The recent archeological dig at Gloucester County’s Red Bank Battlefield unearthed 14 skeletal remains of what are believed to be Hessian soldiers fighting for the British during the American Revolution. The findings have offered an opportunity to further understand not only how the war was fought and the type of damage it could inflict but the people whose lives ended that day in 1777.
The Battle of Red Bank was fought on October 22 of that year. While it was an American victory, the recent archeological discovery can’t help but force us to face man’s inhumanity to his fellow beings.
From the moment the Americans refused to surrender to the British in advance of the battle, it was agreed upon by both sides that there would be no quarter, a military term that meant being taken prisoner was not an option. Victory or death were the only two choices.
An eyewitness account of someone at the Battle of Red Bank, the Marquis de Chastellux, who would soon author a book of his experiences here in America, Travels in North America, told in chilling terms of “the deplorable spectacle of the dead and the dying…” Now the spectacle is being told through the remains of the soldiers.
In a New York Times article earlier this month, the description of one of the skeletons provides a haunting reminder of the circumstances of war. That former soldier, believed to be at the center of the attack on Fort Mercer, reveals three injuries that are identified as deriving from a musket ball, “a lead canister shot” and a “one-and-a-half-inch grapeshot.” The damage each inflicted is best left unmentioned.
This summer’s archeological finds are now in the hands of the New Jersey State Police forensic unit, according to the website of Rowan University, which had some of its students involved with the dig. It has already been verified that the first bone discovered does not belong to any recent death due to what the New York Times article said was “its advanced state of deterioration.”
The Rowan website reports that “forensic anthropologists are extracting DNA from the bones and teeth to identify their origin. Skeletal assessment, isotopic, genetic and radiological analyses also are 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 New York Times adds that “certain stable isotopes, and the presence of trace elements, can help determine where a person grew up and what that person’s diet and health were like later in life.”
Human remains aren’t the only discoveries at the site. The New York Times noted that “a row of buttons was found, laid out as if they had rested on a coat that was thrown into the trench and that subsequently rotted away.” The buttons, the newspaper said, apparently match the description of those on one of the Hessian regiments.
Other items uncovered include a British gold guinea dating from 1776, which the Inquirer reports was “a soldier’s monthly pay” at the time, brass buttons, a knee buckle with traces of blood and musket balls.
According to the Rowan website, “DNA analysis, including from the knee buckle containing blood, as well as musket balls that may have come in contact with bodies during battle, also may help the team to identify the remains…and even eventually find descendants of those who lost their lives on the battlefield.”
The Inquirer reports that the “nonhuman items from the dig eventually will be showcased somewhere in the park.” As for the human remains, they will be reburied in the future at some yet-to-be-determined location. And the trench, which has preserved these archeological findings for over two centuries, will again be filled in, its secrets appropriated and shared with a nation awaiting its 250th birthday.