One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 12, 1861, America was thrust into a Civil War. It would be one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history. New Jersey’s role in that historic event is a study in controversy and division. From the colonial period to after the Civil War, New Jersey was a divided slave state.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, as questions swirled of states’ rights concerning slavery and as the southern states mulled secession, an attempt was made to resolve the tense situation and preserve the Union and slavery. A  Peace Conference was held in February 1861, consisting of 131 delegates from 21 states. The conference failed and the war was closer to becoming a reality. New Jersey was the only northern state to vote with southern states to allow slavery in their territories.

A Republican newspaper, the Toms River Ocean Emblem, proposed that New Jersey secede from the Union. The Trenton Daily True American was against the war even after shots were fired on Fort Sumter. Former governor Rodman Price also joined those calling for New Jersey to secede “to join our destiny with the South will continue our trade and intercourse — our prosperity, progress and happiness, uninterrupted.”

By 1863, the majority in the New Jersey Legislature denounced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as unconstitutional and demanded an immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy. Some Legislators even went as far as to suggest free Blacks be sent back to Africa. This aroused the anger of the soldiers who volunteered to fight for the Union cause. The military felt the Legislature was bringing disgrace to New Jersey. It was a state divided.

Despite the cries for secession, and hatred of Lincoln by many, more than 80,000 soldiers from New Jersey fought for the Union forces, with nearly 6,500 killed in action. There were no Civil War battles fought in New Jersey, but other activities were going on throughout the state. While the war raged on in other parts of the country, the New Jersey “underground railroad” — a network of routes, people, and locations across New Jersey — helped fugitive slaves make their way to freedom in northern states or Canada. 

Predictions that the war would devastate the economy of New Jersey proved false, and New Jersey prospered economically through the manufacture of clothing and munitions for the Union forces. The Camden and Amboy railroad made money from carrying military troops to the battlefields, the Trenton iron works retooled to make rifles and other industries rebounded financially by making guns, uniforms, tents and blankets. Many hated the war but loved the profits.

The Civil War ended on April 6, 1865. On Jan. 23, 1866 New Jersey became the last state to ratify the 13th amendment to the Constitution, thereby freeing southern slaves.

In 2008 the New Jersey was the first state to apologize for its role in “perpetuating the institution of slavery” and “the wrongs inflicted by slavery.”  Some people disagreed with the need to apologize, claiming, as did Assemblyman Patrick Carrol, that there was no one left to apologize to, and no one left who owes an apology.

Who ever devised the slogan “New Jersey and You, Perfect Together” didn’t know or didn’t understand New Jersey history. From its very beginnings to the present day, New Jersey has always been a state full of controversy and division — the Civil War was no exception.    

Carl J. Asszony, a longtime New Jersey veterans’ advocate, can be reached at njveteran30@gmail.com.

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