The skeletal remains of as many as eleven individuals have been discovered in a mass grave at Red Bank Battlefield in Gloucester County.
On June 26, 2022, human remains of Hessian soldiers were uncovered after resting for nearly two and a half centuries. The Hessians suffered their worst Revolutionary War defeat at the hands of outnumbered but-emboldened American defenders during the Battle of Red Bank on October 22, 1777.
The remarkable discovery of the mass grave, a rarity for battlefields during the American Revolution, was announced during a press briefing at the site on August 2.
“Red Bank Battlefield has always been an important part of Gloucester County and American history. We are excited to work with our great partners at Rowan University to continue to uncover more details about Gloucester County’s part of the American Revolution,” said Director Frank J. DiMarco, Gloucester County Board of Commissioners.
During one of Gloucester County’s Public Archeology Digs, a human femur was uncovered after resting for 245 years in a trench four-and-a-half feet deep. Additional excavation at the site, done by professionals with extraordinary detail to preserve the dignity of the war dead, uncovered more remains.
“Usually, our residents find things like pieces of medical equipment or weapons during public archaeology digs. To have discovered human remains may have been more than what our residents bargained for. Still, we are very excited to share this momentous occasion with them,” said Commissioner Jim Jefferson, Gloucester County Board of Commissioners’ liaison to Parks and Recreation.
A $19,000 grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission project, alongside an additional $30,000 in funding from the Gloucester County Board of Commissioners, allowed the archeological surveying of the trench and public education and outreach program. As a result, over four Public Archeology Digs this summer, more than 100 private citizens had the opportunity to dig at the site.
All the remains have been excavated and turned over to the New Jersey State Police Forensic Unit. Forensic anthropologists will extract DNA from the bones and teeth to identify their origin and analyze their biological data.
Dr. Jennifer Janofsky, Director of Red Bank Battlefield Park and Rowan University Public Historian, says that DNA analysis - including from additional items found during the archaeological dig, such as a uniform knee buckle containing human blood, musket balls, and other items found in the trench - may also help the team to identify the remains. In addition, it could lead to the discovery of descendants of those who lost their lives on the battlefield.
When the study of the remains is complete, they may eventually be reinterred at another site. Then the trench will be refilled, and the land will be incorporated into the park.
Victory at Fort Mercer
On Oct. 22, 1777, the Hessians, fighting for the British Crown, suffered approximately 377 casualties during the battle compared with fourteen American casualties. Crown forces went into battle with 2,000 soldiers. The Americans, integrated regiments of Black and white soldiers fighting for freedom side by side, numbered 500—the battalions composed chiefly of Rhode Island soldiers plus a New Jersey militia contingent.
The victory at Fort Mercer, located just south of Philadelphia, was a huge boost for American forces in the war for independence. The fort was a key defense for Americans to delay the British from advancing supplies up the Delaware River to Philadelphia.
Owned and maintained by Gloucester County, Red Bank Battlefield Park sits on 44 acres on a bluff above the Delaware River. Part of the Fort Mercer trench extended onto a quarter-acre site acquired by the county in 2020. American forces destroyed the fort itself in November of 1777.