Gone for a Soldier

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

“…The burial was located outside the redoubt wall, at the northernmost end of the fortification. The burial pit was basin shaped, but very shallow, such that both the head and feet were just below the surface. The individual was buried, face up, but both the skull and the feet were missing. Both may have been taken by wolves shortly after the battle. However, the skull may have been carried off as souvenirs in the nineteenth century…the individual in this case appears to have been a male in his twenties at the time of death. No buttons, shot, or rifle bullets were found. The absence of buttons probably indicates that the body was stripped before burial….”

Archeologist Dean Snow’s description of human remains discovered near Breyman’s Redoubt in 1974 is prosaic and clinical; as such reports need to be. However antiseptic an official report may read, the sad truth is that a young man died nearby in 1777, was stripped of all he had owned, received a quick burial and suffered desecration from scavenging animals, either canis lupus or homo sapiens.

In all likelihood, the man was a German auxiliary loaned out by his Prince to assist the British in putting down the American rebellion. The evident haste of his burial may have been due to American propaganda that depicted the Germans as baby-eating monsters: the American burial party may have felt he deserved no better. Perhaps more importantly, the battle may have ended but it was still a “hot war” with plenty more young men in their twenties who would pay the price of the conflict, and be put to rest quickly, without fanfare.

It was not that people at the time dishonored their dead. Military burials in the 18th century could be very solemn affairs as noted by the American chaplain Ammani Robbins:

“…There is something more than ordinarily solemn and touching in our funerals, especially an officer’s; swords and arms inverted, others with their arms folded across their breast stepping slowly to the beat of the muffled drums…”

On the Saratoga Battlefield, with one notable exception, burials were expedited and without any known ritual or service to send the departed on their way. Lieutenant Thomas Anbury, serving with the British 24th Regiment of Foot described his burial detail’s work in the aftermath of the battle on 19 September:

“…I, however, observed a little more decency than some parties had done, who left heads, legs, and arms above ground. No other distinction is paid to officer or soldier than that the officers are put in a hole by themselves. Our army abounded with young officers of the subaltern line and in the course of this unpleasant duty, three of the 20th Regiment were interred together, the age of the eldest not exceeding seventeen…”

It comes as no surprise to learn that the burials were soon disturbed:

“…large droves of wolves…came after the dead bodies: they were similar to a pack of hounds, for one setting up a cry, they all joined, and when they approached a corpse, their noise was hideous till they had scratched it up…”

The exception to the general trend of McBurial was Brigadier Simon Fraser who received full honors at his funeral on 8 October. Baroness von Riedesel recorded the care taken for Fraser’s body in her memoirs:

“…[Fraser’s] body was washed, wrapped in a sheet and put back into bed….We learned that General Burgoyne wanted to carry out General Fraser’s last wish and intended having him buried in the place designated at six o’clock…At precisely six o’clock the body was actually carried away, and we saw all the generals and their staffs take part in the funeral services on the hilltop. The English chaplain, Mr. Brudenel, held the services. [American] Cannon balls constantly flew around and over the heads of the mourners….”

On the same date two Americans were killed in the artillery duel that had added an element of danger to Fraser’s interment. The treatment of one soldier’s remains is a stark contrast to the ceremony and care for Brigadier Fraser, as witnessed by Sergeant Ambrose Collins of Thaddeus Cook’s Regiment of Connecticut Militia:

“…Two of our men were killed by a cannon ball. I was present when one of them was buried. A shallow grave was dug, a little grass thrown in, then the body, cut almost in two by a cannon ball, was laid in all bloody as he fell, then a little grass and the earth thrown in to fill up the grave…”

So, most burials at Saratoga Battlefield were rushed affairs, and often dug up by scavenging animals. With the end of the war, the area returned to farming, an activity that further disturbed the dead as an early 20th century resident, Hazel Farrell, recalled:

“We would be playing…and find bones. We didn’t know if they were Indian or soldier bones. Papa tried to tell people about it but no one would listen…I wish you could hear [the hired hands] cuss every time they plowed up a bone, and they’d say, ‘You kids throw that over against the woods’…”

There was no national cemetery to receive and guard the remains of the dead at Saratoga. Bones of soldiers were removed by scavenging animals, and even souvenir hunters. Those that remained on the battlefield often were scattered by agriculture. A few burials were discovered by archeologists and re-interred on the grounds of the visitor center.

More poignantly, it is probably unknowable how or if news of the death of common soldiers ever reached their loved ones. We can speculate that men from American militia units and perhaps Continental regiments might bring home with them the news to families of the death of a father, son or brother.

For the British or Germans, like the young man buried at Breyman’s Post there might never be any word of the fate of a family member.

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