Around this time each year, the tradition in Belleville, N.J., is to gather on July 4th morning and read aloud the names of our Second River forefathers who fought in the American Revolution.
Nearly 70 Belleville veterans of that war are buried in the Dutch Reformed Church cemetery. Their names are listed on plates. At that busy intersection near the Rutgers Street bridge, we read their names aloud in a solemn ceremony.
The men named on these plaques risked everything to provide freedom for those of us who stand here today. When the men of Belleville rose up against England, it was no sure thing that the colonies would prevail but more than likely that the revolutionaries and their leaders might hang.
Less than one hundred years later, our country was torn apart by the War Between the States. The story of the war is taught in eighth grade history classes in town. But little is known or taught about the men of Belleville who fought and the half-dozen who died in that war.
One Belleville casualty of the Civil War, Captain Henry Benson, is buried in the family plot in the Dutch Reformed Church cemetery. Five other young men from our area are buried in military cemeteries near the battlefields where they fell.
In northeast New Jersey, Newark was founded in 1666, and included the area that would later become present-day Bloomfield, Belleville and Nutley.
According to Frank Speer in Nutley Was Born in Strife, Strategy and Secession, in 1812, the northern half of Newark seceded and became part of Bloomfield, until 1839 when the eastern third broke off to form Belleville which was centered on the Second River.
Nutley came to be known as North Belleville. There was taxation without representation: Belleville charged North Belleville taxes and used the cash to build roads in Belleville, but not North Belleville.
The people of what is now Nutley hated Belleville so much that they eventually rejected the name North Belleville and took the name of Franklinville in honor Benjamin Franklin’s only son, William, New Jersey’s last royal governor. A separate town was chartered in 1874, when Franklinville became Franklin. As early as 1849, Franklinville had its own Post Office.
But, during the Civil War, Nutley was part of Belleville, though you'd never know it then, and probably wouldn't know it now without this mention.
We do know that six men, three each from Belleville and Nutley (Franklin), perished on the battlefield.
From Belleville, two soldiers died in the Seven Days’ Battle (Peninsula Campaign) as Thomas Stevens (or Stephens) was killed in action June 27, 1862, and Captain Henry Benson was killed in action July 1, 1862.
John Rogers (or Rodgers) was killed in action on April 8, 1865, at Fort Davis while defending Washington, D.C., shortly before the war ended.
From Nutley (Franklin), then part of Belleville, Sgt. John Donaldson died May 17, 1862, in the first pitched battle of the Peninsula Campaign, known as the Battle of Williamsburg, Va., and the battle of Fort Magruder.
Byron Lawton was killed in action September 14, 1862, in the Battle of South Mountain, or the Battle of Burkittsville in Central Maryland during the Maryland Campaign.
James H. Cunningham was killed in action on May 3, 1863, in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, also known as the Second Battle of Marye’s Heights.
Today, it seems, Belleville and Nutley tolerate one another. In the the center of Nutley at the high school, memorials bear the names of Nutley men who fought and died in the American Revolution and the Civil War.
In Belleville, except for Captain Benson, the names of the town's fallen Civil War dead are lost in history books. Perhaps, some day, they will be added to the memorial of Those Who Served on Union Avenue. It is right and just.
About the author: Anthony Buccino has written several collections about life and growing up in and around Belleville, New Jersey. He also created Old Belleville, a web site of local history. His latest book is Belleville and Nutley in the Civil War – a Brief History. For more information, www.anthonybuccino.com
Copyright © 2011 by Anthony Buccino – used by permission.