They came from farms, villages and towns in the colonies of a new land. Most had never been more than a few miles from their home. As in all wars, they were teenagers and young men.
They responded to a call for liberty and freedom and marched toward fighting in places they knew only by name: Lexington, Concord and Boston. They travelled by foot, walking from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and beyond. Carrying their own muskets, they sought the excitement of revolution.
More than 500 of them would draw their final breath in the general hospital, homes, inns and makeshift tents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. They were buried hurriedly in unmarked graves with no pomp or ceremony. Their names lost to history.
Bethlehem is believed to be one of the largest final resting places of American Revolutionary War soldiers.
Atop their bones, a city was built and a nation grew. Nearly 240 years later, their graves remain unmarked, their names a mystery. We know where they served — Long Island, Manhattan, Harlem Heights, White Plains, Fort Washington, Princeton, Trenton, Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown, Whitemarsh and Valley Forge – and we know where they died. The world has long known what they did.
The then-small village of Bethlehem twice served as General Field Hospital of the Continental Army. Sick and wounded soldiers came to Bethlehem. And, at least 500 of those American Patriots never left, remaining buried in unmarked graves, primarily on a wooded hillside just west of the Monocacy Creek. They were unceremoniously and ignobly buried, at first in wooden boxes, and then, when the deaths came too regularly often due to disease, in large open trenches. All but a handful of their names are lost to the ages.
Those unknown soldiers on the hillside of west Bethlehem went unnoted until Bethlehem’s sesquicentennial in 1892 when a small stone was placed at the top of the hill on First Avenue. On Dec. 3, 1922, the Daughters of the American Revolution dedicated a slightly bigger memorial at the same spot. This still remains all that marks what they did and where they lay. Construction or renovations of homes at the top of the hill have at times unearthed bones believed to be those of the soldiers.
Today, as part of Bethlehem’s 275 Anniversary in 2016, a proper memorial will be built in in a prominent location in the Moravian Industrial Quarters along the Monocacy Creek, looking out at Bethlehem’s Patriot Hill. It will tell the story of these men, along with the role of Bethlehem and the Moravians in the American Revolution. In doing so, this community will at last meet the request of Moravian Bishop Levering, who in 1892 wrote the following passage to future readers:
“In the unmarked rows on that hillside, the dust of those hundreds who sacrificed their lives on the altar of the young Nation moldered forgotten, until a town began to occupy the fields in which the plowshare had long turned the soil over their graves, and men, in digging deeper to build houses, came upon the residue of their bones. A modest stone inscribed with a brief story of the historic spot reminds the passerby, since the year of Bethlehem’s sesquicentennial, that it should be set apart as holy ground. Perhaps, before a full 150 years will have passed since those graves were dug, a sightly monument to the memory of those unnamed dead will have taken the place of the little marker, with the space about it that has not yet been invaded by the pick and mattock, left sacred for the grass to grow and the flowers to bloom over their resting places, no more to be disturbed.”
Please join the cause to help us make sure they are forgotten no more.