By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
The inscription on the tombstone at Beverly National Cemetery reads “Seven Unknown U.S. Soldiers, Rev. War.”
Sounds like the end. But it's not. Those seven revolutionary soldiers died on a sleety, windy February day in 1778 in a skirmish with the British in what is now downtown Camden. They laid in the very heart of Camden, in a debris-littered, secluded 15 by 20 foot burial ground only a few feet from the old fire station at 5th and Arch streets. Thousands had passed near the tiny cemetery, unaware that it existed.
According to the history of Camden County, it all started after General George Washington ordered General Anthony Wayne, also known as Mad Anthony, to Salem County, to confiscate livestock and transport it to Washington's winter quarters at Valley Forge. Wayne was also given orders to destroy hay and other supplies, which might be useful to the enemy.
After accomplishing his mission, Wayne moved north through Swedesboro and Woodbury to Haddonfield.
The British, camped out in Philadelphia under the leadership of Lord William Howe, wanted to prevent supplies from reaching Valley Forge so they sent two units across the Delaware to engage a raiding party. Once the force landed at Cooper's Ferry they headed for Haddonfield. Under Col. Thomas Stirling and Major John Simcoe, the British set up headquarters in Haddonfield and began foraging operations.
But British occupation of Haddonfield was short lived as Wayne with modest reinforcements, advanced on Haddonfield on Feb. 28. Stirling assumed Wayne had a superior force and ordered a night retreat to Cooper's Ferry in Camden. Wayne arrived the next morning and found the British troops waiting to cross the Delaware, but were unable due to high winds. Several minor skirmishes took place in the area of downtown Camden with Colonel Ellis and his militia beating a Hessian force at Cooper's Creek Bridge (now Cooper River) while an advance company of Wayne's riflemen engaged a British outpost in the area of 7th and Cooper streets. Wayne was unsuccessful due to canon fire from British ships on the Delaware and Stirling's men crossed the river before nightfall.
Wayne sent his supply of cattle to Valley Forge and held up in Haddonfield before returning to Washington's camp.
The seven men who apparently died in these skirmishes were buried where they fell, in the vicinity of 5th and Arch streets. As time passed the graves of the unknown Camden seven, who fell with Hessian bullets in their bodies, were forgotten. Their memory squashed into anonymity by growth and the business world.
According to a Courier-Post story in 1940, approximately six feet from one of the head stones of a soldier another tombstone was found which was inscribed “Our Faithful Jack—Died Nov. 5, 1934, in service—Fire Headquarters”.
The story revealed that Jack was an Irish terrier, the mascot of the firemen at the fire station at 5th and Arch. It said its body was buried and marked with a headstone that appeared to be more expensive than those of the soldiers. In 1955 when the bodies were removed and taken to Beverly National Cemetery, Jack became the sole possessor of the little known graveyard. The small cemetery was discovered in 1920 when Thomas J. Hamm, who had a law office at 526 Market St., was checking out some deeds in Woodbury. During the Revolution, Camden was part of Gloucester County and the old deeds were registered there. During his search he discovered a deed that described the plot of ground as a cemetery in which the bodies of seven American patriot soldiers lie, killed in a skirmish between troops of General Anthony Wayne and the Rangers of the Queen.
Hamm did not make his discovery known and in the 1930s a Courier-Post reporter heard about the deed and investigated. He found the graves intact and notified several service organizations that placed headstones on the graves, which read “An Unknown U.S. Soldier.” In the 1940s several service organizations in Camden County banded together in an effort to have the remains moved from the unkempt cemetery to a place of honor. But it took 15 years and through the cooperation of veteran's organizations and the city government the remains were moved to Beverly and re-buried with full military honors, with salutes to the dead fired by the VFW and the Spanish American War Veterans.
The seven are the only Revolutionary War soldiers buried in the cemetery. Cemetery officials had said that it is very unique for these soldiers to be here in that the cemetery was created during the Civil War to accommodate those who died in that war.
The cemetery was established in August 1864 after President Abraham Lincoln signed an act in 1862 authorizing the establishment of national cemeteries. The first burial was Warner Haskell on August 29, 1864, a young soldier who served with Company K of the 24th Massachusetts Volunteers.
Christian Weyman donated the ground to the United States by deed dated August 25, 1864, for “the express condition that it be used for those who died as a result of battle.” In 1937 six and a half acres were added, 20 acres in 1948 and seven acres in 1953. The cemetery includes the remains of veterans associated with every war and branch of service who have served throughout history.