed by a construction crew near the memorial for unknown soldiers. After the coroner determined the remains were very old, historians were called in to examine them and confirm if they were in fact Revolutionary War soldiers, according to the historic preservation office blog detailing that process.

During the study, remains of two more bodies were found, along with pieces of coffins. From the skeletons, they were able to determine they were three men — one an adolescent, one in his early 20s and the other in his 30s when they died, consistent with the makeup of the army at the time. That they were buried in coffins suggested that they died in the first winter the Brethren’s House was used as a hospital. The remains also showed no signs of trauma or other injuries, which means they likely died of disease.

“Although all of the evidence is circumstantial,” the blog post concludes, “we are confident that in all likelihood, these individuals are indeed Unknown Soldiers of the War for Independence, some of the first American soldiers.”

In 2019 at Lake George, New York, the remains of what are believed to be approximately 44 Continental Soldiers were uncovered during a construction project. Efforts are underway to ensure these soldiers get the full honor and respectful burial they deserve.

There are unknown Revolutionary War soldiers who have been found throughout the eastern United States. As we approach the 250th Anniversary of The American Revolution, remember these American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice to help form our Nation.


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