(Photo credit: Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, courtesy Wally Gobetz, Flickr Creative Commons)
One of the less well-advertised walking tours available at Independence National Historical Park takes visitors to a section of Philadelphia’s Old City loved by local residents but usually overlooked by visitors on their way to see Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. This is a Philadelphia city park, just yards away from these more famous sites, that combines a quiet, shady respite from city hustle with an intriguing historical monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War.
This being Philadelphia, a city laid out on a strict grid system, the park is a square—Washington Square to be exact, named after George Washington. The park is, however, older than the first president. When William Penn’s surveyor was laying out the plan for Philadelphia in 1682, he created a grid that would run about 20 blocks north to south and almost 30 blocks from the Delaware River in the East to the Schuylkill River in the West. This is the system that is still in place today. The plan included five public squares, one placed at the center of the grid, and one in each directional quadrant. Centre Square would much later become the home of the City Hall. The Southeast Square eventually became Washington Square.
In its early years, before being named after Washington, the square was both a public pasture and a burying ground. With the onset of the Revolutionary War the burying ground function took precedence. Dead Continental Army soldiers were piled into pits and long trenches dug along three of the square’s four sides. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Being so close to the Pennsylvania State House (what would later become Independence Hall), the square inevitably was visited by delegates to the Continental Congress. The scene at Southeast Square moved John Adams to write of his sadness at visiting and walking around the “Potter’s Field.” He told his Abigail that “I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy.”
Things only got worse, as the British used the same square to bury dead Continentals once the King’s troops had occupied Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777. During the 9-month occupation unknown numbers of American prisoners were buried in the square, typically dying from the horrific conditions found at two nearby sites: the makeshift “hospital” the British placed on the second floor of the State House and the Walnut Street Jail, which faced the square to the East. (Today the jail is long gone and the site is occupied by the Penn Mutual Building. This is the tall structure towering over Independence Hall to the South which usually manages to butt into visitors’ photographs of that historic structure.) No-one knows for sure how many American soldiers are buried in the square—though 2,000 is a commonly cited estimate.
More corpses followed with the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. Again, the scale of the epidemic led to hasty mass burials. Suffice to say that by the end of the 18th century the Southeast Square wasn’t a particularly pleasant spot to take a stroll. Not surprisingly, few at this time wanted to live in the vicinity of an ill-kept burial ground and jail. The square became the home of the poor and dispossessed, surrounded by squalid accommodations that were little more than huts and sheds.
It wasn’t until 1815 that an effort was made to improve the square, starting with a public walk and a tree-planting program. By 1825 the park seemed to be respectable enough for it to be renamed in honor of George Washington. In the following years and decades Washington Square and its surrounding area went up in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century the square was bounded by a mix of upscale private residences, advertising agencies, and publishing companies—including the Curtis Publishing House, home to the famous Saturday Evening Post. The square’s seedy past was buried as deep as its dead soldiers’ bodies.
Here’s the funny thing I’m getting to about Washington Square. In spite of its name, there was no actual monument to the great man on the square for the first 180 years of the country’s history. For a long time there was a major monument there, but it had nothing to do with Washington or the Revolutionary War; instead it commemorated the Civil War. Known as the Washington Grays Monument, it depicted a member of the Artillery Corps of the Washington Grays, but it was designed more broadly to honor those Philadelphians who had fought and died in the 1861-65 conflict. It was placed in Washington Square in two stages—first came the base, in 1898, followed by a bronze cast of a “Philadelphia Volunteer” in 1908. Though located to the West of the park, this sculpture became the centerpiece of Washington Square for most of the first half of the 20th century. It’s worth noting that its installation coincided with a period in American history two generations on from the Civil War itself, when the survivors of that war were getting old and being celebrated by the nation.
But the Washington Grays Monument was not to be a permanent resident of Washington Square. In 1954 local residents, with the blessing of the city, formed a planning committee with the goal of building in the square a memorial more befitting its illustrious namesake. One of the decisions the committee took was to have the existing Civil War monument removed from the square, which from then on was to be devoted solely to commemoration of the Revolutionary War. The Washington Grays monument was banished, though happily it survived and today resides in front of the Union League of Philadelphia building on the city’s South Broad Street.
