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Heralding Our History: Hospitals, burial site, show Four Lanes End war’s toll


In July 1776, Dr. William Shippen Jr. (1736-1808) was appointed chief physician of the Continental army hospital in New Jersey by George Washington. In October, he became director general of all hospitals west of the Hudson River.

Dr. Shippen was sent to find a location in the northern part of Philadelphia to set up a hospital for the men who were suffering from starvation and diseases in the harsh cold winter. He chose Four Lanes End, a thriving village of trades and craftsmen, to locate his hospital.

When George Washington’s troops arrived in Four Lanes End on Dec. 8, 1776, the soldiers occupied five buildings: the Middletown Monthly Meeting, the Friends School House, the Gilbert Hicks House (Langhorne Coffee House), and the Tannery as hospitals and the Richardson House (Langhorne Community Memorial Association) for officers’ and surgeons’ quarters.

The Hicks house had been seized because Gilbert was accused of being a loyalist. While the field hospital was on the first floor, his son Isaac Hicks and family remained upstairs, Isaac even allowed the Legislature of New Jersey to meet at the house on Thursday Dec. 26 “to take action on the future” and “to consider the state of the country.”

Across the street, Jane Richardson (1766-1861), the 11-year-old daughter of Joshua Richardson (1733-1800), witnessed the arrival of the troops and the burial of soldiers in an unmarked location down the street. She described her experiences vividly years later, and they were subsequently written in the Journal of Joshua Richardson II in 1869.

She described a man riding ahead of the army who requested the family to clear the kitchen and south room. The soldiers came before they were ready for them, filling the warm kitchen, with officers in the south room. They brought hay from the barn and placed it on the floor to sleep. From the high window of the house, Jane saw sleds standing outside the Hicks house just across the street. Coffins were drawn down to the burial site and individual soldiers were placed in shallow mass graves, three or four soldiers per grave. This continued until May 15, 1777, when the troops departed.

In 1992, an archaeological survey was made of the suspected burial site. Up to then, only local lore and the unpublished journal kept the legend of the Revolutionary War Burial Site alive.

When owners of the property applied for subdivision of this tract, a request was made to verify the information in both journals and letters that indicated the burial of Revolutionary War soldiers. The evidence compiled confirmed the 18th-century burial site by the discovery of rose-head coffin nails aligned vertically with wood fragments attached, among other evidence.

Only several bone fragments and arcs of teeth were found that revealed the bodies to be young males. Most likely they were buried in shrouds, without uniforms or shoes, since their uniforms would have been needed by others.

According to available records, it appears that these buildings in Four Lanes End were the only military hospitals in the northern Philadelphia area. The soldiers who offered their loyalty and lives to their country represented seven of the original 13 colonies.

This single campaign had profound consequences for the future of our nation.

Approximately 166 soldiers from the First Battle of Trenton (Dec. 25, 1776), Second Battle of Trenton (Jan. 2, 1777), and Battle of Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777), were buried here. Most died not of battle wounds but of disease and starvation.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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