“What a horrible place that would have been”

That spring, a team of archaeologists and volunteers began meticulously researching 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 discourage the British and their Hessian mercenary allies from resupplying troops in nearby Philadelphia. On October 22, 1777, the army repelled a major attack by the Hessian forces. The now little-known Battle of the Red Shore was brief and gruesome, and marked one of the worst defeats suffered by the Hessians in the war.

Archaeologists focused on digging a ditch that had been used to defend the fort during the battle. “My feeling was that we were looking at the kind of garbage a garrison could dump,” said Wade Catts, senior archaeologist at South River Heritage Consulting in Newark, Delaware. Mr. Catts directed the dig with Jennifer Janofsky, the park’s director and historian at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ

Instead, around 2 p.m. on June 26, the last day of field work, the team found a leg bone; They quickly realized that it had belonged to one of the attacking Hessians. It was the first human bone found at the site since 1904, when a new fence was erected on the battlefield. Over the next few weeks, the group recovered the remains of 14 people, promising scientists a detailed look at military life and death during this period. “I didn’t really think we were going to have a mass burial,” Mr. Catts said.

On the day of the attack in 1777, the Hessians certainly felt the same way. The force of 2,300 mercenaries was, according to letters from his officers, led by Colonel Carl Emil Ulrich von Donop, a courageous leader with a fiery temper. The fort was defended by just 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 country’s first integrated military units. Forty-eight of the American soldiers were black; The regiments also included Narragansett Indians.

Colonel von Donop was sure of victory. Fort Mercer “will be Fort Donop or I will be dead,” he wrote to General William Howe, commander of the British forces. When the Hessians arrived at the fort, Colonel von Donop sent an officer to urge the Americans to surrender. “The King of England orders his rebellious subjects to lay down their arms,” ​​the statement said. “If they survive the fight, they will be given no quarter.”

The American commander, Col. Christopher Greene, soon replied: The Americans accepted the challenge, and no quarter should be shown on either side. Fighting started at 4:00 p.m. From the river, 13 Pennsylvania Navy galleys immediately bombarded the Hessians with cannon fire, and the soldiers at Fort Mercer opened their own muskets and 14 guns. Two battalions and a regiment of Hessian soldiers advanced through the barrage. Their attack was slowed by felled trees; Branches had been sharpened and piled in a row around the fortress. The fight only lasted 75 minutes; When it was over, 377 Hessian soldiers – and only 14 Americans – were dead.

The horror of that afternoon soon became clear to archaeologists. From an excavation pit 10 feet wide, 30 feet long, and 4.5 feet deep, they recovered 14 skulls and numerous other human bones. Mr. Catts believes the soldiers belonged to von Mirbach’s regiment and were at the center of the Hessian formations during the attack. One soldier’s injuries, Mr. Catts said, included “a musket ball in the lower part of his back, above where his pelvis should have been; a lead canister shot in the middle of his back where his thoracic vertebrae was gone; and then an inch and a half iron canister which appears to have ripped off his left arm.”

dr Janofsky noted that the ships on the river fired chain and rod projectiles at the Hessians, ammunition designed to destroy a ship’s rigging. “These guys got hit by all sorts of things,” Mr. Catts said. “What a horrible place that would have been.”

According to reports from surviving Hessian officers, most of the wounded remained on the battlefield: the Hessians had not brought wagons to transport them, and the American soldiers remained in the fort for fear of another attack. “It pains me to lose so many good people lose, I cannot describe it and have not recovered from it,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Ludwig Johann Adolph von Wurmb, who was involved in the raid, a few days later. “The tragedy of our poor wounded here in America cannot be described without shedding tears, and those left with the enemy have no help.”

That night a group of American soldiers ventured 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 who led the group, an American soldier called out, “Well, is it agreed that no pardon will be given?” The Colonel replied, “I’m in your hands. You can take revenge.” The Americans brought him to the fort and cared for him until he died a week later.

The rest of the Hessian wounded were left there until the next day, where American soldiers were tasked with burying the dead. The moat in front of the fort may have been an easy place to dump the bodies, said Dr. Janofsky. “Are we looking at someone here who was shot, died and was buried?” she said. “Or shall we look at what the funeral society did on October 23, 1777, which essentially consisted of dumping bodies in a suitable hole?”

The first human bone recovered, a femur, was found in the dig pit of Joe Reilly, a self-proclaimed history nerd and volunteer, and Wayne Wilson, another digger volunteer. As soon as it surfaced, the digging stopped — standard procedure when human bones are found. Anna Delaney, the New Jersey State Police forensic anthropologist, was called in, and she determined that the femur did not belong to someone who had recently died. The advanced state of decay makes this obvious, she said.

Over the next few weeks, Ms. Delaney helped remove all human remains from the site and kept them in her lab where they will be analyzed and hopefully begin to reveal details about the soldiers’ lives. She and Thomas Crist, a forensic anthropologist at Utica University who has worked on 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 that person’s diet and health was like later in life.

Ms. Delaney and Dr. Crist also hope to recover DNA from the bones and from traces of blood on some of the artifacts. Genetic analysis could allow researchers to reconstruct the soldiers’ family trees and learn their identities, Ms Delaney said: “To be able to give one of these soldiers his name back, to give something back to his family, I think that’s really the kind of thing.” most exciting part of the whole process.” Once the analyzes are complete, the bones will be reburied at a location yet to be determined.

Some of the artifacts recovered on site tell their own story. A row of buttons was found, arranged as if they had rested on a coat that had been thrown into the ditch and subsequently left to rot. The buttons corresponded to the description of Mirbach’s regiment’s uniforms, said Dr. Janofsky. She suspects that body parts severed with the coat were transported into the ditch.

Another fascinating artefact found at the site was a British gold coin, worth about a month’s salary for an average soldier, which Mr. Catts believes may have belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Ernst Rudolf von Schieck, who commanded the Hessian regiment and in the US Kampf died.

for dr Janofsky’s human remains add poignancy to the story of the battle. Among the dead was a man 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 been looking at for the past few months,” she said. “I feel like we’re charged with helping our visitors understand this moment.”

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