COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The 12 U.S. soldiers died in a pine forest in South Carolina in 1780, their bodies hastily buried beneath a thin layer of soil as their comrades fled from the British who appeared ready to put a quick and brutal end to the American Experiment.
But later this month, the carefully gathered and studied remains of the dozen unknown soldiers are getting a proper memorial and burial where they fell on the Camden battlefield. It’s part of the ongoing 250th anniversary commemorations of the Revolutionary War, which historians hope will highlight history that unites instead of divides.
“Our democracy is the oldest in the world — we don’t always get it right, and we have fought amongst ourselves more than I care to think about. But today, we are the most powerful country in the world. This is what you paid for with your life,” reads a letter from Air Force veteran Stacey Ferguson that was placed in the soldiers’ coffins in late March as she helped prepare the remains for reburial.
But the soldiers’ excavation and reburial is not only a memorial. It’s also illustrative of what modern science can do. Several of the fallen were teenagers, and one had a musket ball in his spine. Their names may soon be discovered through DNA testing and genealogy.
However, there are limits to what can be discovered. Time took its toll on the bodies. Bones that didn’t decompose to dust were scattered by wild animals, souvenir hunters and a mid-1900s farmer growing watermelons. Some of the remains showed scars from plows or other equipment. Consequentially, a gap in a bone might be a wound from a musket ball or a bayonet — or it might not be.
“For a lot of these people, we were not able to ascertain their exact cause of death. The skeletons are very fragmented,” said Madeline Atwell, a deputy coroner and forensic anthropologist with the Richland County Coroner’s Office.
Atwell’s office has spent several months helping other archeologists carefully dig up the soil at the site. When remains were found, they were draped in a U.S. flag and a veteran escorted them to a truck.
The remains have been X-rayed, tested and meticulously cataloged. They are now being prepared for a reburial ceremony worthy of what historians are calling America’s first heroes.
“They are truly America’s first veterans. We have a responsibility to honor their sacrifice,” said Doug Bostick, the CEO of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust.
A huge ceremony is planned in South Carolina from April 20-22. The soldiers will be honored at the national cemetery at Columbia’s Fort Jackson Army basic training base before heading on a 20-mile (32-kilometer) procession to Camden. They will lie in state for two days before horse-drawn caissons carry them back to their resting places.
A similar project is underway in New Jersey, where the bodies of as many as 12 German soldiers, called Hessians, who fought for the British were found in a mass grave at the Red Bank battlefield. In-depth testing, including DNA, are taking place there as well.
“History is an ongoing process. It’s not like we’ve written the Battle of Red Bank and we know everything that happened,” said Jennifer Janofsky, a public historian at Rowan University and director of Red Bank Battlefield Park. “We have a better opportunity to tell a more complete story of these individuals. Who were they? Why were they here? What was their fate?”
These soldiers are the lucky ones — they can be remembered.
Many of the 900 killed in Camden — one of the most disastrous battles for the U.S. — were left above ground, where wild animals and South Carolina’s heat and humidity removed any trace of them within a few years. Nearly every American soldier in the Battle of Camden on August, 16, 1780, either deserted or was killed, wounded or captured, historians have said.
But it was a turning point. The Continental Congress followed George Washington’s recommendation and appointed Nathanael Greene to take over the Southern armies. In a little more than a year, Greene’s forces pushed the British north into Virginia, eventually trapping them with French help at Yorktown, effectively winning the Revolutionary War.
Key to that victory was South Carolina, where Bostick and other Revolutionary War enthusiasts are trying to revive enthusiasm for the conflict. In the first half of the 1800s, historians gave South Carolina credit for winning the U.S. independence. Battles and skirmishes were fought in 42 of the state’s 46 counties.
But South Carolina rebelled again and lost the Civil War, and historians reacted to that attempt to tear apart what was knitted together in 1776.
“The South really got written out of the Revolutionary War in history books after the Civil War,” Bostick said.
Organizers of South Carolina’s commemorations of the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War are remembering battles, but also want to emphasize American ideals of democracy and the country’s ability to change, mature and acknowledge where it has fallen short.
Ferguson thought about that as she worked on her note to the long-fallen soldiers. As director of operations for the Historic Camden Foundation, she has been there every step of the way in preserving and honoring them. Among the total of 14 excavated bodies are one Scottish Highlander and one soldier from North Carolina, both of whom were fighting for the British. They will be honored as well.
The U.S. soldiers appear to be from Maryland or Delaware. Researchers are collecting DNA from them, and people who have ancestors who died in the Revolutionary War are already volunteering to give samples in hopes the soldiers won’t remain unknown forever. That work is still months or years away.
For now, Ferguson has helped other archeologists and Richland County Coroner’s Office employees carefully place the remains into handmade longleaf pine coffins, built from 18th century designs, which will be sealed with nails a blacksmith made individually.
They sprinkled dirt from the site where each man was recovered into the coffin. And they all signed Ferguson’s letter, in which the one-time Air Force officer told the soldiers they probably couldn’t fathom the power and riches their country gained in the 250 years since they died.
As an officer, Ferguson said she felt a duty to take care of them like she did the men and women in her command.
“You died a brave, yet horrible death far from home and loved ones. You were unceremoniously dumped into a shallow grave with so many more just like you. Now we will give you the hero’s farewell you deserve,” Ferguson wrote. “All I can say is thank you on behalf of a grateful nation.”