MIDDLETOWN – Scattered about the Bayshore, across Monmouth County and throughout the state of New Jersey is an abundance of tangible landmarks connecting us to the very beginnings of our country, and various other significant moments in time that rippled around the world.
Propped on the northern tip of Sandy Hook is the oldest operational lighthouse in the United States, which was captured by the British and retaken by local regiments of the Continental Army. Overlooking Sandy Hook atop the Rocky Point section of Hartshorne Woods Park are the remains of Battery Lewis, a military installation integral to the defense of the Sandy Hook Bay and nearby New York City during World War II and the Cold War.
Situated above PNC Bank Arts Center is Telegraph Hill and its collection of military-grade satellite antennas, which, at the time were part of a secret anti-aircraft operation during the Cold War. Down the road in Holmdel’s Hop Brook Farm area, James Maher hid an illegal whiskey still in his attic to transform his family’s apple crops into whiskey during prohibition, the same illicit beverages rival gangs traded gun shots over on First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands.
Evidence of where our country came from is not only rooted in the culture of our communities, but often celebrated, save for one specific era of internal conflict.
Aside from small placards – a gold star with a crimson “150” etched in middle – placed at the base of a veteran headstone in 2011, marking the 150th anniversary of the conflict, the American Civil War is a missing link in our local history that Middletown-based historian and author Gregory Acken aims to rectify with each new published work.
“I think the immediacy of the [Revolutionary War] here; with Kings Highway, local battlefields in freehold, campsites, and the multitude of historical structures around the area, you can physically reach out and touch these parts our history,” Acken said in a recent interview with the TAPinto Network. “But if we were in Gettysburg, it would be a different story. The immediacy often leads to single mindedness, and that’s understandable.”
No blood may have been shed by Civil War soldiers in the fields of New Jersey, but the Garden State produced a number of regiments of the Army of the Potomac, the primary Union Army in the eastern theater of conflict.
A detrimental period in our nation’s history, Acken agrees that the nature of the Civil War, what it represented, and the shame many soldiers and officers felt toward their own involvement has led to a lack of usable source material to draw from, making it difficult for historians to forge a stronger connection with the public.
However, Acken’s research has served as essential bridges to the past, including his acclaimed work Inside the Army of the Potomac: The Civil War Experiences of Captain Francis Adams Donaldson.
Acken discovered Donaldson’s manuscripts in an archive while serving on the Board of Governors of the now defunct Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.
Donaldson served with 71st Pennsylvania Regiment until suffering a wound in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, and later with the storied Corn Exchange Regiment – the 118th Pennsylvania Regiment – which took part in such famed Civil War battles as Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
“Donaldson wrote a 55-page letter about Chancellorsville. He wrote about his wounding before the Battle of Antietam, and how he was spun around like a top from a shot to the arm. He wrote in detail about his stay on a hospital ship in Philadelphia. In Gettysburg, he wrote of his best friend who was shot down right beside him. These were records of monumental experiences. But I wasn’t sure at the time if they were worthy,” Acken said.
The support of his peers convinced Acken that what he unearthed were more than mundane recollections, but a detailed documentation of historically significant junctures throughout the war.
The perspective was not only fresh but appealed to both scholars and general interest readers, and has guided his future works, including a forthcoming project featuring the collected works of Charles Mills, a Massachusetts officer, Harvard graduate and prolific writer who traveled the same circles as several Civil War luminaries, including Colonel Robert Gouldshaw, who was portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the 1989 film Glory.
“Mills is relatively unknown because never rose above the rank of Captain, but he was an observant staff officer was very well written and on hand for some of the Civil War’s most notorious moments,” Acken said.
According to Acken, what makes Mills perspective so interesting is his background as a Harvard-educated socialite.
“At the time, his mother was worth $250,000. He never had to work a day in his life if he didn’t want to. But he joined the Army of the Potomac under Ulysses S. Grant and was severely wounded at Antietam and later killed by a solid cannon ball,” Acken added.
Acken said his new project was delayed by the COVID-19 health crisis but is only a few short months away from release. Stay tuned for TAPinto's follow-up article on Acken.