A Revolutionary War mass grave, hidden in plain sight
BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — The 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.
We do not know who they were but we do know how they ended up on this hillside, their graves hidden in plain sight.
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 to identify 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.
And occasionally, they resurface.
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.”
Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times, http://www.lehighvalleylive.com