Sunday, May 28, 2017

Remembering the Soldiers Who Didn't Die in Combat

Sunday, May 28, 2017
Susan reporting,

Unlike many who live in the Philadelphia area, I haven't spent this weekend - the official kick-off to summer - "down the shore." Instead I returned to the still-new Museum of the American Revolution, one of my favorite places in the city. To my surprise, I had plenty of company. The museum was very crowded with families, a fine and heartening sight to a Nerdy History Person. There's never been a more urgent time in American history to learn about our country's founding, and how the responsibilities that were granted to citizens in 1776 are equally important for us today.

Part of the Museum's observation of the Memorial Day weekend was a quiet reminder that not all those who gave their lives for the Revolution did so in battle. Only a few blocks away from the Museum is the site of a mass grave where Continental soldiers were buried by the British then occupying the city. In 1777, John Adams described his visit to the site in a letter to his wife Abigail:

"I have spent an Hour, this Morning, in the Congregation of the dead. I took a Walk into the Potters Field, a burying Ground between the new stone Prison, and the Hospital, and I never in my whole Life was affected with so much Melancholly. The Graves of the soldiers, who have been buryed, in this Ground, from the Hospital and bettering House, during the Course of the last Summer, Fall, and Winter, dead of the small Pox, and Camp Diseases, are enough to make the Heart of stone to melt away. The Sexton told me, that upwards of two Thousand soldiers had been buried there, and by the Appearance of the Graves, and Trenches, it is most probably to me, he speaks within Bounds....Disease has Destroyed Ten Men for Us, where the Sword of the Enemy has killed one."

Adams was right. While the actual figures for the war are difficult to pin down today, it's estimated that approximately 8,000 Continental soldiers were killed in battle between 1775-1783, while another 17,000 died from diseases such as small pox, typhus, dysentery, and typhoid, often as British prisoners of war in the notoriously unhealthy prison ships.

Today the site of the potter's field lies beneath Washington Square, a tidy, tree-shaded park filled with babies in strollers and well-behaved dogs. In return for a small donation, the Museum offered visitors red and white carnations to take to the Square and place at the small monument honoring the thousands of unknown soldiers and sailors buried there. I did; that's my carnation in the photo above. I was surprised that there weren't any others, but it was early in the day, and I also suspect that other flowers were probably carried off by children unaware of the significance of their prizes.

No matter. As I stood before the marker, I thought of those long-ago men and boys and likely a few women, too, and of the families and sweethearts who never knew what became of them, beyond that they never returned home. Perhaps there was no "glory" to their deaths, whatever that may mean. Yet still they made the greatest sacrifice possible so that, 240 years later, this place could be a peaceful park filled with children. A single carnation doesn't begin to be enough thanks, does it?

John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1777, from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to see the entire original letter plus a transcript.
Above: Monument to the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, Washington Square, Philadelphia. Photograph ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.

12 comments:

Elisa Jenkins said...

Thank you so much for this lovely tribute. Very touching and moving.

Hels said...

That is so true. The young men who died from diseases like typhoid, often as British prisoners of war in nasty prison ships, were rarely memorialised in stone. Even though their families were just as devastated as the parents and widows of those who died by canon fire.

I faced the same problem when examining the young men killed in the coal mines of World War Two Britain. Conscripted by the army against their will to work underground, many died of lung infections or collapsed walls. Yet for many decades, there was no memorial.

Quinn said...

An important post today, and one that brought tears to my eyes.

Judith Brandes said...

Thank you for "Remembering the Soldiers Who Didn't Die in Combat." I am the widow of a U.S. soldier who survived driving an ambulance in France and Belgium during WW II.

Rosalie said...

Beautifully expressed. Thank you for this. Rosalie

Becky said...

So terribly sad. You gave those young men your beautiful words along with the flower. Thank you. Becky

Credo2065 said...

Thank you for this beautiful tribute. We are all still connected to them that gave their lives, and we remember.

Annette Naish said...

Thank you so much for this post. I had family who were in the war, and the fate of everyone is known. But, for all those who were unknown, I thank you. Isn't it sad that the fate of anyone whose life ended because of that war, or any war, would be unknown. And your one carnation is a lovely remembrance.

Patti Myers said...

An important post. Thank you.

Rosefolly said...

I always enjoy your posts. But honestly, this one is my favorite so far. So moving.

Anonymous said...

You write like such a dream. No wonder I can't wait to read what you do with Alex & Betsy Hamilton's story.

Christina Spikloser said...

Thank you!

 
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