NATIONAL PARK — A public archeological dig has turned up the remains of several Revolutionary War soldiers in a mass grave at Red Bank Battlefield Park.
Gloucester County officials announced the unexpected find at a news conference Tuesday morning alongside Rowan University staff, historians and forensic experts.
They said the remains of more than a dozen Hessian soldiers were discovered during a public dig on land the county purchased in 2020 adjacent to the Red Bank Battlefield Park. That property also was part of the battlefield surrounding what was once Fort Mercer, located along the Delaware River.
“On June 26 during the final hours of a public archaeology dig at the site of the battlefield’s Fort Mercer trench, a human femur was discovered,” explained Jennifer Janofsky, a Rowan University history professor and public historian who also is the Red Bank Battlefield Park director.
Additional excavation of the trench uncovered skeletal remains of what researchers believe are the remains of at least 13 Hessian soldiers killed on the battlefield on Oct. 22, 1777.
Hessians were German mercenaries who fought for Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.
Janofsky said all of the human remains are at the New Jersey State Police Forensic Lab for DNA and other analysis and identification that could possibly lead investigators to locate descendants of the soldiers who lost their lives.
“This find is a remarkable discovery because a mass grave was a rarity on battlefields during the American Revolution,” said Wade Catts, principal archeologist for South River Heritage Consulting of Newark, Delaware, who has been supervising the site work from the start.
The Hessians suffered as many as 377 casualties during the Battle of Red Bank in which Fort Mercer was successfully defended against some 2,000 British and Hessian troops by the outnumbered 500 American soldiers from Rhode Island the New Jersey Militia. Only 14 Americans were killed.
The 45-minute battle was a key early victory by the American revolutionaries but the worst defeat in terms of enemy casualties and wounded during the war, especially for the Hessians.The dig also uncovered items related to the Battle of Red Bank:
- A rare 1766 King George III gold guinea, which was the equivalent of a soldier’s salary for a month
- A knee buckle from a uniform containing fabric and human blood
- Pewter and brass buttons
- Musket balls and other ammunition
Some of those artifacts were unveiled at the news conference and were displayed again Wednesday when the public was invited to view the excavation at the riverfront park at 100 Hessian Avenue. The plan for the excavated trench of 10 feet by 13 feet and four and half feet deep is for it to be re-filled with earth.
More than 100 volunteers participated in the public dig, including the Gloucester County Archeological Society and Rowan University students.
Janofsky said it was the students who conceived and developed the archeological project and that the discoveries will result in the development of a new battlefield interpretive plan and removal of the fencing now protecting the excavation so the site can be used by the public and fully incorporated into the park.
Anthropologist Anna Delaney of the New Jersey State Police Forensic Unit said the bones are very fragile and brittle and are being cleaned and handled with the utmost care. She and Watts said some of the bones suffered what they described as battle wounds from weapons and that skulls will be X-rayed.
“Our goal also is to establish cause of death and to articulate as many individuals as possible (from the remains), ” she said.
Assisting Delaney is bio-archeologist Thomas Crist, a former Margate resident and Rutgers University graduate who now works at Utica University in New York.
He said the teeth that were found in the remains are very valuable can reveal the age, sex, and ancestry of the soldiers.
Historians describe the battle 245 years ago — a year after the U.S. colonies declared their independence from British rule — as a key defense for Americans in their fight to retain independence because it helped to delay the British from advancing up the Delaware River to Philadelphia.
The county-owned battleship park received a $19,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Commission to conduct a dig but the county government commission later contributed another $30,000 to extend the site work after the remains were found in what is now an excavated ditch measuring 10 feet by 13 feet.
In 2015, an earlier excavation at the battlefield unearthed the remnants of an 824-pound canon. Battle experts said the fragment was part of a larger cannon that experienced a breach failure just after the battle in 1777.
The fragment underwent conservation and later was placed on permanent display in the park. Relics from Hessian soldiers also were found in that first official dig at the park, but no human remains were located.