J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

Graves on Bunker Hill?

I’m going to catch up on some of the recent Revolutionary news for a few says. Yesterday’s Boston Globe ran a story by Brian MacQuarrie about Colonial Williamsburg curator Erik Goldstein’s theory that a grave of British enlisted men killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill lies under some particular house lots in Charlestown.

Goldstein and his colleagues appear to be presenting their research at a meeting of the Geological Society of America’s Northeastern section in Portland later this month. The title of their paper is “Forgotten Landscapes: Geophysical-Based Reconstructions of the Northern Declivity During the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunkers Hill, Charlestown, Massachusetts,” and the abstract says:

In November 2008 a combined team of geologists, archaeologists and historians gathered to begin a research project on the site to locate the mass gravesites and exact position of the Colonial defensive structures. Armed with volumes of historical documentation, the team employed high-resolution ground penetrating radar to search for an area known as the “Northern Declivity”. British officers and 19th c. antiquaries reported this site as the location of one of the British mass grave and the northeastern end of the Colonial earthen breastwork.

Research on the site is ongoing and the team intends to expand its search to locate any of the American mass gravesites, reconstruct the shape of the redoubt and clarify nature of the fortifications connecting the breastwork and the rail fence. Additionally, the team intends to locate the 1775 shoreline of the Mystic River (along today’s Medford Street), site of the initial British attack. The research will be aided by topographic landscape reconstructions based on 2005 LiDAR and historic shoreline representations.
The detail of the Globe coverage I found most interesting appeared in the extensive graphics James Abundis of the newspaper created to accompany the story:
In the late 1830s, the effort to memorialized the historic battle with a granite monument ran low on funds. To raise money to complete it, organizers prepared 11 acres of the 15-acre site for sale and graded them for development.
Grading meant smoothing out the slope, possibly by moving landfill onto that ground. That buried any graves even more deeply in the soil, and might also affect the potential of ground-penetrating radar to identify possible burial sites.

That development also puts into perspective the controversies over commercial buildings and preservation near other, larger battlefield and historic sites, such as Petersburg and Valley Forge. The Bunker Hill Memorial Association sacrificed some of the land where had men fought and died in order to build its monument on the high ground. That compromise might make us more open to development near historic sites, or more worried about the permanent loss such development can produce.

In the early nineteenth century Boston, Charlestown, and other nearby communities were busy filling in land, smoothing steep hills, redirecting rivers, and building canals and dams. That allowed for the creation of busy factories and densely populated urban neighborhoods. The landscape of 1775 is almost completely hidden today.


Rob Velella said...

I wonder whatever happened with the Valley Forge development; I lived down the road when the controversy started. It's interesting to note, though, that the argument for preservation is about recreational open space, with the historical significance as a side note.

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that a lot of the real-estate developments that have become controversial around historical sites are on hold. Not because we’ve reached consensus on preservation, but because of the overall economy.

RJO said...

When I was at Bunker Hill a couple of years ago I remember asking if there was a marker somewhere to indicate Stark's position on the narrow shoreline at the American left. No one seemed to know where the spot would be today. (This was just the rangers on duty, and not any particular specialists.)

This was an important location as Stark kept the Americans from being rolled up from the left, as the British thought they would be in short order.

Anyone know where that spot would be today?

Rob Velella said...

I'll try not to be offended by the "rangers on duty... not any particular specialists" line! :)

Suaverico3 said...

Been looking for the grave of 18 your old William Lund of Dunstable, MA, felled at Bunker Hill. Where did all the American dead go? Were they buried right there or taken to their home towns?

J. L. Bell said...

The British won the Charlestown peninsula in the battle, so all the Americans left on the battlefield were in their hands. They buried those corpses in mass graves. A year later locals came back and disinterred some of those bodies, such as Dr. Joseph Warren, and buried them elsewhere. I suspect that most were reburied in Charlestown.

Americans who were wounded and got off the battlefield before the end and then died were either carried to their home towns or buried in Cambridge.

Renee said...

Well this is interesting. Maybe the dead on the hill (if bodies are what's really there) are Americans? How many do they think are in this "mass grave"? It was said that some Americans were disinterred and taken away to their own town cemeteries and it's assumed the rest were just left? I would venture to guess though that most of the bodies had been removed by family or friends.

My son and I were in Boston a couple of years ago, we visited Old North Church and went on the tour of the crypts under the church. I think there were about 6 of them down there. One was empty. (Cholera epidemic from 1800's). The other two I don't remember who was in them or why they were there, but I do recall they were filled later than the American Revolution. The last 3 though, we were told were full of British soldiers from "Bunker" Hill. Now reason would have it that if all 6 crypts existed at the point of the battle, and the British army needed more than 3 crypts, they would have used more than 3 crypts. It's said that about 800 British soldiers were wounded and a good percent of these probably died of infection in the following months. So if there was a "mass die off" of soldiers in the weeks following the battle, maybe they are the ones in the crypts? IF (and this is a big if) the soldiers who died in the battle are actually buried on the hill?

Either way, I did some "number crunching" from a couple of different sites and figure about 325 British soldiers were killed in that battle. Which if only about 400 are estimated to have died total, that's about 50 from the American side. So if this "mass grave" is less than 50 bodies, they are probably American, if it's 100's of bodies, than it would be both sides mixed together. (From my understanding, that happened rather frequently in this war when the dead were buried in the field.)

Renee said...

Also I'd venture to bet that many of the identities of "Revolutionary War Soldier" seen on "forgotten" graves marked as such in local cemeteries, may not necessarily be American. They are probably mixed British and American soldiers. For to "give someone a Christian burial" in that era meant you buried them in the local church or community cemetery.

For this war in particular, spurred on by an event called in that day "The Great Awakening" (it was a religious revival that swept both the colonies and Great Britain) considerations of civility of who may be "a brother in the Lord" was rather important to everyone involved in this revival. There were a certain percent of colonists who though they supported the patriot cause in principle and were not pacifists, they refused to take up arms. The Great Awakening "hit" both the colonies and Britain pretty hard, but another entity it "hit" was the British army. On account of letter writing campaigns that the "Methodists" took part in "en-mass", everyone involved in this movement knew of the other parties (civilians in Britain, the colonies and soldiers in the British army). They were all aware of each other because they wrote letters back and forth to each other. So thus many of those who refused to fight based on religious conviction, did so because they felt it was a greater sin in the eyes of God to potentially kill a brother in the Lord than to fight over who will be our earthly king.

So thus I pose the question: Are they sure that what's on that hill are actually mass graves? I recall hearing about excavations that had been done in the 60's and 70's at Saratoga and the "shock" that they'd found very few bodies. Now the archaeologists at the time made the assumption that this was because this land had been farmed for many generations after the battle and when farmers dug up bones they just tossed them aside. Interestingly though, if this were the case, excavations would have still found human bones everywhere and they didn't. My hypothesis of Saratoga is either they are yet to find the graves of the soldiers if they were buried in the field at all, or more probable (knowing the beliefs of the era), all the dead were probably removed from the battlefield to be buried in some place deemed "more appropriate".