ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE PHILADELPHIA EVENING BULLETIN IN DECEMBER 2006.
It is about 325 steps, depending upon the length of your stride, from the door of the tavern, to a wedge of hallowed ground at the corner of Flowers and Bellevue avenues. Here, in Langhorne Borough, rests the gravesite of approximately — by the local historic association’s count — 166 soldiers of the Revolutionary War.
On a recent visit, thoughts alight on dead patriots from the first and second Battles of Trenton (Dec. 25, 1776 and Jan. 2, 1777) as well as the Battle of Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777). They lay under trees, under dirt, under snow, under ice and, oh yes, under a flag that’s at half-mast. Which is not to say that time has stood still in this Bucks County community.
Next door to the cemetery a new restaurant, Bella Tori, just opened in November. I haven’t been to it yet. I am a creature of habit and I frequent the Langhorne Tavern. Walking from that restaurant to the gravesite is not exactly like stepping from the modern world and into the past. The Langhorne Tavern, after all, has been around in one form or another, since 1704.
Thinking of just how much routine matters to most of us makes me try to calculate the incalculable, what the dead from a long-ago war gave up before they gave up everything.
“For everything, there is a season,” was not just a nice phrase from the King James Bible for these young men. It was how they lived. Planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall. Doing what those who live on farms have always done, work from dawn until dusk 365 days a year until that moment when they decided to leave their plows to fight for a country that was little more than a declaration scratched upon a document.
That there was a burial site here had long been the stuff of local legend. According to the Historic Langhorne Association an 11-year-old girl, Jane Richardson, looked out her window in the winter of 1776 and saw Washington’s troops as they interred the dead.
It wasn’t until 1992 when an archeologist from Temple University, R. Michael Stewart, PhD, found true evidence of the gravesite. He’d been hired to investigate after the former owner, the Woods Services, which helps people with special needs, had applied for a permit that would lead to development on the tract. Town officials first wanted to make sure that the legend was just that, legend. Stewart recalls that the forensic evidence was uncovered just at the point when he was about to give up.
“We had been at this for maybe two days with the backhoe and it was getting around dark on the last day,” Stewart recalls. The soil scientist working with him suggested that they try one more area on the property. Stewart was reluctant; he’d already gone over that piece of ground with a soil probe.
“But then I said ‘what the heck, let’s go ahead and do it,’” Stewart recalls. “After about five minutes, the backhoe exposed something that I recognized as the back of a grave shaft. I said ‘There it is!’”
Strange how these soldiers nearly totally fell off the map of memory, only to be drafted into the army of unknowns whose remains remain. Stewart says that any chance for identifying them would entail fully excavating the site, which Woods Services donated to the borough.
“The rest of the graves were never open,” he says. “We exposed the tops of them. We mapped their location. We covered them with plastic and then the whole thing was backfilled.”
He also maintains that there are fewer than 166 bodies at the site, the number that’s on the cemetery marker. Again, no one can know for sure without a full excavation — and there are no calls for that.
It is a peaceful spot. The passion and grief of long ago persists only as echo, a trailing acknowledgement of what our ideological ancestors once cared so vehemently about. We know the outcome. From the time our grandparents gave us a dollar for our birthday and we asked about the picture on the front, we knew who won. The world turns and turns again and we awake to find that Great Britain is one of our most steadfast allies.
Meanwhile, we cannot pretend to grieve for people 230 years removed. We have our here and now. A nephew in the Navy, stationed in the Persian Gulf. Another nephew, in the Marines, thankfully home for Christmas. However, he recently got word that he’ll be shipped to Iraq come September.
So we reflect, at this longest night of the year, on just how much darkness ruled the earth in the days before electric light bulbs. A candela is the base unit that measures luminous intensity. By my calculation, the output of a standard candle is 1 candela. The output of a 100-watt bulb is 120 candela. What 11-year-old Jane Richardson used to light her way through cold rooms in the winter of 1776 didn’t throw much light.
Hear that? A metaphor stands out there caroling in the cold. Flip it a coin and then send it on its way.