Revolutionary War soldiers’ remains discovered in Camden
Scientists are studying the remains of 14 Revolutionary War soldiers found in shallow graves at the site of the Battle of Camden. They soon will be properly re-buried.
Many South Carolinians are aware that more Revolutionary War battles were fought in South Carolina than in any other state. Only a few years shy of the 250th anniversary of the war’s beginning, a startling discovery has been made.
The remains of 14 soldiers – 13 Americans and one British - recently were recovered from makeshift graves at the site of the Battle of Camden. Some were found by hobbyists, others by archeologists who began to recover the remains in September. Doug Bostick, director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, is working with the University of South Carolina’s Institute of Archeology and Anthropology and the Richland County Coroner’s Office.
“Some of the bodies were only five to six inches deep…very shallow graves. And obviously buried hurriedly after the Battle of Camden,” he said. “So in order to protect them, we felt it was appropriate to excavate the bodies, study them, try to identify the unit of service as best we could by the artifacts, and then make plans to reinter the bodies with full military honors, but this time bury them in sealed vaults and six feet deep.”
The Battle of Camden was a great defeat for the Continental forces, said Professor Steve Smith of the Institute. The bodies were likely buried so near the surface because those burying them were in a hurry, digging “shallow holes, and they were pretty much piled on top of each other.” Smith said researchers at first believed there were only six bodies on the battlefield. But the search turned up 14, plus other artifacts.
“We found musket balls quite often that likely killed them in some cases. We found an iron cup that had been used, certainly by one of the soldiers, but may also have been used to dig the grave. We found a bayonet scabbard tip, the very metal tip of the bayonet scabbard.”
According to Bostick, buttons helped make initial identifications of the soldiers. And buttons were most of the artifacts discovered, other than the items Smith mentioned. “We think anything that was usable was probably taken before they buried them,” Bostick said.
“So weapons, canteens, cartridges, anything that was usable would have been taken by troops that were still on the battlefield, which would be British. But we did find, and were able to identify the bodies by, buttons that were found with the bodies. The clothing, of course, is long dissipated away. So the buttons are the primary identifiers.
“The 71st Regiment Afoot (a British unit), they have buttons that are engraved ‘71st’ on them. And the body that we identified as a 71st soldier, he had 20-some-odd buttons marked 71st,” said Bostick. The Continentals were all recovered with “USA” buttons.
In addition, said Bostick, the forensic technology used by the Richland County Coroner’s Office has improved to the point where much more can be learned.
“When we started this project, I said we’d probably know everything about these men except for their names, but we may actually learn a few names, which would be an exciting prospect. But through the forensic testing, we’ll know the country of their origin, we’ll know what their diet was like, we’ll know any parasites or diseases they may have had. We’ll know an awful lot about these soldiers before the forensic testing is completed.” Plus, “we will pull DNA samples, so we could get fortunate and find the descendants of some of these men.”
Smith said there is not, nor will the historians create, a cemetery on the battlefield. The idea is to put the remains back where they were found in various locations scattered around the field (and, as noted, with military honors and buried at a normal six-foot depth), accompanied by interpretive markers.
“It’s not like Gettysburg and some of these nice-looking battlefields with shrines and that sort of thing,” Smith explained, adding that the Camden battlefield is a former pine preserve. Also, “back in the past it was just a watermelon field. So this battlefield needs to be recognized for what it is. And we think that the result of our work is going to make people understand what happened here - and to recognize the fact that all over this place there are people who died in this battle.”
According to Bostick, these discoveries will improve historians’ knowledge of the war.
A public military burial will be held April 22 on the battlefield. Bostick said it will be a rare opportunity for visitors to watch a funeral for Revolutionary War patriots.