Discovery at Red Bank

Discovery at Red Bank

Unexpectedly unearthing a historic battle’s human toll

It was the greatest upset victory of the American Revolution.

And yet, in a ditch four-and-a-half-feet deep just yards from a neighborhood of single-family homes, the partial skeletal remains of at least 15 individuals discovered last summer in a mass grave at Red Bank Battlefield Park tell a different story of the war—and its abject horror.

“We now have the opportunity to work with our visitors to understand the emotion, pain, loss—and absolute horror—of war,” said Jennifer Janofsky, Ph.D., the Megan Giordano Fellow in Public History at Rowan and the director of Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park.

The facts of the Battle of Red Bank are well-documented in history—at least on the American side. On Oct. 22, 1777, an outnumbered but emboldened Continental Army fighting force led by Col. Christopher Greene successfully defended Fort Mercer against Hessian soldiers who were fighting for the British Crown. The Hessians, some 2,400 strong, were attempting to capture the fort to allow the Royal Navy to reach Philadelphia.

But Greene’s force, which included 500 members of two integrated Rhode Island regiments, Black, Native American, and white soldiers fighting side by side, defeated the Hessians. The Hessians suffered 377 casualties, including more than 80 killed. The 14 Americans killed at the battlefield are memorialized—by name—on a plaque at the 44-acre park.

The Hessians have no such memorial. But the summer 2022 discovery of the remains, which researchers believe are Hessians, give Janofsky, her fellow researchers—and, ultimately, the public—the opportunity to learn more about the soldiers who died in battle on foreign soil.

Working with Janofsky and Wade Catts, project archaeologist and a Rowan adjunct professor, a “dream team” of experts that includes historians, forensic specialists, archaeologists and others are contributing their expertise and resources to help with the project.

Their work may help put some names—and perhaps even a face or two—to the men whose remains were tossed unceremoniously into the mass grave some 245 years ago. Researchers are hopeful their work may ultimately help them track down some living descendants of those killed in the battle.

“There were probably very few people at home who knew what happened to them,” Catts said of the Hessians. “If we’re able to get any connection of who they are to a modern population, we’d be very pleased to be able to do that.”

At the New Jersey State Police Forensic Unit, Anna Delaney is leading forensic anthropologists who are working on physical evidence in the lab, extracting DNA from the bones and teeth to identify their origin.
Skeletal assessment, isotopic, genetic and radiological studies are ongoing to provide in-depth analysis of the human remains and to gather biological data and indicators of life history, health, disease and other factors.

“There’s a lot of forensic work to get their entire life story,” said Delaney, noting that the remains, covered by wet soil for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, are fragile. Two recovered mandibles, she said, are being held together by roots and vines.

A blood residue test turned up several items that tested presumptive for blood, giving scientists another source of possible DNA information.

Examination of teeth can help determine a person’s age, diet and even genomic sequencing. Earlier this year, Delaney sent five samples of the teeth to a forensic genome sequencing service lab in California that specializes in highly degraded remains.

Moreover, forensic analysts are attempting to use crania excavated from the trench to do two-dimensional reconstructions of the facial features of two individuals based on their eye sockets, noses and mouths.

“There are only two of them that we can see,” said Delaney. “We will follow what the skulls are telling us and we will sculpt faces that are of likenesses.”

Delaney is working with Thomas Crist, a Utica College professor who is one of the preeminent forensic anthropologists in the United States. Crist, who has been to the Red Bank site, directs an annual forensic anthropology/bioarcheology field school in Albania and Romania.

Janofsky expects early results from extensive forensic testing to be available sometime next year.

Meanwhile, project historian Robert Selig, a former consultant to the National Park Service, is working to try to identify the Hessian soldiers. Altogether, Selig said, 19,000 Hessians fought in the Revolutionary War.

Starting with military history and then searching for information on the fates of individual soldiers, Selig is examining a host of sources, including some at the Archives School Marlburg, the principal center for archivists in Germany.

“The Battle of Red Bank was 40 minutes. And it was a doozy,” said Selig. “We know the names of the Americans. But who are the Hessians buried in the trench? My part of the project is to get names for as many of them as possible.

“If we even come up with two or three names, that would be wonderful because I don’t think that’s ever been done.”

The remains were discovered last summer during public archaeology digs organized by the park and funded through grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission and Gloucester County.

The digs on the quarter-acre parcel of land, which had been recently acquired by the county because of its historical significance, were held at a previously unexplored portion of Fort Mercer.

The goal was to search for material culture of the Revolutionary War and of Native Americans who lived on the land overlooking the Delaware River—items that would help tell the history of the site. The park attracts 200,000 visitors annually. More than 100 members of the public participated in the digs.

“Working with the public and getting them excited about the historical process is my goal,” Janofsky said. “To have people hold history—raw historical material—in their hands is an absolutely transformative moment.”
Remarkable finds—including musket balls, grape shot, buttons, gun flints, fragments of fabric or leather, canister shot, and uniform buckles—were discovered. Evoking exuberant cheers, the group also found an extremely rare 1766 gold King George III gold guinea, a soldier’s wages for
an entire month.

But then, a member of the public, a 50-year-old union electrician, found a bone. Delaney and other officials were called in and she determined the bone belonged to a human. The trench team then worked in unison to complete the gentle, reverent excavation of the remains. All remains were taken to the State Police Forensic Unit for analysis.

“We didn’t anticipate exhuming human remains,” Janofsky said. “That was not the goal of this.”

“It was very sobering to be in the bottom of that hole,” added Catts, president/principal archaeologist for South River Heritage Consulting in Delaware. “The original scope of the project was to sample the ditch and to actually learn something about the fort. There’s no map anywhere indicating that remains were buried there.”

The discovery of the remains—and the possible future identification of some of those who died in battle—will help tell the story of the Battle of Red Bank in a more balanced way, taking into account the experiences of the soldiers in battle and, also, the legacy of the conflict in the present day.

“If we can extract their stories, and if we can tell their stories, it lets us put a name to a face. And that, to me, is a very powerful moment in public history,” said Janofsky, who challenged her students in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences last spring to design concepts for a memorial to the Hessians.

Janofsky and Catts both are hoping the remains can be reinterred in the future at Red Bank, with a level of honor and respect the Hessian soldiers—an extraordinarily well-trained professional fighting force—deserve.

“These men went into this ditch with no sense of recognition of their humanity,” Catts said. “This is an opportunity to look at the common soldier who was part of this battle.

“There are 15 individuals who were in the bottom of that ditch who have a story. The bravery of the Hessian forces certainly is not in question at this site.”