A new memorial was thus conceived for Washington Square. But this was to be not only a monument to Washington the man, but also a means to memorialize and honor all the dead of the Revolutionary War. Nor would this monument be named after Washington. Instead it would be styled the “Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier.” The remains of a Continental Army soldier was to be disinterred and reburied in a place of honor at the memorial. This proved to be more problematic than first thought. Archeologists had a difficult time finding and uncovering the mass graves that were believed to lie underground. Local groups protested what they saw as the desecration of these graves.
Eventually, a mass grave was found and a body selected that archeologists believed was that of a Revolutionary War soldier. The skull of this skeleton showed a head wound that was consistent with being struck by a musket ball. However, in an era long before dog tags it was impossible to be certain that the skeleton belonged to an American. Some British soldiers had also been buried at the square, and there was always a possibility the skeleton could have belonged to one of the King’s troops. Nevertheless, this was the body that was selected to become the Unknown Soldier of the Revolutionary War. It was placed under a large stone tomb toward the west end of the square.
By 1957 the memorial was complete, and the park assumed the basic contours that it retains to this day. In front of the tomb stands a bronze sculpture of Washington—a copy of a marble cast by Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands at the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. An eternal flame now stands before the statue, although a question mark has to be placed over the flame’s “eternal” status. Rangers giving tours of the site have been embarrassed on occasion to arrive at the scene only to find that the flame has been blown out by high winds. I’m not if this is an issue at the John F. Kennedy gravesite at Arlington.
Visitors arriving at the center of the square look to the West to see Washington framing the tomb, which includes three inscriptions, the most prominent of which is the stirring phrase “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.” This message is quite moving, and it really looks like something that should have been written by one of the founders, if not Washington then perhaps Jefferson or Adams. In fact it was a phrase concocted by a copywriter for the N. W. Ayer advertising company—the first modern advertising company in the world—whose offices were in the 1950s located on Chestnut St., at the north end of the square. It was penned specifically for this memorial.
One thing that the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier doesn’t have is an honor guard similar to the one at Arlington. I have heard that there was talk of having the U.S. Army create such a guard for Washington Square but apparently nothing came of it.
This raises a deeper issue about the notion of commemorating the dead from the Revolutionary War. It has always seemed to me that war memorials for this period are a bit awkward. The thing is, no-one at the time of the Revolutionary War itself thought about memorializing the dead. No national military cemeteries for the dead emerged at this time. That’s a tradition that only dates back as far as the Civil War. In creating modern memorials to the dead of an 18th century war, we’re inferring onto a physical space a whole level of meaning that simply was not originally there. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s significant and meaningful that our society now thinks it’s important to do such a thing, and memorials are always as much about the present generation as about the generation or group being commemorated. But we should keep in mind that the modern impetus for honoring the Revolutionary War dead has its origins in other, later wars, such as the Civil War and America’s wars of the 20th century.
The War of Independence long predates our modern idea of commemorating and honoring war dead. The Civil War basically created that social and cultural space, as well as a physical space—the national military cemeteries—for that commemoration to take place. World Wars I and II expanded the cultural vocabulary for national commemoration with symbols such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, poppies for veterans and blue star banners. As a result, attempts to borrow the vocabulary from these later wars and reverse engineer them onto a much older conflict run the risk of seeming forced and false. Can we get past that and give our Revolutionary War dead—about which we really know so little—the same consideration and respect we reserved for America’s later wars? Only time will tell.
Art Inventories Catalog. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS). Available at http://siris-artinventories.si.edu/ipac20/ipac.jsp?profile=
Determining the Facts, Reading 2: From State House to World Heritage Site. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/132independence/132facts4.htm
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia. Available at http://www.ushistory.org/tour/tomb-of-the-unknown-soldier.htm
Washington Square. Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia. Available at http://www.ushistory.org/tour/washington-square.htm