The memory and sacredness of Unknown Revolutionary War soldiers

On this Veteran’s Day, I want to begin a dialogue with public historians, museum professionals, and the public about ideas of memory juxtaposed with sacredness and new ways of interpretation. My focus is the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Society Hill, Philadelphia, PA.

During my summer in Philadelphia in 2014, a friend and I wandered across a serene park in Society Hill during the July 4th celebration. This was our first trip to the neighborhood, and we had no clue of what lay around us beyond historic houses. We first saw newlyweds having their photos taken, and I thought “oh how nice.” Then I saw the memorial to “thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington’s Army” and wondered if the newlyweds realized their first photos were taken on a sacred burial site.  We had arrived at Washington Square and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, designed by architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh, with a memorial built in 1957. Did the couple know or care that they were celebrating on sacred historical ground? Was the sacredness of the site an issue to them?

I am a Daughter of the American Revolution, and I had two immediate feelings as my friend and I paused for a moment of silence. The first thought – how appropriate on July 4th to witness this memorial and stand in appreciation of the hardship and sacrifice of the Revolutionary War soldiers. The second thought – why is there no Sentinel guarding this tomb like the one in Arlington, or a Park Ranger explaining the significance to visitors who do not read the memorial? Why is no one enforcing the sacredness of the spot?

My goal for this blog post is not to lodge a complaint about a lack of watch over the site. Many unknown soldier tombs are not guarded. Instead, I wish to engage in one idea of how public historians can keep the interpretation of the Revolutionary War relevant to the ever-modernizing public, and then ask “are we supposed to enforce sacredness?”

I held a quick online forum with Philadelphia DAR members yesterday to see if any chapters honored the site during Veterans Day or Memorial Day and found that a few members have laid memorial wreaths in the past. One DAR member interacted directly with a Park Ranger at the site. This tells me that there are societies who keep the site and the memory associated with it sacred; however, a few select groups laying wreaths on specific dates cannot make the site relevant to society as a whole.

So how can we keep the memory of sites such as the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier alive? One of the best ways I can think of to connect with 13-30 year olds (a group that represents the minority of history museum visitors) is through smartphone apps. You can find the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier on the Field Trip App, and no doubt it is listed on other apps. The beauty of these historical apps is ultimately the shared authority of history buffs weaving the historical landscape into the technological landscape and making it available and interesting to more members of the public. So now what? We’ve identified one way to make history available with a free app.

The big question now is: “Is memory automatically tied to historical sacredness?” Will an app user think “oh that’s cool” or question what it means to have a memorial to the soldiers who died forming this Nation? Thus, is the sacredness of the burial ground inherent, or does sacredness require yearly re-enforcement through wreath laying, parades, or a Sentinel – such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington? Should public historians concern themselves with enforcing sacredness through public rituals, or let the idea of sacredness come naturally as the public finds history on their own?

I welcome discussion, suggestions, thoughts, and direction.

Special thanks to Hayley Moll for edits.

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