Barnegat Gets a Taste of Civil War Life

Nov 07, 2018
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

People driving down East Bay Avenue during the day Nov. 3 and 4 saw sights that would have taken them back to the 1860s. A Civil War encampment was set up by the 2nd New Jersey Brigade, a 30-year-old group of volunteers dedicated to commemorating the war through educational living-history programs.

“Overall, there seems to be a drop-off in interest in history, so that makes it very important for us to bring about awareness with these events,” said Michael Milling. “While the Revolutionary War might spark more interest here because of the part New Jersey played in it, there were so many people from the state who fought in the Civil War, so it should still be a relevant topic.”

The encampment featured cavalry, infantry, an African-American military unit (22nd United States Colored Infantry), field hospital, field music, signal corps and civilians.

“The whole idea is to give demonstrations on Civil War life, activities and duties,” Milling said. “While we don’t do any battle re-enactments, our goal is to make the Civil War experience as real as possible.”

Despite very windy conditions on Nov. 3, approximately 120 people stopped by, and the event drew around 70 the next day.  

Paul Egbert manned the signal corps station, demonstrating what was called “wig-wag signaling.” This was performed during daylight with a single flag tied to a hickory staff constructed in 4-foot jointed sections. Flags were generally made of cotton, linen or another lightweight fabric.

“This was how armies could communicate the positions of enemy movement,” he said. “It was the form of battlefield communication before the rise of electronic technology. The Confederates also had their own signal corps.” 

Next to the signal corps set-up was the quartermaster’s station.

“The quartermaster’s job was to make sure the units were kept up to date on supplies, such as ammunition, uniforms and food.”

Michele Catona was running the field hospital, explaining that the medical station dealt mostly with amputations. In front of her was an array of various cutting tools. For an anesthetic, the station used formaldehyde as ether had not been developed yet. And there weren’t any disinfectants because medical knowledge about infections and how they spread was not terribly advanced.

“Doctors then had very little knowledge compared to today,” said Catona. “Instruments were not sterilized.”

She said the Civil War resulted in a 622,000 fatalities including both Union and Confederate troops. “But two-thirds of the people who died passed away from diseases, not from battlefield wounds.”

The encampment also brought out more obscure facts of the war, such as the existence of the 22nd United States Colored Infantry, a New Jersey unit that had more than 680 members when organized in January 1864.

Robert Bowell, in charge of that aspect of the encampment, talked about how the infantry unit was sent to Virginia, where members spent the spring and early summer of 1964 constructing fortifications at Wilson’s Wharf and providing security along the James River. During this time, they often skirmished and repulsed Confederate cavalry probes. On June 15, the 22nd attached to the White XVIII Army Corps and attacked Petersburg, Va. The 22nd overran a Confederate trench line under a hail of bullets and at sunset attacked a well-armed Confederate fort, splashing through a swamp, winning the fort.

Bowell said when Gen. Grant ordered an attack on Richmond, the 22nd moved onto New Market Heights, where they attacked Confederate defenses on Sept. 29, 1864. Under the command of Major J.B. Cook, the 22nd wheeled into battle, sweeping the Rebel lines before them. From here the men were moved onto the grounds of the old Fair Oaks battlefield. Through command confusion, the regiment became separated but managed to overrun a Confederate artillery position before they were pushed back by a Rebel counterattack.

After Gen. Lee’s surrender, the 22nd marched to Washington and participated in President Lincoln’s funeral procession, followed by their deployment on the Maryland side of the Potomac as the army hunted John Wilkes Booth.

“With Booth’s capture and death, the 22nd still had one more job to complete,” Bowell said. “The French had installed Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. They patrolled the Rio Grande border until their recall to Philadelphia in October 1865 where they were mustered out of service.”

During the night of Nov. 3, 2nd Brigade volunteers sat outside and watched parts of the 1982 television miniseries “The Blue and the Grey” on a movie screen. 

“That was a nice way to relax after a busy day,” said Milling. “The encampment went better this year because last year we only did it for one day because we got hit by a nor’easter. We look to be back next year and make it annual tradition in Barnegat.”    

— Eric Englund










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