LIVING HISTORY

KEARNY — On the western side of Belgrove Drive, between Bergen Ave. and Afton St., Veterans Memorial Field slopes down nearly to the banks of the Passaic River. On this grassy expanse, one can see Kearny’s young athletes playing baseball, softball and football. 

But sometimes we wonder: On days and nights when the field is empty, and when the wind wafts up from the river, shrouding the hill in mist, could one possibly see others? 

Do ghosts walk here?

From 1887 to 1932, the 15-acre site was occupied by the N.J. Home for Disabled Soldiers & Sailors (a/k/a The Old Soldiers’ Home), first housing veterans of the Civil War, and later the Spanish American War and World War I. 

Exactly how many veterans found a haven here, we don’t know. But a haven it was for 45 years.

On the opposite side of Belgrove stood the facility’s stables and the residence of the home’s supervisor. The former building was later converted to American Legion Post 99; the latter, to VFW Post 1302. Those structures, and the statue of a Civil War infantryman that stands between them, are all that remain of this episode of Kearny history.  But on Oct. 28, thanks to Civil War historian and author William Styple, reenactors set up a small encampment to provide a living history lesson as part of this town’s Sesquicentennial.

Styple, armed with a laptop and computerized maps,  even led a walking tour of the Old Soldiers’ Home property, but since that entailed tramping up and down a steep hill, your correspondent unfortunately had to skip that part. But we still learned much.

Before the tour, Styple gave a short lecture by the aforementioned statue, which had originally stood guard in front of the home. After that closed, the statue was removed, somehow damaged, placed in storage and forgotten — until about 10 years ago, when it was discovered at the National Guard Armory in West Orange.

(Members of the General Phil Kearny Memorial Committee reportedly raised funds to restore it and place it at its current location, where it was formally rededicated in September 2007.)

The infantryman, now standing on a 7-ton boulder from the Gettysburg Battlefield, gazes across Belgrove to his former post.

 Styple also noted that from 1861 to 1865, Civil War wounded were taken to a military hospital in Newark, but the State of New Jersey realized that many veterans would need longer-term treatment and housing. According to the N.J. Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, the first such home in the state — and the nation — was opened in Newark in 1866. Others followed, across N.J. and the U.S.

In her 1967 book, “Heritage and Legacy” — marking Kearny’s Centennial — Emma May Vilardi wrote about how the residents of the Belgrove Drive home “became a part of the community,”  participating in the township’s “elections, celebrations and sorrows.” 

She continued: “At the turn of the century [19th to 20th], an unforgettable sight took place on Memorial Day, when the children of Kearny, laden with flowers, helped the old soldiers decorate the graves of their comrades-in-arms, laid to rest in the Arlington Cemetery” on Schuyler Ave.

During the encampment, held in the small park next to the VFW, reenactors pitched tents, drilled in formation, and explained to attendees the fine points of Civil War camp life.

Such as the vittles — like hardtack and beans. Yum.

The troops were under the command of Lawrence Sangi of Bayonne, Company E, 15th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, who supervised the drills and educated the onlookers about such things as the history of the uniforms being worn. When the Civil War began, the Yankee soldiers were issued really nifty-looking frock coats, which cost $14 each in 1861 (according to Google, about $370 in 2017 currency). In time, the budget-minded government replaced these with short jackets costing $3 ($44 today).  

The infantryman statue atop the boulder was lucky and got a frock coat.

Other tidbits: 

• The familiar “kepi” caps the troops wore were copied from the French army.

• The Civil War marked the first mass production of right and left shoes.

• For some of the soldiers, Army-issued drawers were the first underwear they ever had. (Supposedly, a common practical joke among troops was to tell such an individual that the drawers were to be worn over their slacks.)

We learned lots more, and we were there a relatively short time. Personally, our hope is that we’ll have the opportunity to attend another encampment sometime in the future.

One other “lesson”: At one point, we were talking to Styple — who has been a reenactor since 1974 — and we had our back to the troops.  Ergo, we did not see that they were preparing to fire their rifles.  When the shots rang out, we shrieked. (Styple did not even flinch.)

It was only later that the obvious occurred to us: If  that was the sound of just four soldiers firing, what kind of hellish noise filled a battlefield? (And why did that never cross our mind before?)

We will be thinking about that this Saturday, when the nation marks Veterans Day. We will be thinking about it especially during the minute of silence at 11 a.m.  And we will be thinking about the ghosts of the brave who died for our country.

So many, many ghosts.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent