01 May 2020

Grand Army of the Republic at "Camp Skillman" - 1879

General Samuel Hufty, Department Commander of the New Jersey Grand Army of the Republic, must have been pleased with the work completed in such a short time. The date was August 25, 1879, and in one day 3,000 Civil War veterans and as many as 10,000 spectators would be descending on the Van Zandt farm in Skillman to take part in New Jersey's second annual GAR encampment.

Camp Skillman -
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 6 September 1879

To accommodate the men, who would be arriving by train at either the Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad's Skillman Station or the Mercer and Somerset's Blawenburg Station, an advanced guard had set up 470 common tents, 70 wall tents, 10 hospital tents, and 20 restaurant stands. Pipes to pump water from Rock Brook had been laid in advance, and everything was ready.

Special Trains to Camp Skillman
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was a fraternal organization founded in 1866 by veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marines, and Revenue Cutter Service. The organization was dissolved in 1956 after the death of its final member. By 1879 the group already held considerable sway over the national political agenda, campaigning for voting rights for African-Americans, establishing Memorial Day as a national holiday, and eventually helping to elect the six Republican presidents beginning with Ulysses S. Grant and ending with William McKinley.

Arriving at camp -
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 6 September 1879
A.J. Skillman, whose property adjoined the campground nestled between the two railroad lines at the foot of the Sourland Mountain in Montgomery Township, was responsible for suggesting and securing the site. The 80 acres provided ample room to lay out the encampment in regular military order, with broad avenues for parade and assembly, and a large field for a "sham battle" between members of the GAR and the New Jersey National Guard.

1873 Montgomery Township Map
overlaid with the location of Camp Skillman 

Activities filled the four days of the encampment, beginning with a public reception for reporters and guests on August 26 and finishing with the battle reenactment on August 29. The days in between were filled with official reviews of the GAR and National Guard, as well as guest speakers. All of the accommodations and food were supplied by the GAR. The New York Times reported that the commissary department was working so well that, "no one has yet gone hungry and no one has been obliged to forage for food."

The camp photographer -
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 6 September 1879
Rain on the first day didn't dampen the spirits of the arriving soldiers, who hurried to unload their baggage and find their tents. The campfires were already lit by the afternoon and music from the various fife and drum corps and regiment bands filled the air. The public began to arrive that afternoon, in time for the military parade at 6pm. The view from the top of the Sourland Mountain was said to be "a picture long to be remembered".

Strict guard! -
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 6 September 1879

Previous military rank did not always coincide with rank in the GAR - so that a former Major or Captain might be serving dinner to a former Private. The culinary hit of the encampment was New Jersey watermelon, carted in by local farmers from all over Somerset County. And of course, the most popular persons were those engaged at the beer stands. The young "country girls" of Hillsborough, Montgomery, and Hopewell were pleased to be escorted about the camp by the men in the uniforms with the shiny brass buttons - but were also escorted "off" the camp by military guards at Retreat.  

The Skillman location proved to be ideal, and it was thought that this might become the home for the annual encampment. However, it was the beer that was the undoing. Apparently, no one told the GAR that Somerset was a dry county. Several purveyors of the amber libation were actually charged and had to appear in court in Somerville. The idea of an encampment without beer was apparently too much for the GAR, and they camped the following year in Bordentown!

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