On the day prior to October 22, 1777, the Gloucester County site that housed Fort Mercer hadn’t yet become a battleground in the American Revolution. The fort, along with its surrounding land, was one of two citadels guarding the Delaware River to prevent the British from sailing supplies into Philadelphia.
Today, the area has become known as the Red Bank Battlefield, a National Park that serves as a reminder of an encounter between American and British forces that, in today’s world of ubiquitous betting, had the odds considerably in favor of the latter. But the gamble of war is just as unpredictable as a sporting event.
The Americans won the battle and entered the history books with their achievement. Or, more accurately, the names of the officers in charge of Fort Mercer did as well as their counterparts in the British military. The soldiers who engaged directly in the battle on each side have remained anonymous in history books for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, but that may be about to change, at least in part.
This summer’s archeological dig on the battle site yielded not only objects presumably carried or worn by the soldiers of the Battle of Red Bank but also the skeletal remains of 14 individuals who did not survive the encounter.
An August 9 New York Times article reports that the remains were unearthed from a portion of a trench measuring “10 feet wide, 30 feet long and four and a half feet deep” on property which, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article early this month, was purchased in 2020 by Gloucester County.
According to the New York Times, the 2022 dig’s discovery is “the first human bone to be found at the site since 1904…” The newly unearthed skulls and bones are believed to be those of Hessian soldiers, who served the British forces as mercenaries during the American Revolution.
Approximately 2,000 Hessians launched a two-prong attack on Fort Mercer at 4 p.m. on October 22, 1777, approaching from the northern and southern ends simultaneously. The American forces, which have variously been described as numbering anywhere from 400 to just over 500 soldiers, had taken precautions to help fend off the enemy by setting up an entanglement of trees to slow the progress of the Hessians, making them more vulnerable to American musket shots and cannon fire. Such ingenuity helped the Americans savor a victory.
However, the Fort Mercer troops, consisting of the New Jersey militia, the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments that included Black and Native American soldiers and the Sixth Regiment from Virginia, received some help from the Pennsylvania Navy on the Delaware River, according to the New York Times. Thirteen ships opened fire with cannons, and the newspaper’s description would indicate the Hessians had been caught in a crossfire by the time they reached the fort.
It took only 75 minutes for the battle to conclude. Sources differ on the exact amount of casualties each side suffered. Most of the recent articles maintain that 377 Hessians were killed in the Battle of Red Bank. That number sometimes includes wounded and can appear as high as 600. The total of American casualties has been consistently identified this year as 14.
The New York Times article reports that, “according to accounts written by surviving Hessian officers, most of [their] wounded were left on the battlefield: The Hessians had not brought wagons to carry them, and the American soldiers, fearing another attack, remained inside the fort.”
The newspaper explains that the Hessian casualties were buried the following day, noting that “the ditch in front of the fort may have been an easy place to dispose of the bodies…” n
Next Week: The Human Face of War