“…a mass grave on a Bethlehem hillside, hidden in plain sight”

Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.comBy Steve Novak | For lehighvalleylive.com

The following post originally published on Sept. 1, 2018.


The memorial is well marked but not as well known, tucked away on a side street yet perched over a busy highway.

Blue signs point the way in West Bethlehem, but are missed by those hurrying by. The flagpole on the hillside overlooking Route 378 is only noticed by drivers who dare glance up.

This is Bethlehem’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This is the final resting place for some 500 of America’s earliest defenders.

Their exact numbers and location are a mystery. They are buried — and occasionally, accidentally found — under the roads, sidewalks, homes and gardens in the neighborhood around First Avenue.

From those houses, one can look across the valley through which the Monocracy Creek flows and see the buildings lining Main Street, the street where, more than two centuries ago, a Moravian dwelling was pressed into service as a war hospital, where carts arrived laden with hundreds of men sick and wounded in the fight for independence.

We do not know who they were but we do know how they ended up on this hillside, their graves hidden in plain sight.

It was the winter of 1776, about six months after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in Easton, and just a few months after Washington’s army was driven from New York by British forces.

Hospitals had been established in New Jersey and Philadelphia, but the threat of contagion made Gen. George Washington look north to the Lehigh Valley — new hospitals were established in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, according to information from the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Office of Medical History.

It was the Single Brethren’s House that became the main hospital in the system.

Until that point, the Moravians who had settled in Bethlehem adhered to their peaceful ways and did not participate in the war effort.

“The Moravians were pacifists,” late local historian Charles G. Hafner told The Express-Times in 2002. “They did not want these soldiers occupying their Brethren House, but what could they do?”

The large building at the end of Bethlehem’s Main Street was built in 1748, a dwelling for the single men of the Moravian community at the time, according to the website of Moravian College.

As a hospital, the brethren tended to patients while women made bandages, the medical history says. Before survivors were moved back to Philadelphia the following spring, 110 soldiers died and were buried on the hillside across the Monocracy Creek, less than half a mile away, in coffins made by Moravian carpenters.

The coffin-makers were not able to keep up the following year, when the Continental Army returned after a terrible defeat.

Philadelphia fell following the Battle of Brandywine in the fall of 1777, forcing evacuations and the re-establishment of hospitals outside the range of British troops. That meant a return to the prior facilities in the Lehigh Valley, and the Brethren’s House in particular.

Within weeks, there were 400 soldiers being treated in the 360-person-capacity Bethlehem house, with more arriving from subsequent battles. Some stayed in tents outside, though physicians tried to cram as many inside the building as possible, the Army medical history says. Near the end of December, some 50 wagons of men arrived, bringing the total number of sick and wounded to more than 700.

Conditions deteriorated rapidly, and many began succumbing not to their wounds but to disease.

“The Brethren House, especially the crowded and unventilated attic floor, had become a reeking hole of indescribable filth,” wrote Bishop Joseph Levering in a historical work cited in a 2016 Morning Call story. “The intolerable stench polluted the air to some distance around it. A malignant, putrid fever broke and spread its contagion from ward to ward. The physicians were helpless and the situation became demoralized.”

As Washington’s troops set up camp for the winter in Valley Forge, his wounded in Bethlehem required the Moravians to provide food, clothing and blankets. Soldiers were also treated in farmhouses and other homes in the area. The Continental Congress recognized the Moravians’ efforts and called for the protection of their property.

The hospital remained in Bethlehem until the spring of 1778.

“We cannot imagine the pain and suffering of these men, many of whom were no more than 15 or 16,” said Hafner, the historian. “Remember, there were no anesthetics then, nothing to dull the pain. Amputation was frequently the only course of action.

“Under the darkness of night,” he said, “the dead would be brought to this burial ground.”

With hundreds more dead than the previous winter, bodies were buried not in coffins but in trenches on the hillside, beneath what is now First Avenue but was then an open field on the outskirts of town.

As the area developed over time, the site was forgotten. Few records were kept to identify the dead — the Call report noted a language barrier between many Moravians and their patients, and said that service records were destroyed when the British invaded Washington, D.C., in the War of 1812.

In 1892, more than 100 years after the soldiers were buried, the Sons of the American Revolution dedicated a plaque to honor the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Another memorial was dedicated in the 1930s by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and Pennsylvania historic groups. More have been added since.

The exact dimensions of the burial site are unknown. A Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office blog posits that Route 378 is the eastern boundary, but the others are unclear. The burial ground could be more than an acre.

That means soldiers’ remains are still there, under the roads, sidewalks, homes and garden beds.

And occasionally, they resurface.

David Library opportunity! And time to renew yearly membership

Dear Members & Friends,

The Lehigh Valley American Revolution Round Table has been invited for a unique opportunity to learn about and tour the David Library of the American Revolution (DLAR) in Washington Crossing with Librarian Kathie Ludwig.  Ideally, we would be looking at a Saturday in the spring when we do not need to worry about snow and icy roads.

DLAR is approximately a little over an hour from the Easton area and we would each be on our own for travel arrangements (perhaps, we would make a full day of it and visit nearby Washington Crossing State Park as well).  If people could car pool that would cut down on the number of vehicle.  If folks are interested, please email me by February 9th as I need to make the necessary arrangements with DLAR.  We will discuss some possible dates at our next meeting.

As many of you undoubtedly know from discussions at our meetings, the main focus of the David Library is the Revolutionary War period of American history, but materials on the French and Indian War and early national period are also well represented.  The Library’s collections are comprised of over 10,000 reels of microfilm, more than 8,000 printed volumes and 1,500 pamphlets.  Please go online to www.dlar.org to learn more about this unique institution so close to the Lehigh Valley.  As another bonus, following our program you might want to conduct some of your own personal research.

Please also remember that it is time to renew your membership for 2018.  You may send a check ($25 for individuals; $40 for a couple) to me or bring cash to the next meeting.  These funds help us to secure speakers and other individuals for future programs.  For now please make check payable to: Andrew Frederick-LVARRT and mail to:

Lehigh Valley American Revolution Round Table
PO Box 1772, Easton PA 18042

With all best wishes,
Andy Zellers-Frederick

January 24, 2018 Meeting

We had to postpone the Jan. 17 meeting one week because of the snowy road conditions and we will be meeting at 7 pm in Skillman Library, in the Gendebien Room at the top of the stairs.

We would like to thank the Lafayette College staff and our guest speaker, Diane Shaw, for letting us reschedule our meeting so soon!

Park anywhere there is a space.  Suggest using the deck behind Markle Hall; just a very short walk to Skillman Library. Here is a link to a campus map and directions.  On the pdf map, the parking deck is #2 and Skillman Library is #29.

“Humanity has won its suit …”: Lafayette and the American Revolution

 On January 1, 1783, Lafayette wrote the following to his aunt: “America is sure of her independence. Humanity has won its suit, and liberty will never again be without an asylum.” Of course, Lafayette had a major role in helping to secure that independence.

Diane Shaw, Director of Special Collections and College Archives at Lafayette College, will talk about Lafayette’s role in the American Revolution, from his arrival in America in July of 1777 to his significant contributions to the Yorktown Campaign of 1781.  Her presentation will be followed by an opportunity to see items from the College’s Lafayette collection, including highlights from the extraordinary Hubbard Collection of 149 of Lafayette’s original letters to George Washington.