Revolution, town’s birthday, both celebrated on 4th in Belleville

BELLEVILLE

In the cemetery of the Belleville Dutch Reformed Church, at Main and Rutgers Sts., stands an impressive monument bearing on bronze plaques the names of 68 Revolutionary War veterans buried in the churchyard.

On July 4, as is done every year at the township’s Independence Day celebration, each of the names is read aloud, in a roll call honoring their military service. We have attended the event several times and have always been deeply moved by the roll call, the singing of the National Anthem, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the raising of the 13-star American flag and the prayers for our nation (this year led by the Rev. Ivan Sciberras, pastor of St. Peter’s Church, Belleville).

But perhaps most moving of all is the obvious respect displayed by the scores of people, from children to senior citizens, who fill the tiny cemetery, their presence a tribute not only to those whose names are read but to all who have served our country, and to the country itself. For July 4 marks both a Declaration of Independence and the preservation of that freedom over the centuries.

The day is also, by the way, this township’s birthday.  

On July 4, 1797, what had been been called, unofficially, the village of Second River officially became Belleville. Happy 220th!

We never knew that until last week. But then, every time we visit the historic churchyard, we learn something new. At this year’s ceremony, our attention was caught by a small tombstone located just to the south of the large Revolution veterans’ monument. Next to it stands a statue of an American eagle, and in front is a cannonball.  

The headstone bears the following inscription:

Hermanus Brown
8 June 1780
18 years old
Behold me here as you pass by
Who died for liberty
From British tyrants now I’m free
My friends, prepare to follow me

Intrigued, we sought information from Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society, who noted that Brown is the only township Revolutionary War soldier buried in the cemetery after being killed in battle.   

(Those named on the main monument fought but were fortunate enough to survive the war.)

Brown was killed by a British cannonball during the Battle of Connecticut Farms in what is now Union Township, Union County. Perrone explained that, during the Revolution, the dead were usually interred on the battlefield where they fell. But Hermanus father, Henry Brown, and two brothers also fought at Connecticut Farms, and they brought his body home to Belleville.

Thing is, the tombstone does not mark Brown’s actual grave. As with many of the centuries’ old burials, records have been lost. As have original headstones. It is not known exactly where in the cemetery he lies. But the inscription is accurate.

For that, you can thank a long-ago minister/historian (sorry, we don’t have his name) who traveled the country recording epitaphs inscribed on Revolutionary War graves. In Brown’s case, this was especially crucial, for as Perrone explained, at some point during the war, “Brown’s stone was smashed by British loyalists.  

Obviously, not everyone in our area believed in Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

From Perrone, we also learned about Pvt. Joseph Hornblower, the first soldier from Belleville to die in the Revolution. Perrone noted that only recently had the date of death, April 4, 1777, been confirmed. Aged 21, he was killed in action at the Battle of Quibbletown (a section of Piscataway).

Perrone wrote: Joseph was born in 1756 in the Hornblower home adjacent to the old Dutch Reformed Church … He was the eldest son of Josiah and Elizabeth Hornblower. His father, Josiah, assembled the first steam engine in America, served as Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly during the war and after the war served in the Continental Congress and worked on the passage of the U.S. Constitution.”

Unlike Hermanus Brown, Joseph Hornblower never made it home to Belleville. 

Perrone said he was most likely buried in an unmarked grave on or near the battlefield, as was the practice at the time.”

The most dramatic part of the Belleville ceremony is the 21-gun salute the gun being a cannon, fired 21 times. We often wonder what those area residents who are unaware of the tradition think is happening. Are there 911 calls asking if Belleville is at war?

In 1777, it was. On Sept. 12-14 of that year, the town was the scene of the Battle of Second River. An estimated 600 British troops, intent on stealing cattle for food, marched down what is now the Belleville Pike, set up cannons on the eastern side of the Passaic River and bombarded the Belleville shoreline, including the Dutch Reformed Church.

The American militiamen managed to hold them off for a while but eventually withdrew westward, where fighting continued. We don’t know if the Brits ever got any cattle, though, because their commander decided to head up to Bergen County instead.

According to www.revolutionarywarnewjersey.com, British casualties at the Battle of Second River included eight men killed, 19 wounded, 10 missing, and five taken prisoner. Only two Americans died. Alas, we know the name of just one, Pvt. Benjamin Salter of the Morris County Militia, killed in action in Belleville in the second day of fighting.

Noted Perrone, “The American position on that day was located along what is now Mill St. between Union and Franklin Aves.

Like Pvt. Hornblower, Salter would have been buried there in an unmarked grave on or alongside the battlefield.”

History, dear readers, is all around us. And sometimes literally under our feet. Think about that once in a while.

(P.S. Wouldn’t you love to know how Quibbletown got its name?)

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent