This spring, a team of archaeologists and volunteers began painstakingly digging into the history of Fort Mercer, a Revolutionary War fort on the Delaware River that is now the centerpiece of Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, NJ
During the war, Continental Army soldiers were stationed at the fort to prevent the British and their Hessian mercenaries from supplying troops in nearby Philadelphia. On 22 October 1777, the army repulsed a major attack by Hessian forces. Little known today, the Battle of Red Bank was short and fierce, marking one of the worst defeats the Hessians suffered in the war.
The archaeologists were focused on excavating a trench that had been used to defend the fort during the battle. “My feeling was that we should look at the kind of trash that a garrison might throw away,” said Wade Catts, principal archaeologist at South River Heritage Consulting in Newark, Del. Mr. Catts led the dig with Jennifer Janofsky, director of the park and a historian at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ
Instead, around 2 p.m. on June 26, the last day of fieldwork, the team found a leg bone; they quickly determined that it had belonged to one of the attacking Hessians. It was the first human bone to be found at the site since 1904, when a new fence was built on the battlefield. Over the next few weeks, the group found the remains of 14 individuals, which promise to give researchers a detailed look at military life and death in that era. “I didn’t really think we were going to have a mass funeral,” Mr. Catts said.
On the day of the attack in 1777, the Hessians probably thought the same. The force of 2,300 mercenaries was led by Colonel Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop, a brave leader with a fiery temper, according to letters written by his officers. The fort was defended by only 534 soldiers, including members of the Sixth Virginia Regiment and the New Jersey Militia, as well as members of the First and Second Rhode Island Regiments, two of the nation’s first integrated military units. Forty-eight of the American soldiers were black; the regiments also included Indians from the Narragansett people.
Colonel von Donop was sure of victory. Fort Mercer “will be Fort Donop or I shall be dead,” he wrote to General William Howe, commander of the British military forces. When the Hessians arrived at the fort, Colonel von Donop sent an officer to ask the Americans to surrender. “The King of England orders his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms,” the demand read. “If they stand in battle, no quarter will be given.”
The American commander, Colonel Christopher Greene, soon responded: The Americans accepted the challenge, and no quarter was to be taken on either side. The fighting began at 4 p.m. From the river, 13 galleys from the Pennsylvania Navy immediately bombarded the Hessians with cannon fire, and the soldiers inside Fort Mercer opened up with muskets and 14 cannons of their own. Two battalions and one regiment of Hessian soldiers advanced through the barrage. Their attack was slowed by trees that had been cut down; branches had been ground and stacked in a line around the fort. The match lasted only 75 minutes; when it was over, 377 Hessian soldiers—and only 14 Americans—were dead.
The horror of that afternoon soon became apparent to the archaeologists. From an excavation pit 10 feet wide, 30 feet long and four and a half feet deep, they found 14 skulls and many other human bones. Mr. Catts believes that the soldiers belonged to the Regiment von Mirbach and that they were in the center of the Hessian formations during the attack. The injuries to one soldier, Mr. Catts said, included “a musket ball in the lower back above where his pelvis should be; a lead canister shot in the middle of his back, where he had no more thoracic vertebra; and then a one-and-a-half-inch iron grape shot that looks appeared to have taken off his left arm.”
Dr. Janofsky noted that the ships on the river fired chain shot and bar shot at the Hessians, ammunition designed to destroy a ship’s rigging. “These guys were hit with all kinds of things,” Mr. Catts said. “What a terrible place this would have been.”
According to accounts written by surviving Hessian officers, most of the 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. “It is painful for me to lose so many good people, I cannot describe it and I have not recovered from it,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig Johann Adolph von Wurmb, who took part in the assault, a few days later. . “The tragedy of our poor wounded here in America cannot be described without shedding tears, and those who remain with the enemy have no help.”
That night, a group of American soldiers set out to repair some of the defenses. A voice called from the battlefield: “Whoever you are, get me out of here.” It was Colonel von Donop, who had been shot in the hip.
According to Captain Thomas Antoine Mauduit du Plessis, the French engineer leading the group, an American soldier called out, “Well now, is it agreed that no quarter will be given?” The colonel replied: “I am in your hands. You can take revenge.” The Americans brought him into the fort and cared for him until he died a week later.
The rest of the Hessian wounded remained where they lay until the next day, when American soldiers were tasked with burying the dead. The ditch in front of the fort may have been an easy place to dispose of the bodies, Dr. Janofsky said. “Are we looking at someone who was shot, dead and buried?” she said. “Or are we looking at what the burial party did on October 23, 1777, which was essentially throwing bodies down a convenient hole?”
The first human bone found, a femur, was found in the pit by Joe Reilly, a self-described history geek and volunteer, and Wayne Wilson, another volunteer excavator. As soon as it appeared, all digging stopped – the standard procedure when human bones are found. Anna Delaney, a forensic anthropologist for the New Jersey State Police, was called, and she determined that the femur did not belong to someone who had recently died. The advanced state of deterioration made it obvious, she said.
Over the next few weeks, Delaney helped remove all human remains from the site and stored them in her lab, where they will be analyzed and, hopefully, will begin to reveal details about the soldiers’ lives. She and Thomas Crist, a forensic anthropologist at Utica University who has worked with Revolutionary War remains, plan to study the chemical makeup of the bones. Certain stable isotopes, and the presence of trace elements, can help determine where a person grew up and what their diet and health was like later in life.
Mrs. Delaney and Dr. Crist also hope to recover DNA from the bones and from traces of blood on some of the artifacts. Genetic analysis can allow researchers to reconstruct soldiers’ family trees and learn their identities, Delaney said: “To be able to give one of these soldiers their name back, to give something back to their family, I think is actually the most exciting part of the whole process.” is completed, the bones will be reburied in a location yet to be determined.
Some of the objects recovered from the site tell their own stories. A row of buttons was found, laid out as if they had rested on a coat that had been thrown into the ditch and then rotted away. The buttons fit the description of those on the uniforms of the Regiment von Mirbach, Dr. Janofsky said. She suspects that the coat may have been used to transport severed body parts to the ditch.
Another intriguing item found at the site was a British gold coin, worth about a month’s pay for the average soldier, which Mr Catts believes may have belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Rudolf von Schieck, who commanded the Hessian regiment and died in battle.
For Dr. Janofsky, the human remains add poignancy to the story of the battle. Among the dead was a man aged between 17 and 19, the same age as many of her history students. “Very few of us have seen the violence on the battlefield, and that’s what we’ve seen in the last few months,” she said. “I feel we have a duty to help our visitors understand that moment.”