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Exploring Ocean County's Civil War History

Local historian and author Joseph Bilby discussed his book on African Americans who served in the Civil War, "Freedom to All," at the Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library

Joseph G. Bilby, who served as Lieutenant with the 1st infantry division in Vietnam, looked to another war as the focus of his book, "Freedom to All."

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War this year, a look at how the war impacted New Jersey was the focus of a recent discussion at Toms River branch of the Ocean County Library, led by Bilby.

Published last year, Bilby’s book “Freedom to All” about the often overlooked African Americans who fought in the Civil War, discusses both free men and former slaves who joined the Union army and navy.

Though Toms River has no record of black soldiers in the Civil War, the township had many residents join the fight. 

Many duck hunters were recruited from the Toms River area and served in the 9th, 14th, and 29th divisions on the North Carolina coast, he said.

Ocean County was not formed from Monmouth County until 1850, and so Monmouth County has the best archives from the Civil War, said Bilby. 

Most black people living in New Jersey before the Civil War lived in the southernmost parts of the state.

“South Jersey, if anything, was the most anti-slavery part of the state,” said Bilby. 

Quakers, who were the first abolitionists, had great influence over Southern New Jersey while northern industrial towns like Hackensack were anti-war, said Bilby. 

Bilby said there were a few black officers commissioned during the Civil War but most African Americans served under white officers. 

Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1804, Bilby said. Anyone born after July 4th that year was free. Gradual emancipation in New Jersey allowed for African American slaves to be freed according to their age, men at 25 years old and women at 24 years old.

More than 3,000 African Americans from New Jersey served in the Union war effort, of whom about 2,000 served in the army and 300 served in the navy.

Bilby said a number of men who were identified as African American by the army were actually of Native American descent. Some Native Americans who served in black coalitions included men from the “Jackson Whites,” said Bilby. 

New Jersey never recruited a state identified African American unit, but the federal government supervised “colored recruitment,” said Bilby. 

Many African Americans who served in the Civil War were credited to other states, Bilby said. Military personnel from other states including Connecticut recruited former slaves living in New Jersey to fill their quotas. 

Only after its first African American soldiers were recruited under other states did New Jersey decide to attract volunteers for the war, using posters offering cash incentives as high as $200.  

Many soldiers of the 22nd United States Infantry regiment were African American and trained at Camp William Penn, the training camp for black soldiers, said Bilby. 

The 22nd regiment fought at battles including the siege at Petersburg. They marched in Lincoln’s funeral procession and were involved in the search for John Wilkes Booth. 

Bilby described post Civil War America as “a lot more complicated” than many give credit. 

“It was a racist country really...it was a matter of degree,” Bilby said.

For example, after the war ended the owner of Asbury Park announced that blacks were only allowed on the beach at night. 

“The elite took over government and ran it through the 1960’s,” said Bilby. 

After the war, the personal information of every Civil War veteran was archived. This organization made the retrieval of personal information for soldiers accessible when they came looking for military pension.   

Bilby told the stories of many African American soldiers whose cards he has uncovered. One such soldier was George Ashby from Burlington, the last surviving Civil War veteran from New Jersey. Ashby joined the army as a private and rose to become a sergeant. 

Another soldier, Decatur Dorsey, received the medal of honor for his service as a color sergeant at the battle of the Crater in July of 1864. Dorsey brought the flag upon Confederate lines in advance of his regiment and then rallied the army to retreat when they were driven back. 

Dorsey was originally from Maryland and was freed to join the army. After being released on honorable discharge Dorsey came to New Jersey where he died in 1891.

Bilby said that after the war, the National Guard for blacks did not last very long. Blacks petitioned to have their own National Guard Unit and soon formed a militia unit, training in New Jersey. This unit was formally recognized by the city of Atlantic City.

Bilby remarked on the lacking enthusiasm to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War compared to the celebration of its 100th year Anniversary. 

The 100th Anniversary had been romanticized by a culture obsessed with movies like “Gone With the Wind,” which spoke more to the Civil War era than anything in media does today, said Bilby. Back then, there was a commission to celebrate, now Bilby said he is part of an unpaid committee. 

Bilby is a member and publications editor of the New Jersey Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, the official committee for New Jersey’s commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Presently, Bilby is works part time as assistant curator of the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey in Sea Girt. 

Bilby received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees from Seton Hall, has written 300 articles to date on history, is a contributing editor for Military Images magazine, and has served as a consultant on the Civil War for numerous television programs.

Sean Conneamhe July 01, 2012 at 09:56 PM
"The Civil War is ancient history for most people." "Also consider the serious lack of interest in commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 this year."
Rick August 18, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

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