The year is 1995, the month February. A construction crew in Bethlehem is busily at work when it comes across something it had not expected, a skeleton. They went to the property owner on whose land it was located in historic Bethlehem’s Moravian heart. Perhaps fearful that it was about to become a crime scene with yellow tape everywhere, the property owner contacted city officials. But when the coroner’s office was done it came to a reassuring but puzzling conclusion: the skeleton was “very old” and had been buried a long time ago.
A crypt in the area had been dedicated in 1931, possibly part of celebrations that were being held nationally for the upcoming 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. It was a repository for bones of an unknown soldier, one of the roughly 500 Continental soldiers estimated to have died in the Moravian buildings that were used as hospitals during the Revolution. And so city officials contacted the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. In response the PHMC sent out two staff archaeologists, Dr. Dorothy Humpf and Mark Shaffer, from the Bureau of Historical Preservation to examine the site and the remains. In 2014 Shaffer wrote a piece on what they found. This story is based around the history of what they discovered.
It was a time, as Thomas Paine wrote, “that tried men’s souls.” The glowing words of the Declaration of Independence that resounded in so many ears in July 1776 seemed by December on the verge of becoming mere parchment and ink. Driven by a British Army, the super-power of the 18th century world, from Long Island across New Jersey, the Continental Army had collapsed in Pennsylvania. There would be some victories to be sure in the years of 1777 and 1778 but a lot of young men had to die to make them possible and most of them not in battle.
To judge from the Moravian diaries, Bethlehem in those days was both exciting and frightful. Members of Congress were coming and going. The British had occupied Philadelphia and they were on their way to the temporary capital of York. But it was the troop movements through the little town’s crowded streets that had caused the most concern. Washington was trying to hold the army together and keep a careful eye on General Lord Howe and the British Army in Philadelphia. He had no way of knowing that September that Lord Howe was more interested in spending a winter in the arms of his mistress, the wife of his quarter-master that the troops had nicknamed the Sultana, than fighting a war in the cold. He was sure that eventually that if he waited them out the rebels would see reason.
But the real impact of the war on Bethlehem was the turning of the Moravians’ communal buildings into makeshift hospitals. “On two occasions during the Revolutionary War,” writes Shaffer, “from December of 1776 until March of 1777 and again from September of 1777 to May of 1778, upon General Washington’s orders, his medical officers commandeered a large nearby communal building … for use as a military ‘hospital.’” That Moravian Bethlehem had the tallest, sturdiest buildings in Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia made them an obvious choice. Shaffer used quotation marks around the word hospital for a reason. Even the best medical facilities of the 18th century were little more than waiting rooms for death. And in the case of Bethlehem they were, despite the best efforts of the Moravians, many of whom must have died doing what they could to help tend to the sick and wounded, places to die.
On October 14, 1777, the Moravian diary had this to say about the arrival of the soldiers:
“Orders were received for the collection of clothing for the soldiers in the army, and General Woodford kindly protected us from lawless pillage. We made several collections of blankets for the destitute soldiers, also shoes, stockings and breeches for convalescents in the Hospital, many of whom had come here in rags swarming with vermin, while others during their stay were deprived of their all by their comrades.”
Overcrowding the Single Brethren House that one source said was built to hold 250 but “housed” 500, many others were put in tents around the building despite the fall chill and winter. And though people in the 18th century were accustomed to smells and odors that the 21st century is not, it is not hard to imagine they must have found them overpowering. In December, 1777 Dr. James Tilton of Delaware visited the hospital and left behind an account of a conversation he had there with a Dr. Samuel Finley of the hospital’s staff.
“All the doctors were of the opinion that only about 200 patients should have been admitted, whereas from five to seven hundred had been crowded into the building at times. To enable me to form some idea of the great mortality, he asked me whether I was acquainted with the Sixth Virginia Regiment, commanded by Captain Gibson, reputed to be one of the best in the army, and stated forty had been admitted, but not three returned or would return to their regiment, all the rest had to be buried. He had no hesitation in declaring that we lost from ten to twenty of camp diseases for one by weapons of the enemy.”
Most of these soldiers were young. Shaffer notes the comments of one British officer on some American POWs captured at the battle of Long Island in 1776:
“The rebel prisoners were in general, but very indifferently clothed. Few of them appeared to have a second shirt, nor did they appear to have washed themselves during the campaign. A great many of them were lads under 15 and old men and few had the appearance of soldiers. Their odd figures frequently excited the laughter of our soldiers.”
Once the British had left Philadelphia in 1778 Bethlehem was relieved of some of the pressure of taking care of the soldiers as they moved west to Reading. Over time if not totally forgotten the immense graveyard was not something that was on the front of the minds of citizens. The early 20th century developers were apparently unaware when they began to build houses in that vicinity.
The work by Humpf and Shaffer was apparently the first systematic study of the burial ground. “We visually examined a six-foot tall wall of earth which had been created by mechanical excavations into a sloping hillside,” Shaffer writes. “Soon we identified a second skeleton…We found this at a depth three feet below the current ground surface. We observed several foot and toe bones which had been exposed by the backhoe bucket.” It was not just human remains that Humpf and Shaffer were looking for. One of the things discovered is a certain type of nail that they identified as from the 18th century that may have been used in the coffins that once held the bodies. Because they were found near the remains of coffins, the archaeologists believe that they were among the dead who were buried from December 1776 to March 1777. Later, perhaps because the men were dying so fast, trenches were dug by guards who buried around 400 in a mass grave.
They also noted that these soldiers were slightly older than those found in other Revolutionary War grave sites. “One of whom was about 20 to 25 years old, the other appears 30 to 35 years at the time of his death,” Shaffer writes. The bodies showed no signs of traumatic wounds. “While written accounts indicate that typhoid and smallpox plagued the Bethlehem hospital, it is impossible to determine…whether these individuals died as a result of these or another highly contagious disease.”
On Memorial Day weekend of 1996 the city of Bethlehem together with Moravians, historical groups and other organizations had a re-interment ceremony at the site of the existing crypt along First Avenue. Members of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment, also known as “the Old Guard,” who also preside over the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, participated in this ceremony, which attracted several hundred spectators.