Bunker Hill dead may lie under gardens

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / March 8, 2009
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In Boston, history is always just below the surface. And in Charlestown, underneath a row of genteel gardens, in the middle of a teeming city, is believed to be a mass grave containing the bones of possibly dozens of British soldiers killed in one of the most important battles in American history.

The site, part of the sprawling Bunker Hill battlefield, has been pinpointed by a curator from Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and a Charlestown historian who are confident they know where the bodies were buried - 15 feet underground in what had been a rebel-dug ditch that featured some of the day's most ferocious fighting.

Above ground, few residents on quaint, stately Concord Street appear to know they might be living atop a historic, makeshift grave.

"No wonder our plants grow so well," said Anne McMahon, when told that long-forgotten remains are believed to lie beneath her rose bushes.

"There could be a dozen or two dozen bodies there," said Erik Goldstein, a curator at Colonial Williamsburg who has studied the Bunker Hill battlefield extensively.

Goldstein was led to the site by a combination of scrupulous research and informed intuition.

Using newspaper accounts of the 1845 discovery of several Redcoat skeletons nearby, British Army records of after-battle burials, and meticulous knowledge of troop movements that day, Goldstein has set his eyes on a string of small lots stretching down the east side of Concord Street from Monument Square.

Goldstein and Chris Anderson, the Charlestown historian, are eager to survey the area with ground-penetrating radar, which could spot anomalies in the soil that might be human remains.

But gaining cooperation from the families there, who must balance respect for history with the need to maintain a normal life, could be tricky.

Marjorie Ringrose, whose 1839 home sits just downhill from Monument Square, is a case in point.

Her husband, a Briton, travels to Lexington every year for the Patriots Day reenactment and has a keen interest in the Revolutionary War. But with three small children who play in the backyard, she's not certain she even wants to know if there are bodies buried somewhere beneath.

And if radar were to discover something, archeologists and historians might come begging to dig down and find out for sure.

"We're not going to have the garden torn up," Ringrose said. "We live out there. That's one of the most peaceful things about this home."

Goldstein and Anderson would welcome an archeological dig at the site, but recognize that homeowners such as Ringrose would have to consent.

The sloping path of modern Concord Street was a small corner of hell on the sunny afternoon of June 17, 1775, when the British launched a third, desperate assault against an entrenched force of determined, deadly American marksmen.

As Charlestown burned behind them, grenadiers feinted toward rebels gathered near the Mystic River, wheeled left, and stormed uphill against colonists holding the extreme left flank of a hastily erected breastwork.

The fighting there was among the most vicious of the battle. The thrust of bayonets sent Americans to their deaths. Redcoats were shot at close, confusing range.

And gunstocks suddenly became clubs in the hands of overwhelmed rebels who were running out of ammunition.

Many of the British killed at the spot, Goldstein believes, were thrown into the entrenchment by burial details who used the ditch as a ready-made grave.

"The public should care about this because it's a chance to put physical reality behind this mythic event in American history," Goldstein said. "Now, it's more or less enshrouded in concrete. The battlefield is so effectively built over that the traces of the battle are very well-hidden."

Anderson said he would encourage signage and memorials to honor the dead.

That sentiment was echoed by the British consulate in Boston.

"We think it's important to mark and pay special tribute to fallen soldiers wherever they may be, but this also marks a particular chapter in our shared history," said Joseph Pickerill, the consulate spokesman. "It's one that we fortunately have overcome, but one that certainly marks the emergence of what became the world's greatest democracy."

Pickerill said the consulate has "great interest" in any archeological work at the site.

Teddy Savage, superintendent of the Boston National Historical Park, also welcomed the new research.

"Any new information will help us to better understand the pictures and words on the walls of the National Park Service museum at Bunker Hill," Savage said. "Along with new scholarship about black and Native American patriots who fought at Bunker Hill, it will offer us the opportunity to tell the whole story of what took place on that hot June day."

Anderson shares Goldstein's concern that visitors to Boston, and even residents of Charlestown, have little idea of the swirl of war that enveloped the Charlestown peninsula on that sunny afternoon.

Instead of evoking a sense of momentous battle, Anderson said, "the Bunker Hill monument seems like the cherry on top of the sundae if you walk the Freedom Trail."

From the redoubt near today's monument, to the banks of the Mystic River, to the town that was destroyed before the horrified rebel army, the Battle of Bunker Hill pushed the colonies over the precipice and into a long, protracted, bloody war for independence.

The British, many of whom were veterans of European battles, suffered 226 killed and more than 800 wounded in their greatest losses of the war.

One-quarter of all the British officers killed during the Revolution were slain in the battle.

By contrast, about 140 Americans were killed and 300 wounded, many of them on the retreat to Cambridge after the rebels had exhausted their ammunition.

"The Americans saw they could really hurt the British," Goldstein said. "They realized the British Army was not a collection of automatons that couldn't be stopped. The American cause got a lot of confidence at the cost of some relatively unimportant real estate."

The decision whether to dig for remains would be at the discretion of the property owner, said Brian McNiff, spokesman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

But if a dig discovered bodies more than a century old, he said, the state would take control of the site and conduct an archeological study. Ringrose is leaning toward leaving the fallen at peace.

"A lot of people have been born in this house, a lot of people have died here, and I think that's what makes it a very special place," Ringrose said. "In a way, we're celebrating adding new lives to it."

McMahon, who lives a few doors away, echoed that sentiment.

"They're resting in peace, they're not haunting the place, and we wish them well," McMahon said. "It's all peaceful now. I guess that's what we were fighting for."

Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption for a story Sunday on the burial of soldiers from the battle of Bunker Hill had a wrong date for a home at the site. The Ringroses' home was built in 1839.

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