Revolutionary War soldier’s skull buried in Milford

Connecticut Post – Bridgeport,CT,USA
By Noelle Frampton

MILFORD — They don’t know his name, where he came from or even how he died.

But it was meaningful nonetheless for the crowd of more than 100 who gathered Saturday morning to hold a funeral and rebury the skull believed to belong to a Revolutionary War soldier with military honors.

“All of us owe him what we owe all veterans and all those who died for the country,” said Colonel William MacMullen, of the Fort Nathan Hale reenactment militia in New Haven. “He is no different than a soldier killed in Iraq, Afghanistan. (His remains are) a symbol of what the impermanence of life is, for even in death he was disinterred and we have to bury him once more.”

The funeral was held in First United Church of Christ Congregational on West Main Street and resembled the Colonial era, with costumed re-enactors from several area militias and a fife and drum corps playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as they marched into the church. Later, they led mourners in a procession to the ancient Milford Cemetery, where the remains were laid to rest.

The unidentified skull was unearthed in the 1840s as railroad tracks were being laid near a spot in Milford where 46 Continental Army soldiers died of smallpox. British troops had captured the soldiers in the Battle of New York in late 1776 and abandoned them in early 1777 near what is now the cemetery.

The skull has traveled among historians, archaeologists and other experts since its discovery. Experts determined
Advertisement it belonged to a man of European descent who was between 25 and 35 years old. The skull is so well preserved that two of its teeth still remain.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington returned the skull this month to Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who drove last week from Hartford to Milford with it in a cardboard box.

City Historian Richard Platt, who with his wife was dressed in Colonial attire, complete with tri-cornered hat and bonnet, said there is no way beyond matching DNA with a descendant to prove the skull came from a Revolutionary soldier or one of the smallpox victims, but circumstances suggest that.

“It’s a very appropriate thing that we are doing,” Platt said. “Certainly, it’s symbolic of the whole group and by honoring him, we’re honoring all veterans.”

Milford resident Liz Rivera said she brought her grandchildren, 5 and 3, to the funeral to teach them about patriotism and the importance of history.

“I wanted to instill in them the love I have for it,” Rivera said. “We’ve been following the history and path of this body for a while now.”

Emma Herz, 8, who was visiting Milford for the holiday weekend from Millerton, N.Y., said the interment was an interesting historical moment.

“I thought it was great to see a soldier from a long, long time ago be buried and it was a great honor because my grandfather was in World War II,” the third-grader said.

Local history buffs Gary Gianotti and Tom Beirne earlier this year tracked down the skull, which had been in the possession of the University of Connecticut’s archaeology department in Storrs since the early 1990s, when a state law prohibited private museums from owning human remains.

Beirne read the names of the 46 smallpox victims at the beginning of the funeral.

The skull, in a long wooden box, was lowered with ropes Saturday into its final resting place at the foot of the Revolutionary War monument believed to mark the site of the soldiers’ mass grave in Milford Cemetery.

“It took a long time for him to get a proper burial,” said MacMullen. “Now he has that. He’s finally where he belongs, with his compatriots.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A grave story How Milford’s Revolutionary War mass grave came to be: The 200 Continental Army soldiers, sick with smallpox and abandoned by the British here on Jan. 1, 1777, were likely captured during the Battle of Long Island, or the losing fight for Manhattan. They had been held since August in a British naval base at Wallabout Bay, which later became the Brooklyn Navy Yard. As many as 1,000 men were crammed into the steaming hulk of a prison ship, and up to 20 would share a single cell in the New York jail. The abandonment of the POWs here was not a humanitarian act, but a dumping of dying men by captors trying to avoid becoming sick themselves. None of the 46 men who died here were from Milford. The closest was from Stratford, the farthest from Spain. Many more likely died on their way home, some walking as far as Middletown. Local merchant Stephen Stow cared for the ill men in a “pest house” located on the present site of City Hall. Stow died of smallpox himself and is buried with the soldiers. A 30-foot obelisk made of Portland sandstone was erected in 1852 to mark the spot of the common grave in Milford Cemetery. The Soldier’s Monument, as it was known, was paid for with $600 in state funds appropriated by the General Assembly and by contributions from the people of Milford. More than 3,000 people marched from Town Hall to the cemetery, accompanied by the New Haven Brass Band, for the laying of the cornerstone on Oct. 28, 1852. The featured speaker that day was Lt. Gov. Charles Hobby Pond, a Milford resident who would be elected governor the following year. Among those attending the ceremony, which included the burying of a time capsule, were several people who had attended the soldiers’ burial 75 years earlier. The soldiers were abandoned on Fort Trumbull Beach. The Milford Historic Preservation Trust, led by Regina Cahill, holds a re-enactment every New Year’s Eve at the more accessible Gulf Beach, where the trust has also placed a marker. The incident led to a treaty between the United States and Prussia in 1785 that mandated the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and thus indirectly to the Geneva Convention. Prussian soldiers had served as mercenaries on behalf of the British during the Revolution. Sources: Forgotten Patriots by Edwin Burrows, Basic Books, 2008; Connecticut Historical Collections, John Barber, 1838; Milford Trust for Historic Preservation.

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