Archaeologists were actually about to call it a day when someone found a femur. The team, led by Rowan University history professor Jennifer Janofsky, studied an ancient trench system in the settlement of Red Bank, New Jersey, which was part of Fort Mercer—the site of a historic Revolutionary War battle. The group had already found hundreds of artifacts, including a rare 1766 gold coin. In the end, the bone found experts discovered a mass grave, which contained the remains of 13 people.
“We didn’t expect to dig up human remains. That was not the purpose of the whole thing,” Janofsky said in a press release from the university. The grave was not marked on any map. Archaeologists suspect that the dead are German soldiers, whom they call “Hessians” – Hessen. The term is often used interchangeably in the United States to refer to German soldiers who fought on the British side in the American Revolutionary War.
In order to quell the revolution in their colonies since 1775, the English crown strengthened its forces with troops from foreign powers. To this end, they concluded – as was still common in the 18th century – contracts with the German princes on so-called subsidies, i.e. obligations to provide support. Until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, approximately 30,000 German soldiers served the English king in this way during the war. They came from six German states, with the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel providing the largest contingent. With 15 regiments, his trained infantrymen landed in the United States in 1776. At least 2,300 people lost their lives in the war. There are probably a good dozen of them in a mass grave in New Jersey.
A Hessian-Kassel army under the command of Karl Emil von Donop took part in the spectacular Battle of the Red Bank in October 1777. The British had previously defeated the Americans at Germantown in Philadelphia, turning the city into a large military camp. He then began securing the strategically important but difficult to navigate Delaware River. The revolutionaries established themselves in two forts on its banks to the south of the city. At the smaller Fort Mercer, there were about 400 soldiers, in front of them was von Donop’s 2,000-strong army – a clear superiority.
On 22 October, British warships opened fire on Fort Mercer and the Hessians charged at its walls – to their destruction. The slaughter lasted less than an hour, eventually killing 400 Germans, mortally wounded by Donop and the defenders holding the fort – with the loss of only 14 men. Although the Americans abandoned their positions a short time later and Philadelphia was defeated, the unexpected victory at Fort Mercer went down in history.
About 245 years later, the bones of the fallen show how fierce the battle was. Archaeologists discovered possible wounds from musket shots and buckshots. “This trench gives a very different sense of the brutality of war,” says leading archaeologist Wade Catts. Next, the skeletons of the dead have to be examined to find out who the men were.