Memorial Day: John Adams Walks "in the Congregation of the Dead."
Adapted from my devotional book Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War.
“I have spent an hour, this morning, in the Congregation of the dead,” John Adams wrote on April 13, 1777, to his wife, Abigail, of the horror he had witnessed.
A member of the Continental Congress, Adams had been living in Philadelphia for months by this time. On that April 1777 morning, he visited the city's hospital.
“I took a walk into the Potters Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison, and the hospital, and I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy,” he lamented of the trenches flanking Philadelphia’s center square.
Forced to confront the reality and cost of the American Revolution, Adams held a private memorial for these unknown warriors.
“The graves of the soldiers, who have been buried, in this ground, from the hospital and bettering house, during the course of the last summer, fall, and winter, dead of the smallpox, and camp diseases, are enough to make the heart of stone to melt away.”
The sexton had told him that 2,000 soldiers had been buried there. Also shocking Adams was the reality that more of these soldiers had died from illness than from a British bullet.
“Disease has destroyed ten men for us, where the sword of the enemy has killed one.”
Adams wasn’t buying the narrative as to what was causing these diseases. Was the lack of resources for the Continental Army the sole explanation for smallpox and other deadly ailments? While he believed scarcity and poor nutrition were contributing factors, he sensed there was more to it.
“What causes this plague is to be attributed I don’t know. It seems to me, that the want of tents, clothes, soap, vegetables, vinegar, vaults &c. cannot account for it all.”
He perceived that the enemy, the British military, was better supplied.
“Oatmeal and peas, are a great preservative of our enemies. Our frying pans and gridirons slay more than the sword.”
Adams and other members of the Continental Congress had developed a plan for improving conditions, such as recruiting the best available physicians and surgeons.
“I pray God it may have its desired effect, and that the lives and health of the soldiers may be saved by it.”
Despite the Continental Congress’s efforts to promote hygiene and provide more resources, more soldiers died from disease during the American Revolution than from battlefield injuries. Historians estimate that disease claimed 17,000 while 6,800 were killed in action.
Today, large stones mark the place where Adams walked among the congregation of the dead and held his day of private memorial.
This memorial is known as Washington Square. A plaque marks the tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution:
“Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”
Such markers of memorial transcend generations. Lt. Col. Oliver North had an Adams-like moment while leaving Iraq for Kuwait in December 2006 with a Fox News crew aboard a U.S. Marine C-130 aircraft.
“Today’s flight, call sign ‘Midas 10,’ is designated as an ‘Angel Flight.’ It carries the flag-draped metal coffin containing the body of a young Marine captain, killed yesterday by enemy fire . . . Everyone is painfully aware that back home, an American family is going to grieve for Christmas,” North wrote of the somber flight.
North explained what happened when they arrived in Kuwait.
“The sun was setting as six camouflage-clad pall bearers reverently carried the flag-draped coffin down the ramp of the C-130. At the command of the pilot who had flown the ‘Angel Flight,’ an honor guard of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines drawn up in two ranks on either side of the ramp saluted the fallen Marine captain.”
“Where did this detail come from?” North asked a staff sergeant.
The sergeant explained that the soldiers had come from all over the base.
“We do it for every Angel Flight. The same thing will happen when he arrives in the states—even if it’s Christmas. He’s our brother,” the sergeant replied.
“‘He’s our brother.’ What an eloquent statement about those who have fallen in this war. No press; no cameras—just a simple, moving ceremony honoring one of America’s fallen heroes,” North concluded.
As John Adams walking past a mass grave in 1777 and Oliver North watching soldiers salute the fallen in 2006 have shown, the inscription of the Revolution War’s unknown soldier memorial applies to all:
“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”
PRAYER: Father, thank you for the unknown heroes who sacrificed for my freedom.
Adapted from Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, a 365-day devotional book available on Amazon. Autographed copies are available on Janecook.com.