Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Evergreen Cemetery: a brief visit to honor those who served

We sometimes have to be a bit strategic when we plan a Hidden New Jersey history field trip involving multiple locations. Sites seem to all be staffed for the same limited hours, so we need to determine if an before- or after-hours visit would be just as productive. And, of course, we have to be a bit flexible to account for the serendipitous stop at a must-see we find along the way.

I ran into this challenge a few weeks ago during Union County's Four Centuries weekend, when I had about four hours to make meaningful visits to as many sites as possible. Hillside's Evergreen Cemetery went on the 'later' list, so when I was in the neighborhood the other day, I stopped in to check it out.

Listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, Evergreen opened in 1853 as the state's first non-profit, non-sectarian cemetery. It's become the final resting places for six Members of Congress (and a non-voting delegate from pre-statehood Alaska), famous writers, a substantial Roma (Gypsy) population, and local luminaries including Newark's first black school principal and the first Jewish mayor of Elizabeth. I had some idea there were some must-visits, but I didn't know where they were, or, for that matter, how expansive the cemetery was.

The cemetery's grand gates welcome visitors from the center of a block on North Broad Street, but I snuck in a still-nicely-marked corner entrance. Almost immediately I saw one of the grand contemporary memorials that have made Evergreen a favored stop for current-day graveyard art enthusiasts. Out of place among the older sandstone and gray granite markers, many of them consist of black stone slabs well over five feet tall  joined by a common lintel, and usually engraved in gold lettering. The most interesting thing about them, in my opinion, is that some have been placed in the cemetery's older section, which was designed in the Victorian style: park-like, with graves placed in harmony with the landscape. This motif was common in the mid 1800s, when graveyards were popular places to picnic and enjoy a pleasant Sunday afternoon with friends.  

Unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy made her mark on some of what makes Evergreen such a pastoral spot. It's said that many of the cemetery's trees are over 300 years old, and as I made my way through, I saw that several limbs were down, some trees even toppled, taking with them more than a few monuments. Workers were busily collecting leaves and branches, but three weeks after the storm, they still have a lot of work to do.

Not far into my ramblings, I came to a section with several familiar-looking white grave markers placed in uniform rows. If I had any question on what I'd stumbled onto, it was answered by the pair of 100 pound cannons flanking the plot. I'd found the cemetery's Civil War section, set aside in 1862 for free burials of dozens of casualties and veterans of the War Between the States. Some of the stones were visible and easily read, while others were obscured by fallen tree limbs. A nearby flagpole was bent over a few feet above its base, perhaps by the branch that sat nearby, already sawed into sections to be carted away. I spent a good few minutes resetting many of the American flags that had fallen to the ground after presumably having been placed on the graves for Veterans Day.

Just by chance, I noticed two gravestones marked "US Col. Inf" or "USCI," meaning "United States Colored Infantry," the segregated troops that fought in the Civil War. Had I stumbled upon a large contingent of African American casualties' final resting places? I couldn't really tell -- while many of the markers didn't indicate service in the segregated service, other stones were totally inaccessible.

A little research at home uncovered a possibility. More than 75 black Civil War veterans are buried at Evergreen, some with stones that note their service in the segregated ranks. Some historians believe that others actually served in Union County regiments that had been assumed to be all white. Regardless, those buried here seem to have been honored well, considering the presence of the cannons, which I learned were procured by Elizabeth Mayor Dr. William Mack on Memorial Day, 1900.

Other Civil War veterans are interred at Evergreen within their own family plots or mausoleums, including Brevet Brigadier General James Vote Bomford and Medal of Honor recipient Captain William Brant, Jr. Their graves, however, would have to wait another day for discovery. There's way too much about Evergreen to limit it to a short visit, so I'll be back, next time with Ivan in tow.

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