Thursday, March 3, 2011

A bit of the Civil War, here in New Jersey

Not all that far from the end of the Turnpike, but seemingly in another world, is Finn's Point National Cemetery -- a 4.6 acre burial place that contains the remains of over 3000 veterans. It's the third part of our refuge/fort/cemetery visit, and we found it by driving through Fort Mott State Park, first on paved road, then rutted dirt road, until we reached the simple iron gates that mark the entrance to this hallowed ground.  Visible all around the stone wall surrounding it are tall phragmites that make brushing noises as they're stirred by breezes coming off Delaware Bay.

While the cemetery still sees the occasional interment of cremains, most buried there were Civil War era deaths. Also buried there are a handful of World War Two German prisoners of war who were held at Fort Dix.

The remote placement of the cemetery begins to make sense when you understand its proximity to Fort Delaware, an installation built just a few miles away, on Pea Patch Island, in the early 1800s to protect the mouth of the Delaware River. During the Civil War, the fort was used by the Union to confine Confederate prisoners captured during the battle of Gettysburg.  By July of 1863, over 12,000 captives were being held on the 75 acre island, and disease and malnutrition took their tragic and savage toll.

Sadly, the Civil War graves are not marked individually, leading one to believe that perhaps they were left in mass pits, a theory supported by the presence of a large depression in the ground. Instead, two large memorials mark the mass graves. The older, domed Union Monument was built in 1879 in memory of 135 Union guards who were stationed at Fort Delaware and died while on duty. The Confederate memorial makes a more stirring impression on the visitor. An 85-foot tall concrete and granite obelisk erected by the US government in 1910, its base holds bronze tablets that list all of the 2436 Confederate prisoners of war -- military and civilian -- who died at the fort during the war.

You can't help but be moved by the simplicity of the site, and the magnitude of the suffering and loss it represents. A large plaque along the driveway holds the words of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a fitting tribute to those interred within the earth just beyond. It led me to wonder how we let each other suffer so, and why there seems to be no end to the constant battles mankind wages against itself.

In an odd incident worthy of tabloid coverage, Finn's Point itself became a murder scene not so long ago. As part of a multi-state killing spree, a man named Andrew Cunanan fatally shot cemetery caretaker William Reese in 1997, stealing his truck.  Cunanan eventually made his way to Florida, where he murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace.  A few days later, he took his own life, closing a truly bizarre story.

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