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The Morning Call: Geologists search for kiln where Gen. Washington stored military effects in Bethlehem

May 23rd, 2016 |

May 20, 2016 | In The News

Written by Nicole Radzievich for The Morning Call

On Bethlehem’s Burnside Plantation, underneath a grassy patch lined by mature weeping willow trees, scientific sleuths fanned out to uncover a historical mystery involving Gen. George Washington.

Using equipment similar to what police use to search for buried bodies, Kutztown University geology professor Laura Sherrod and a trio of her students searched for evidence that a kiln occupied that spot 239 years ago.

Such a kiln might be where Washington stashed important papers, ammunition or personal effects in September 1777 after the Battle of Brandywine in Chester County, a defeat that prompted the Continental Congress to flee Philadelphia.

Important objects — including the Liberty Bell, which was taken to Allentown — went with the troops. And scholarly research suggests that the Continental Army stored something important enough at Burnside to guard it with 40 soldiers.

“What was it?” mused Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites. “What was so important that Gen. Washington ordered 40 soldiers — in the middle of the war — to guard?”

Volunteers at Historic Bethlehem haven’t found much more in written records, so they turned to Sherrod’s team to help find some physical clues at Burnside, now a living museum of Colonial life.

Volunteer Bob Windolph reviewed a 1758 map at the Moravian Archives that shows the kiln across the Monocacy Creek from Burnside, roughly where the Casilio concrete business now operates.

“We thought that was pretty much the end of our search until a local historian showed us that in the late 1760s, an additional brick kiln was built closer to the supply of clay on the Burnside property,” said Windolph, a Historic Bethlehem trustee.

The Moravians, Christian missionaries, settled Bethlehem in 1741 along the banks of the Monocacy. They were an industrious bunch, developing 50 industries by 1760, and kept building as the population climbed toward 1,000.

The location of Bethlehem, about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, put the growing community in Washington’s sights as a possible safe haven.

Being pacifists, Moravians didn’t fight in the Revolutionary War, but they left an indelible mark on it. In 1776, Washington ordered the General Hospital of the Continental Army be moved to Bethlehem. Battle-worn soldiers, including a slightly wounded young Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette, were treated in Bethlehem, and prisoners of war were taken there. One of the largest mass graves of the war is across the Monocacy Creek.

Bethlehem was easy to get to from Philadelphia, but far enough away from the battlefields.

John Smith, a history professor at Lehigh University, speculated that Washington’s sending of ammunition, cannonballs and other provisions to a place like Bethlehem made sense because it was a good distance from the navigable waters the British relied on.

“The British needed supply lines, and the further inland they went was basically hostile territory,” Smith said. “They could not keep troops there well-supplied, so Bethlehem was fairly safe.”

In a 1903 book of Bethlehem’s early history, Joseph Mortimer Levering documented Washington’s orders to take military effects to Bethlehem.

“With this message, 36 wagons arrived from French Creek, laden with such stores. They were followed the next day by 38 wagons,” Levering writes. “These supplies were deposited at the lime kilns near the Monocacy, a little to the north of the town, under a guard of 40 troops.”

Published excerpts of the Bethlehem Diary on Sept. 16, 1777, show the Moravians “represented that Bethlehem was no fit place for storing supplies, especially as there were so many prisoners here, but all in vain. The wagons were unloaded near the tile kilns and a guard of 40 men placed.”

Windolph hopes he can find that kiln with the results of Sherrod’s analysis.

Sherrod hopes to “see” as much as 10 feet beneath the surface based on the results of a magnetometer and ground-penetrating radar. The technology won’t work as well if the testing is done atop the clay soil that attracted the early kiln operators.

She said the equipment might be able to pinpoint metal nails and identify foundations as well as changes in the soil spurred by the heat of the kiln or fires from soldier encampments.

If the correct Burnside kiln is found, and if it was where Washington’s troops stood guard, could Sherrod’s equipment determine the identity of the treasured items?

Not likely, Windolph said, but it could provide an important piece of the puzzle.

Any clues he finds could point him to others buried in the Moravian Archives or perhaps the collection at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia and, perhaps the answer to what was stored inside the Burnside kiln.

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