Looking for Black Civil War Veterans in Rahway New Jersey

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Rahway is an ancient town in New Jersey with an ancient cemetery. According to the website of the “Merchants and Drovers Tavern” (an inn dating from the Revolutionary War that has been turned into a museum) there are almost three hundred Civil War Veterans buried in Rahway Cemetery, twenty nine of whom were black.

Rahway Cemetery is the final resting place for many famous people from history. Famous burials include; Abraham Clark, A Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Walter Bramhall, a Civil War Officer, John Cladek, a Civil War Colonel of the 35th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, Carolyn Wells, a noted mystery author, and The Unknown Woman who was brutally murdered in 1887. We also have over 29 members of the United States Colored Troops, 299 Civil War Soldiers, and 70 Revolutionary War Soldiers.

Since I ride past the Merchants and Drovers Tavern and the Rahway Cemetery every day on the way to work, I decided to spend the morning of my day off exploring. There are many, many graves of Civil War veterans in Rahway Cemetery, but they’re not always easy to find. Most are very old, and covered by grass or weeds. The trick is to look for United States flags. The groundskeepers plant them near the graves of all veterans, but there are flags on the graves of the veterans of every war the United States has been involved in, from the American Revolution to Vietnam (I haven’t seen any for Iraq). At some point, after turning away in frustration from dozens of graves marking veterans of World War I or World War II, I finally found the general area in Rahway Cemetery that dates back to the United States Civil War.

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The typical enlisted man in the Union Army was 19 or 20 years old. James Van Benthuysen was 55 when he died in 1862, probably at the Battle of Antietam. I doubt he was black with a name like “Van Benthuysen.”

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Jacob Stark was another middle-aged Union soldier, 41 years old in 1862 where he, like Van Benthuysen, probably died at the Battle of Antietam. Was he black or white?

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John R. Rowland, by contrast, was a very young man in 1862. He survived the war and made it into the next century.

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At this point, I started to get a bit frustrated. There was certainly no shortage of New Jerseyans who enlisted to fight for Lincoln, but I had no idea if any of them were black or white. The majority were probably white.

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Another New Jerseyan killed in 1862.

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At long last, I come to the grave of a man I can be sure was black, since someone added a headstone to the original grave marker specifying that he served in the Third Regiment US Colored Troops. Mahlon Edgar would have been in his early 20s during the Civil War. He lived a long life, finally dying at the age of 75 during the First World War.

I don’t know what battles Mahlon Edgar fought in during the United States Civil War or what he did when he got back home to New Jersey. But it’s reasonable to assume that he was a prominent enough citizen to get his own individual grave marker in what would have been a largely white section of Rahway Cemetery in 1915. Many of the tombstones of the black Civil War veterans in Rahway are part of a reclamation project since some of the remains had been buried in a common grave until they were transferred to their own individual plots.

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And just a reminder of why they enlisted. At one time New Jersey was a slave state.

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