Thousands of men died across the 13 colonies fighting against the British crown.
While many were shot and killed, others died from the area’s harsh weather conditions, poor nutrition and diseases.
In Bucks County, there are several spots where soldiers took camp – including what is now Washington Crossing Historic Park, where Gen. George Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise the German soldiers known as Hessians hired by the British. The 1776 Christmas night surprise attack was a pivotal point during the American Revolution in favor of the revolutionaries.
Dozens of soldiers died before, during and after the crossing.
Of the many soldiers who died and were buried in the area, only 23 gravestones of unknown soldiers have been located at the park, which sits along the bank of the Delaware River.
During the early 1800s construction of the Delaware Canal, which runs through the park, workers discovered body remains. More remains also surfaced during other construction projects in the area of the Soldiers’ Graves site at the 500–acre park in Upper Makefield.
“It is speculated that the remains of 40 to 60 unknowns are buried throughout the Soldiers’ Graves area of the park,” according to the park’s website, www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing.
The 23 gravestones are a memorial and representation of the many soldiers who died during the American Revolution, said Ellen Petri, a founder of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park.
Disease and illness accounted for more lives to the Continental Army than battle casualties — estimated between 6,500 and 10,000, according to the website.
“Doctors saw a variety of illnesses from dysentery to smallpox and everything in between,” reads the website. “The common problems of malnutrition and exposure could have fatal results to soldiers on fatiguing marches and in camp environments.
“Though the military tried desperately throughout the war to regulate cleanliness of camps and bedding as well as provide what was considered a balanced diet in the form of rations, keeping the camps supplied with a proper diet and clean and substantial clothing was difficult throughout the war’s duration. In this environment, diseases ran through the camps at an alarming pace.”
The 23 graves lie along the banks of the Delaware River and are on a strip of wooded land filled with oak and pine trees, where wildlife call home. A tall flag pole bearing a large American flag flies over them. The base of the flagstaff is made out of native stone from the 13 colonies as a tribute to the soldiers, who could have been from any of the colonies, Petri said.
The rest of the site is decorated with flowers and well-manicured green grass. It’s a patriotic scene, a peaceful atmosphere. The Delaware Canal towpath runs passed the area. The memorial site was dedicated in May 1954.
But it hasn’t always beautifully kept throughout the years.
In 1998, Petri, a local resident, her husband and then one-year old son were taking a stroll down the towpath and they stopped in the area. A stone caught her eye that was covered by weeds. As they began clearing the weeds, they realized that they were gravestones, Petri said.
Two years later, her husband, Scott Petri, became the Republican state representative for the 178th district in the commonwealth. He took measures to have the area cleaned up.
The 23 gravestones are made out of the white marble, the same material as the sarcophagus for the tomb of the Unknowns – also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., she said.
“The Tomb sarcophagus was placed above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War I. West of the World War I Unknown are the crypts of unknowns from World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” reads the cemetery’s website, www.arlingtoncemetery.mil. “Those three graves are marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.”
Tomb Guard sentinels look after the tomb every hour of every day of the year, rain or shine. The guardsmen are elite members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is the oldest Army active-duty infantry unit serving since 1784.
There isn’t an elaborate Changing of the Guards ceremony at Washington Crossing Park for the American Revolution soldiers who gave their lives to help free the 13 colonies from British rule. There aren’t any guards at all.
It’s the members and donors of the Friends of Washington Crossing Park who look after the tombs.
The Friends group was created in 2010 after Pennsylvania budget cuts threatened to cancel the traditional reenactment of Washington’s crossing in 2009, tours and other programs. The group took upon themselves to keep the park running and provide tours and educational services with the help from donations and volunteers.
For the Friends group, it about preserving history for the locals and the country, Petri said.
Those buried might have been patients at the Thompson-Neely House, which served as a temporary military hospital. That house is still preserved today.
The house sits along a narrow two-lane road that winds north through bucolic Upper Bucks County. The Delaware Canal runs through the backyard of the house. The graves are in a small strip between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal. The house and the graves are a few hundred yards apart. To get to both locations, the only way is to driver down scenicRiver Road.
The Thompson-Neely House was owned by a well-to-do miller. Like many surrounding houses, the home of the Thompson and Neely families was turned into a hospital on December 1776 when Washington and his defeated army arrived toBucksCounty, many of them exhausted, malnourished, diseased and wounded.
The names of almost all of the soldiers who died at the Thompson-Neely house during that winter are unknown, according to Petri. It’s unknown the total of soldiers who died at the family home.
She added that the only soldier’s name that is known is of Capt.-Lt. James Moore, who is also buried at the park. He held that military title for nine months before dying at the Thompson-Neely house on Dec. 25, 1776 of camp fever. Before holding that rank, Moore was named Lt. of Lamb’s Company of New York artillery on June 1775.
Because names of soldiers involved in battles in the Washington Crossing area haven’t been well recorded, people who are interested in researching their family’s involvement in the war can visit the David Library of the American Revolution, which is a mile north of the Soldiers’Graves site.