‘It’s an electric moment’

June's Red Bank archaeology days, family dig offer 'magic' opportunities

Albert J. Countryman Jr./The Sun
Wearing authentic Colonial clothing and getting ready to cook a campfire dinner during the Red Bank Battlefield family day last year were Ben Carlton (left to right), Lenora Khan, Carol Murphy and Sharon Goodman of Middleton. There will be two public archaeological digs this month at the site, where remains of Hessian soldiers have been found.

It will be an exciting two Sundays this month at the Red Bank Battlefield in National Park, with a veterans archaeology dig June 9 and a family history dig on June 23.

“Red Bank’s archaeology days offer participants the opportunity to work side by side with our professional archaeology team,” said battlefield park director Jen Janofsky. “They learn about the archaeological process and the important role archaeology plays in battlefield preservation and interpretation.

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“We also use this program as an opportunity to raise awareness that the battlefield is a burial site and worthy of our preservation efforts and respect,” she added, referring to the remains of Hessian soldiers found there in a mass grave two years ago.

Coordinating the digs will be Janofsky, a professor of history at Rowan University, and Wade Catts, president of South River Heritage Consulting. The program is also supported by students in the university’s field school at Red Bank and volunteers from the Archaeology Society of New Jersey.

A similar archeological dig at the battlefield on June 26, 2022 turned up the Hessians’ remains. The 15 solders were killed by the Rhode Island regiment of the Continental Army during the Battle of Red Bank in 1777.

“They were unceremoniously dumped in a mass grave,” Jenofsky explained. “Our goals are to treat the remains with dignity and respect, identifying specific soldiers and assigning them names.”

She and archaeologist Catts were leading the public participation dig in 2022, and over four days, some 100 volunteers worked screens and processed artifacts from the quarter-acre trench area deeded to the battlefield in 2021 by a local family. Several femur bones were found on the last day.

“Public Archaeology is my favorite program that our park offers,” Janofsky said. “It’s one thing to visit a museum and observe objects from a distance. It’s another thing to actually unearth an object that hasn’t been touched in 250 years and in some cases, thousands of years, in the case of Native American artifacts.

“When a participant discovers an object, it’s an electric moment,” she added. “This is when the public history ‘magic’ happens. It allows a deep and personal connection to the past.”

This is the second year the Red Bank Battlefield is offering a special program for veterans and their families.

“Veterans connect with battlefields differently from our other park visitors,” Janofsky pointed out. “It’s a way we can thank them and their families for their service. It’s also an opportunity to meet other veterans and share their personal stories of service.”

The battlefield park features picnic pavilions and a scenic path along the Delaware River, and there will be tours and activities for veterans and their families during the day.

Family history day is an opportunity to discover the excitement of an archaeology project, and children absolutely love archaeology, Janofsky said.

“We designed the afternoon to include hands-on activities like screening stations safe for little hands, coloring activities, and kid-safe artifacts through our History Cart,” she said. “The field school students will be working with volunteers from the Archaeology Society of New Jersey to offer an afternoon of fun and educational activities for everyone.”

Admission is free and the event runs from noon to 4 p.m., rain or shine. For information on both public digs, call (856) 853-5120.

The Battle of Red Bank itself during the Revolutionary War began on the morning of Oct. 22, 1777, when some 2,000 Hessian troops marched 10 miles from Haddonfield to Fort Mercer, along the Delaware River in current day National Park. The German mercenaries hired by the English government hoped to overrun the fort and enable ships to get up the river and resupply the Philadelphia-based British Army.

The 400 soldiers defending the fort were the war-hardened troops of the Rhode Island 1st and 2nd regiments, and they got a big break when patriot Jonas Cattell ran from Haddonfield through the backwoods ahead of the Hessian troops to raise the alarm, “The Hessians are coming.”

Col. Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of war hero Gen. Nathanael Greene, quickly ordered the patriots – many of whom were African and Native Americans – to turn around the cannons pointing at the river and face the oncoming attack from land.

By the end of the day, 82 Hessian soldiers lay dead in the trench surrounding the fort after an unsuccessful attempt to scale the walls. Another 228 were wounded in the Battle of Red Bank and 60 were captured. The heavily outnumbered Continental Army troops reported 14 killed and 23 wounded.

Veterans and the families will learn about the battle – and possibly discover some remnants of it – on Sunday. The same opportunity will be offered to all families and their children on June 23.

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