Sunday, May 27, 2018

From the archives: Remembering the Soldiers Who Didn't Die in Combat

Sunday, May 27, 2018
Susan reporting,

I'm re-running this post, written last year, because the Museum of the American Revolution is repeating their excellent Memorial Day programs, and offering free admission to veterans, active, and retired military for the weekend. They are also once again providing carnations to place at the memorials in nearby Washington Square in Independence National Historical Park. More information here

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 either at the small monument honoring the thousands of unknown soldiers and sailors buried there, or at the larger Tomb of he Unknown Soldier of the Revolution. 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 might have been 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.


Susan Cuss said...

Lest We Forget

from Suz

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this. It's well that we remember. I'm also thinking of the many soldiers and civilians who died aboard the British prison ships. I have no doubt their bodies were simply dumped overboard.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed seeing the "Nerdy History Person" nomenclature. I know you were going for a catchy title at the creation of the blog, but I've always cringed at the "girls" part. and I always have to explain to people that it's really a very great site, wonderful info, and that you all must have just decided on the title to be eye-catching. And you couldn't change it now if you wanted to -- but it was fun seeing the NHP note. and of course, it is so inclusive, which we all know is so important these days! One day it will be "Nerdy History Non-binary, Gender Orientation Fluid, Age-array, Multi-cultural/racial.." Takes up a lot of space, eh? thanks as always for your work for all of we Whoevers!

Holly Sheen said...

Thank you for this. Very moving.

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