Washington Square Park Embraces Sacred Ground

The mighty bronze replica statue of George Washington, sculpted by the legendary Jean Antoine Houdon, stands watch at Philadelphia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington Square. An engraving on the great tomb reminds everyone that thousands of unknown soldiers of The American Revolution lie in unmarked graves having made the ultimate sacrifice for liberty.

Washington Square is one of the five great parks in Philadelphia that was designed by William Penn. For nearly 90 years, beginning in 1706, Washington Square, then referred to as Southeast Square, was used as a burial ground for the city’s poor and destitute.

Washington Square has forever been a place where life and death have embraced. For many years the burial ground played host to grazing cattle, family picnics, a well visited fishing spot, an enormous hayfield and even a Christian tent revival or two. Even slaves were allowed to gather there in celebration of the dead.

During 1778, as the Revolutionary War dragged on, many of the dead were carried to Philadelphia for burial in the square. American prisoners of war were held at the nearby Walnut Street Jail. Confinement, and their treatment at the hands of British soldiers, was so horrific that the daily dead were simply dragged across the street and buried in unmarked mass graves in the square.

Yet again, in 1793, Southeast Square became the final resting place for over 5000 Philadelphians who died from an epidemic of Yellow Fever. In 1825, the city launched an initiative to clean up the park and not use it as a mass grave any longer. Southeast Square became Washington Square and in 1954 it was decided that a statue of Washington should be placed there in honor of all of the dead who had come there to finally rest. The eternal flame that burns there is a stark reminder to everyone that they have come to a place of honor. They have come to a place where life and death battled it out together.