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.