Whose broad stripes and bright stars...
It is unknown just how many people lost their lives over the course of the eight years devoted to establishing an independent United States. 6,824 American soldiers are estimated to have died in battle. Add to that a startling 17,000 who died from wounds and diseases during their service in the Revolutionary War, with approximately 10,000 of those dying as a result of the wretched conditions they endured as prisoners on British ships in New York. The resulting conservative figure is a minimum of 24,000 American casualties over the course of the war.
But what happened to the fallen soldiers who died during the War for Independence?
To answer this question, we have to remember that when a soldier was killed in the Revolutionary war, the convention was to bury the soldier as soon as possible. There’s even a legend from the Battle of Bunker Hill referencing this custom. As the story goes, at the very beginning of the battle, a soldier was killed by cannon fire. Colonel Prescott ordered that the fallen soldier be buried quickly to protect the morale of the American troops. The deceased man’s name is disputed, but many accounts of have it that he was Asa Pollard from Billerica, Massachusetts. Despite the order for a discreet burial, many other soldiers volunteered to assist, and soon the first fatality of Bunker Hill rapidly became an impromptu battlefield funeral service. The legend speaks volumes for the unassailable camaraderie of American forces during the War for Independence.
Patriotic lore aside, military burials during the War for Independence were typically less ceremonious, and much more utilitarian. Burial was most convenient when battles would take place in or near a town with a cemetery, in which case the fallen soldiers would be sent into the town to be buried. One of the largest such cemeteries is the Old Salem Burying Ground in New York, where many of the casualties from the Battle of Saratoga were buried. If the deceased was to be sent home, or if a fallen allied or British soldier had to be shipped overseas for burial, he would possibly be preserved in some form of liquor – most commonly rum, but sometimes brandy wine. If he had been a sailor, he would likely be sewn into his hammock with a weight, usually cannon ammunition, and thrown overboard. In naval battles during the war, it was not uncommon for sailors to simply push their war dead into the ocean for the sake of keeping the deck clear of bodies.
Unfortunately, it was not usually practical to send casualties to a cemetery, and sending the body home to their family was only possible if the soldier had been particularly wealthy, and sometimes only if his family had already paid for the process. If the soldier had been high-ranking, he would most likely be buried on the battlefield in his own marked grave, which would allow for his body to be recovered later. In most cases, especially for enlisted troops, soldiers would be buried in a mass grave on the battlefield, not far from where they fell. Many trenches dug during the war were repurposed for burials when the battle was over. As was the case even during the Civil War, bodies were sometimes exhumed months later for a family burial with customary funeral rites, but by and large, the families of these soldiers could not afford to have them disinterred and returned home for a burial, and many of them remain in these mass graves, sometimes unmarked. Although many of these wartime graves have been found, some have yet to be discovered.
To this day, there are multitudes of both American and British soldiers in unmarked graves throughout the United States, in some cases even on private property, and often unbeknownst to the owner. In Bethlehem Pennsylvania, the remains of several continental soldiers were found under a small construction site. Upon discovering the remains, the property owner halted the construction, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission sent a team of archeologists to excavate the property. They were able to confirm that this was a burial site for a makeshift hospital where soldiers had been treated during the Revolutionary war, and that 500 men had been buried there! Similar clusters of remains have been found near towns and cities that saw heavy action. The most well known collection of unidentified remains from the War for Independence are in Philadelphia’s Washington Square, where a war memorial is dedicated to the mass graves discovered in the park. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution can be found there, donning a statue of George Washington and sheltering the remains of a soldier who fell during the war. It is unknown just how many people are buried in the park, and sometimes more remains are discovered during maintenance or construction projects. The side of the monument reads “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”
While you and your family are enjoying the upcoming Independence Day festivities, be sure to take a moment to reflect on all of the anonymous soldiers laid to rest where they fell so that we could call ourselves Americans and forge a national identity all our own. Men who considered their countrymen their brothers and laid down their lives and their names to leave us a legacy of freedom that we have the privilege of celebrating centuries later.