Lake George’s drive to honor the many who died at the smallpox hospital at Fort George in the first years of the American Revolution continues to gather momentum.
Following a discussion of the proposal at the January 11 meeting of the Adirondack Park Agency, the APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation opened a public hearing and announced that both agencies are accepting comments about plans to reinter the soldiers’ remains within a memorial plaza at Lake George Battlefield Park.
The memorial would be situated on the east side of Fort George Road, within a short walk from the Lake George Battlefield Park Visitor Center.
The proposal requires the support of New York State, which has owned Battlefield Park since 1898 and whose Department of Environmental Conservation manages it as a historic site and public park, and the APA, which must approve any alterations to state-owned lands within the Adirondack Park, as prescribed by the State Land Master Plan, which the New York State legislature approved in 1972.
Both agencies will accept public comments through February 19, 2024.
The Boards of both the Village and the Town of Lake George have approved resolutions supporting “respectful reburials” of the remains found at the construction site inside Lake George Battlefield Park.
Both houses of the New York State legislature have also adopted resolutions supporting reinterment in Battlefield Park.
Lake George officials requested officials to intervene on behalf of the community with the U.S. Army.
“The U.S. Army wants to establish that the construction site in Lake George Village was a military cemetery before it can endorse the reinternment of the remains that were found there. We feel we have the documentation to prove that,” said Dan Barusch.,the Lake George Planning Director who chairs a committee spearheading the effort.
According to the DEC, the Office of US Army Cemeteries does not oppose the burial of the colonial soldiers’ remains in Battlefield Park, but has yet to formally endorse the proposal.
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, who visited the site in August, 2023, has said he has called upon the U.S. Army to facilitate the reinterment of the remains and perhaps contribute to the expense of creating a memorial plaza.
According to Dan Barusch, the “Repose of the Fallen,” as the memorial will be named, could cost as much as $500,000.
Much, if not all of its costs, however, are likely to be funded by a $10 million state Downtown Revitalization grant, awarded Lake George on December 27. As one of the revitalization plan’s “anchor projects,” the memorial plaza helped Lake George secure the award.
Honoring Patriots Who Died at Lake George
According to Barusch, Battlefield Park is already the home of the nation’s oldest, officially recognized monument honoring Unknown Soldiers.
Those remains – which, in all likelihood, belong to American provincials who were fighting on behalf of the British king at the 1755 Battle of Lake George – were found during the construction of a road near Lake George in the 1930s and were reburied in the park at that time.
Some 75 years later, in February, 2019, Revolutionary War soldiers’ remains were discovered at a construction site in Lake George Village.
According to Chuck Vandrei, the Environmental Conservation Department Historic Preservation Officer who briefed the APA about the project, the remains of 44 individuals were uncovered once officials halted construction at the site.
Additional remains were found in October, 2023 behind the Lobster Pot restaurant at the corner of Mohican and Canada Streets.
“There are consistencies between the burial of these skeletal remains and those found on Courtland Street in 2019, leading us to surmise that these, too, belonged to someone who died at Fort George,” said Dan Barusch.
“We think the entire ground was a cemetery,” he said.
In fact, Lake George Village may have been the site of the largest military cemetery in the original 13 colonies during the War of Independence.
The remains of those found at Courtland Street and near the restaurant will be among the first to be reinterred at Battlefield Park.
Fort George: Largest Military Hospital in North America
During the American Revolution, Fort George, whose ruins can still be seen in Battlefield Park, was the location of the largest military hospital in the colonies, according to Russell Bellico, the author of several books about Lake George during the 18th century and a trustee of the Lake George Battlefield Alliance, which operates the Visitor Center in Battlefield Park.
Founded in the summer of 1776 by General Horatio Gates, the hospital was used to house colonial troops who had contracted smallpox during the Americans’ unsuccessful campaign to separate Canada from the British Empire.
Gates wrote George Washington that the Northern Army was “infected with pestilence…To put this evil from us, a General Hospital is established at Fort George…where every infected person is immediately sent.”
By August of that year, roughly 2,000 patients were being treated at the new hospital, with twenty to thirty dying every day.
The graves discovered in Lake George Village in 2019 are among the hundreds dug to bury those who died from smallpox and other diseases at the hospital, said Chuck Vandrei.
Dr. Lewis Beebe, a 27-year-old doctor travelling back and forth between Fort Ticonderoga and his home in Massachusetts and who stopped more than once at Fort George, wrote that as of August, 1776, three hundred graves had been dug at the cemetery, which he called “the burying place.”
It made him “melancholy,” he wrote in his journal, “to see such desolation made in our army.”
According to Lyn Karig Hohmann, a past president of the Lake George Battlefield Park Alliance. “The remains found in Lake George Village showed no signs of trauma.”
That fact, she said, confirms the hypothesis of archaeologists and historians that the dead were not soldiers who died in battle but, rather, from disease.
“A lot of these troops came from the rural areas of New England and the middle Atlantic colonies, where they would have never been exposed to smallpox. So the dead had a catastrophic impact,” said Chuck VanDrei.
Among the dead is at least one soldier from the Continental Army’s First Pennsylvania Battalion.
The identification was made with the help of buttons from a uniform in which the soldier was buried, said Vandrei.
According to Dr. Matthew Keagle, Fort Ticonderoga’s curator, the presence of the First Pennsylvania Battalion at Fort George, the British-built fort at the head of the lake, is a well-documented fact.
The Continental Army at Lake George
Constructed in the late 1750s to support Britain’s campaigns against the French at Lake Champlain, Fort George was captured by the Americans in 1775.
In January, 1776, the battalion was dispatched to Quebec, where it was to join an expedition led by Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold to detach Canada from Great Britain.
Travelling north from Albany, the Pennsylvania men arrived at Lake George in February, already “thinned by sickness and desertion… and very ill provided,” General Philip Schuyler noted.
While at Fort George, a few of the soldiers toured the ruins of Fort William Henry, which once led the late archaeologist David Starbuck to suggest that these troops were among the 1755 fort’s first tourists.
They may have been members of two companies that remained behind at Fort George; the largest part of the battalion had departed, transported by bateaux to the foot of the lake.
“Thence they marched across the portage to Fort Ticonderoga (and then) sailed to Crown Point,” according to a history of the battalion published in 1880.
According to Fort Ticonderoga’s Matthew Keagle, the troops arrived in Canada in the spring of 1776, months after the Americans had been repulsed at the walls of Quebec City in an assault that left Richard Montgomery dead and Benedict Arnold badly wounded.
Retreating to Fort Ticonderoga, the Pennsylvanians who had not contracted smallpox remained there until Burgoyne’s British troops took the fort in October, 1777.
The Lake George Battlefield Park Alliance commissioned a replica of the uniform worn by soldiers in First Pennsylvania Battalion, which is now on display in the new Visitor Center.
“Repose of the Fallen”
According to the DEC, the proposed reinterment facility would comprise: granite columbarium structures to house remains; a walking path connected to the existing park path system; stone benches; low key landscaping with native plants; and interpretive panels.
Dan Barusch said he anticipates a Memorial Day, 2025, dedication.