By Eric ModelAs Memorial Day approaches, hopefully we’ll all take some time and pause to recall those who lost their lives in war.
Though we now remember those from all wars who sacrificed their lives for us, the origins of Memorial Day can be pointed to the Civil War.
Interestingly, New Jersey plays a unique role in the history of that period.
The State of New Jersey was a state divided on the eve of the Civil War. Being economically and socially tied to markets in the South, New Jersey was split over secession and staying in the Union. Regardless of the state’s position in the North, it was very sympathetic to the plight of the South. In fact, the citizens of New Jersey did not even vote in favor of Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860. Although the state was divided, it nonetheless supplied 31 regiments and more than 25,000 men by the war’s end. New Jersey was a key geographical location since it divided New York City and Philadelphia. Its location ensured a constant movement of troops throughout the area.
Soldiers from New Jersey served in some of the most infamous battles of the war including Antietam and Gettysburg.
Even to this day, the War Between the States and its aftermath can be experienced in our state.
Finn’s Point National Cemetery, located about six miles northwest of Salem, is a most unique place – containing remains of both Confederate and Union soldiers. It is at the north end of what was Fort Mott Military Reservation. Today, the picturesque cemetery is entirely surrounded by the Killchohook National Wildlife Refuge and is adjacent to Fort Mott State Park, a place that used to mark the point of entry and exit between Delaware Bay and River.Originally, the United States purchased the land for the construction of the Finn’s Point Battery to protect the Port of Philadelphia. By 1863, however, the grounds increasingly served as a burial site for Confederate prisoners of war who died while imprisoned at Fort Delaware.
In fact, Finn’s Point is the only known cemetery to retain a large number of Confederate Civil War dead. 2,436 Confederate men and boys are believed to be buried at Finn’s Point; many were prisoners from the Battle of Gettysburg who died at the Fort Delaware Prison. Other interments at the cemetery include Union soldiers who served as guards at the prison, veterans of later wars, and Nazi war prisoners who died at Fort Dix.
Fort Delaware was on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, one mile east of Delaware City. The island was named after a colonial-era tale that a boat loaded with peas ran aground on a river shoal, and the peas sprouted in the sandy loam. In 1847, Congress appropriated $1 million to construct the largest modern coastal defense fort in the nation here, surpassing Fort Sumter in size, to protect the ports of Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.
In April 1862, Fort Delaware received its first POWs – 358 Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Kernstown, Va. By January 1866 when the prison closed, approximately 22,773 men occupied the fort, including soldiers, officers and other prisoners.
An estimated 2,502 men died while imprisoned at Fort Delaware. Even prior to its designation as a national cemetery, the remains of POWs were transported to Finn’s Point across the river for burial. When weather or ice made trips to the mainland hazardous, it was necessary to bury the bodies on Pea Patch Island.
On May 12, 1875, Virginia Gov. James L. Kemper wrote to the secretary of war concerning the neglected Confederate graves on Pea Patch Island. In response, Gen. E.D. Townsend advised the governor that Finn’s Point would be made a national cemetery and the remains of soldiers – both Union and Confederate – would be reinterred there. Finn’s Point was official declared a national cemetery Oct. 3, 1875.Having both Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War buried within the confines of the same national cemetery, albeit in separate sections, makes Finns Point somewhat unique. Arlington National Cemetery does have a Confederate Circle and Philadelphia National Cemetery encloses a separate Confederate section. More typical are the separate national cemeteries for Confederates at Camp Chase, Elmira, Point Lookout, and Johnson’s Island. Burial sites used during the war exclusively for the Confederate soldiers, sailors, and civilians who died in Federal prisons and military hospitals in the North were designated as national cemeteries after the war.
A Union Monument was installed in 1879 in memory of 135 Union guards who died while on duty at Fort Delaware and who were interred at the cemetery.
A Confederate Monument was erected by the U.S. government in 1910 to memorialize Confederate soldiers buried at the cemetery. The 85-foot tall concrete and granite obelisk features bronze tablets listing the names of 2,436 Confederate prisoners of war who died at Fort Delaware during the Civil War.
Finn’s Point National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
Today, the small cemetery is nearly surrounded by tidal marshes and tall grass that encroach the stone enclosure walls. It’s a peaceful place, set as it is near the water on a small plot of land in Pennsville – nearly surrounded by the Delaware River. In fact, nowadays, the park is even more quiet – closed, a victim to the waters of the Delaware.
Yet, the spirit of that earlier time is still present – and one that we should recall during this holiday weekend.
Eric Model explores the “offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten” on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com.