CAMDEN, S.C. – The crowd hushed, rose from folding lawn chairs amid the longleaf pine trees, and turned toward the roadway at the sound of the drums.
A procession, moving to a steady, rat-tat-tatting cadence, made its way through the trees, pine needles a thick, red-brown carpet under booted feet. First came reenactors wearing Revolutionary War garb and carrying muskets with bayonets. Then came the band, honor Guardsmen with rifles, and Soldiers bearing caskets draped in American and British flags.
As the band played, honor Guardsmen with the U.S. Army and South Carolina Army National Guard carefully deposited the remains of 12 American Revolutionary War Soldiers on stands specially made for the handcrafted coffins; the funeral party from 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland came after, carrying the remains of their Revolutionary War countryman on their shoulders.
The burial honors ceremony on April 22 honored 13 service members who died in the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780, one of the costliest battles of the Revolutionary War.
Of the 12 Americans, researchers believe several were members of the 1st or 2nd Maryland Brigades. The 175th Infantry Regiment, Maryland Army National Guard, is a modern descendant of those Revolutionary War units. U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Reale, the Maryland representative at the ceremony, served with the 175th early in his military career.
“It’s brought a lot of things home because I grew up in the 175th,” said Reale, the deputy commanding general for sustainment, 29th Infantry Division. “That’s where the Soldiers came from. So to see that full circle come around — and this is likely one of my last official events I’ll do in the military — it’s incredible.”
Archeologists excavated the skeletal remains of 14 individuals in fall 2022 at the Camden Battlefield, the site of a 1780 British victory during America’s fight for independence. Over the next few years, the researchers — anthropologists, archeologists, historians and forensic analysts — labored to uncover as much detail as possible about who and how. Artifacts like pewter buttons and munitions found in and around the remains helped with identification.
An initial examination of the soldiers concluded 12 of the bodies are likely Patriot Continental soldiers from either Maryland or Delaware, one is likely a North Carolina loyalist and another served with the British 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders. Forensic anthropologists are continuing to craft biological profiles for each of the troops.
At least five of the Continentals were determined to have been teenagers, while the oldest soldier is estimated to have died when he was between 40 and 50 years old. Some possess clear evidence of battle injuries from musket balls and buck shot.
The Scottish Highlander is the only soldier who appears to have been carefully laid to rest, face up with his arms crossed. Others were found face down or overlaying each other. Based on the historical record, the Highlander’s identity has already been narrowed to three potential candidates, Bostick said, but it will only be confirmed when a DNA analysis is complete. The recent recovery of remains in South Carolina comes on the heels of a similar discovery during summer 2022, when scientists uncovered a mass grave in New Jersey with as many as a dozen German soldiers, called Hessians, who fought alongside the British.
“Honoring these heroes in a respectful manner and ensuring the permanent protection of their remains continues to be the mission of this effort,” Doug Bostick, CEO of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, said in a release.
Researchers are collecting DNA so that individuals with a suspected connection to the soldiers can provide a sample to help the identification process, though that undertaking can take some time, Bostick said.
The loyalist militiaman is thought to have Native American ancestry and is not a part of this weekend’s events. Instead, he is scheduled to be honored in a private ceremony with local tribes.
The South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust, an organization that seeks to protect and preserve historic military sites across South Carolina, helped set the ball rolling to provide the 12 American Soldiers and one British soldier a proper send-off.
The burial honors ceremony, held where the remains were recovered on the Camden Battlefield site, was the final event in a stately, multiday send-off.
“As we reverently acknowledge the role they played, we recognize that this great nation was not founded solely upon the successes we proudly venerate, but also by the perseverance and resilience that followed failure and defeat,” said Rick Wise, the Trust’s burial ceremony chairperson. “To these Soldiers we say: Fate has dictated that you will not be forgotten in an unmarked, shallow grave.”
In the Battle of Camden, approximately half of the American forces became casualties; about 15% of the British forces suffered the same fate. The British forces, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis, were victorious. It was a devastating defeat for the Americans in the early stages of the British military offensive in the south. It did, however, usher in changes in the rebellious colonists’ military leadership that eventually altered the war’s course.
Historians are looking to keep the burial as authentic to the time period as possible. The soldiers’ coffins are handcrafted in an 18th-century design using hand-forged nails and wood from longleaf pine trees thought to have grown not far from where the historic battle took place.
Once the caskets were in place, from a bugler came “Taps,” and from a bagpiper, “Flowers of the Forest.” Seven riflemen fired three volleys. South Carolina National Guard AH-64 Apache helicopters flew over in tribute, their rotors a thumping roar. Dignitaries from the U.S. military, state and federal government, civic organizations, and the British government offered remarks.
Rachel Galloway, His Majesty’s British Consul General in Atlanta, noted how the once bitter relationship between Britain and America, remembered in the Battle of Camden, has become one of lasting friendship.
“Nowhere is more powerful in illustrating the deep and enduring connection between our servicemen and women who train together, fight together and die together,” she said. “From conflict came unity. The wounds of the Battle of Camden of the Revolutionary War have long since healed, and our two nations are trusted friends and allies.”
A highlight of the ceremony came when the flags, folded neatly, were offered to assembled dignitaries one by one. Reale received the 11th American flag.
“It brought back a lot of things, because I’ve been in 38 years, and I’ve gone through things like this before, obviously for friends and comrades,” Reale said. “It was very moving, very touching.”
–www.militarytimes.com / www.nationalguard.mil