“The Unhappy Condition of Our Poor Fellows”

On the edge of the historic town of Litiz, Pennsylvania in Lancaster County stands an impressive, unique, and solemn, historic site. Two stone monuments and a plaque comprise the complex, marking the final burial of Continental soldiers from the hospital that stood nearby.

The historic marker says that wounded from the battles of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) and Germantown (October 4, 1777) were received here. Yet that does not match what I uncovered in researching this. The dates of the Lititz hospital seem to coincide more with the Valley Forge (winter 1777-78) timeframe. 

In late summer, 1777, British General William Howe and his army left New Jersey and invaded Pennsylvania with the object of capturing Philadelphia. General George Washington’s army tried to stop the British at Brandywine but met defeat. The British occupied Philadelphia, and Washington struck back at Germantown, but again came up short. There were many smaller battles across southeastern Pennsylvania like Paoli, Fort Mifflin, and Whitemarsh. 

As the seat of the war moved from northern New Jersey to southeastern Pennsylvania, the Continental army had to set up a new support system of supply depots and hospitals. This part of Pennsylvania was home to many religious groups, some of whom were pacifists, like Quakers and Moravians. These groups avoided direct participation in the war, but offered to assist the wounded as an act of compassion.

Moravian settlers founded Lititz in the 1740s, six miles above Lancaster. Like many religious groups persecuted in Europe, they found sanctuary in Pennsylvania, where they were free to worship as they pleased and establish their own community and traditions. By the time of the war, Pennsylvania had one of the most diverse populations of ethnic and religious groups.

What about that hospital in Lititz?  Reports and journals from 1777 indicate that the wounded from Brandywine were sent to other locations like Ephrata, Trenton, Easton, Allentown, Philadelphia, and Bethlehem, but not Lititz. The hospital in Bethlehem received 500 men, of which 1/3 died. The 9th Virginia Regiment sent 40 men there, of which 38 died.

The entire hospital system of the Continental army was unprepared for the influx from two major battles and a winter encampment. Supplies were low, the transportation system inefficient, and the Continental currency was fast losing its value. In some cases dirty and bloodstained blankets were re-used, as was dirty straw. There was no knowledge of germs and sanitation was poor.  The Continental army’s hospital system was in its infancy, having instituted reforms that fall.  General Washington himself wrote, “I sincerely feel for the unhappy condition of our Poor Fellows in the Hospitals.”

In the Moravian town of Lititz, the Brethren’s House was taken over by the military for a hospital. This was a massive four-story stone building where single male members of the community lived. The Brethren vacated their stone house and resided elsewhere during these months.

The military used the building from December 19, 1777 to August 28, 1778. These dates are well past the September and October battles of Brandywine and Germantown.  Although some seriously wounded from those engagements may have been still recovering, and sent here, it seems more likely that the Lititz hospital was treating sick and wounded from Valley Forge, which the army established on December 19- the very day that the facility opened in Lititz.

Monument at the grave site. Author photo.

Records indicate that 173 soldiers arrived at the Brethren’s House between January 11-22, and of them 10 died.  Between February 1 and April 20, 1778, an additional 264 men arrived, of which 83 died or deserted, mostly the later.

The hospital closed in August, 1778, having been in existence for eight months (December, 1777-August, 1778).  The ill and wounded filled all the rooms and overflowed into the hallway.  Lititz physician Dr. Adolph Meyer helped the military staff. Even the two military doctors became ill at one point. Although the hospital was active in June, 1778 when the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey was fought, it does not seem that wounded from that distant battle reached here. 

Dr. William Brown, Physician General of the hospital, wrote the very first pharmacopoeia (medical encyclopedia) published in the United States here in 1778. The pharmacopeia listed drugs for medical treatment and was written specifically for use by the military’s hospitals.

Moravian customs did not allow non-members to be buried in the cemetery behind the church in town, so the 110 dead soldiers were buried just outside the village limits. Their exact burial sites was unknown, and in 1930 the federal government placed a stone monument in the vicinity of the mass grave. The remains were discovered in 1932 during construction and moved.  A 1999 state historic marker stands on the street indicating the location.

The 1930 monument. Author photo.

If indeed there were about 500 wounded brought here, and 110 died, that equates to a fatality rate of about 1/5, or 20%, not good odds. The Lititz military hospital represents a forgotten aspect of the Revolution. We tend to focus on battles and generals, and less about the aftermath of battles, and the support systems that supplied and took care of the armies.  

The location of the mass grave, just behind the large monument. Author photo.

The participation of minority groups is also seen in this story. Pennsylvania had a large population during the war, but several minority groups like Moravians and Quakers were not active participants. They experienced the war in other ways.

Connecting Lititz’s Revolutionary War past to the present is one of the longest-running July 4th traditions in the nation. Its origins are obscure, but by 1811, the town was holding an annual Fourth of July celebration at the Springs, a wooded area in the center of town. By 1843 it had become a large event featuring 400 candles. The tradition continues today.

12 thoughts on ““The Unhappy Condition of Our Poor Fellows”

      1. Robert A. Selig

        Bert – this fits in very nicely with our current ABPP project on the Battle of Brandywine and what happened to the wounded. Do you have any names? If you are interested we can continue our conversation via my email robertaselig at gmail dot com Thank you! Bob

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Mike Crossin

    Very interesting, Bert.
    On the Nov ’22 ERW tour; I plan to see some of the lesser-known Rev War sites in PA & NJ before or after the tour.
    Looking forward to your Rev War in NJ book; out in Feb ’22?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert A. Selig

      Mike – you probably know this already but if not put Yellow Springs about 45 miles east of Lititz onto your tour calendar. There was a CA hospital there and a cemetery as well. Bob

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Bert Dunkerly

      Thanks Mike, there are continued delays unfortunately, so I ‘m not sure when the book will be out, thanks for keeping an eye out for it!


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