The African American Civil War Veterans of Middletown Point (Matawan)

In 2007, based on the efforts of the Matawan Historic Sites Commission, the historic St. James A.M.E. Zion Cemetery on Johnson Avenue in Matawan was rededicated. Research at the time identified four African American Civil War veterans buried there, sparking great interest in the community. The Matawan Historical Society initiated a study in the spring of 2024, and an additional six soldiers from Matawan, although not buried in that cemetery, were identified. This is the account of these ten patriots.

To fully appreciate their service, one must examine the climate and attitudes of Matawan’s populace leading up to and during the Civil War. In the general history taught in our school systems, rather simplistic notions are set forth regarding this conflict – basically that the North opposed slavery and fought the South to end it. It wasn’t that cut and dry, especially in Matawan.

During the middle of the 19th century, a large portion of Monmouth County was in the “Democratic camp,” and the party of Lincoln was Republican. The major newspaper of our county was the Monmouth Democrat in Freehold, and our Matawan Journal, which initially attempted to have a centrist view when it was established in 1869, subsequently aligned itself with the Democratic Party – and this party in 1860 was anti-war when it came to a possible future rebellion – and the succession – of the Southern states.

Most Democrats in 1860 supported the Crittenden Compromise, a proposal to permanently enshrine slavery in the US Constitution to thwart future congressional efforts to ban the practice. While this effort failed, it had its supporters in Monmouth County. Many New Jersey residents considered themselves in the “middle” between the two “extremes”: the successionist slave holders in the South and the abolitionists in New England.

The Monmouth Democrat on October 20, 1864, reported a mass rally of thousands of people throughout the county, with a procession starting in Freehold and absorbing other groups – including one from Middletown Point – which marched to protest the handling of the war and promoted General George McClellan as the Democratic candidate for President that year. Local papers were full of anti-Lincoln petitions and columns throughout the war years.

New Jersey was considered a “free state” – Slave Schedules in the 1860 census had no entries. The 1850 census, however, listed 153 enslaved individuals in Monmouth County, with 48 in Matawan and the surrounding area. While the individual slaves were identified only by sex and age, the owners – with the surnames of Holmes, Smock, Conover, Vanmater, Hendrickson, Longstreet, Stillwell and Schanck – were fully identified. An excellent resource to understand the history of this institution in our vicinity is Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865 by Professor Graham Russell Hodges. It outlines the gradual steps in the transition of African Americans from enslavement to freedom – a freedom which was not fully in existence ten years before the start of the war.

From local newspaper accounts of the period, African Americans were “second class citizens,” with headlines identifying them by race, not name. “Colored man drowns in Well” and obituary descriptions of “the departed was a well-respected colored woman.” While true of other newly arriving groups (“Irishman arrested for Public Intoxication” or “Traveler robbed by three Italians,”) these adjectival descriptions would gradually disappear as these groups assimilated into the community. Not so with African Americans – with the “colored” descriptor appearing in the local press as recently as the 1960s.

Returning to the Matawan, or Middletown Point, of the 1860s, a major issue of the time was the draft. An urgent need for soldiers necessitated the Lincoln Administration to call for this subscription, and it did not go over well in the surrounding area. In July of 1863, massive riots occurred in New York City in protest. Blaming African Americans as the cause of the war and unable to afford a “draft avoidance fee” of $300, mobs burned black owned businesses and homes, lynching over 100 African Americans. Troops returning from Gettysburg were called upon to quell the riots – the area behind the current Federal Building in lower Manhattan adjacent to the federal and state court houses is the only place in the United States where cannons were used against its own citizens.

When it came time to institute the draft in New Jersey, the civic leaders did not want riots in Newark and Trenton and offered generous bounties for enlistment. Registration for the draft occurred that summer, with all males between the ages of 20 and 35, along with any unmarried male between 35 and 45 being registered – Middletown Point documented 237 men in this category, 16 of whom were “colored”.

A horrific incident occurred on Main Street in Middletown Point on the evening of October 1, 1862 near the Applegate Hotel, which once stood on the block at the corner of Main and Little Streets. A nine-month enlistment unit, the 29th New Jersey Infantry Regiment, had just mustered and was to leave the following day for the South – its Company “E” was made up mostly of Matawan men.

Prior to its departure, two of its privates, one John Chasey and a “Cottrell”, first name unknown, were terrorizing the local black community, advising if any were seen after a certain hour there would be “serious consequences.” Charles Hendrickson, a black resident, was going to tend to his horses at the stable in the hotel when he was set upon by the two soldiers. In the ensuing brawl, Chasey was eviscerated with a knife carried by Hendrickson, so badly, according to the newspaper account, that his “bowels protruded.” Cottrell escaped with his life.

Hendrickson was arrested and brought to the Freehold jail but had to be spirited to Trenton when the victim’s fellow soldiers vowed revenge and threatened to lynch him. Two months later he was acquitted of the murder in a matter of hours at our county seat and was released. Chasey had died of his injuries the month before – his regimental muster roll indicating that he “died at Middletown Point Oct. 26, 1862 from effects of stab wound.”

It was difficult, and in most instances impossible, to identify the exact residences that housed these men. I used a simple criterion to validate the “from Matawan” designation – either exact census data placing them in Middletown Point/Matawan at any time during their lives, or their military records referencing it. When the 1850 census enumerated them in “Raritan Township,” that could be anywhere in the area of what is now Matawan and Aberdeen, Keyport, Union Beach and Holmdel. I suspect many resided in a large area on the 1855 map of Middletown Point which was described simply as “AFRICA” – a rural area which is now Atlantic and Johnson Avenue – the above-mentioned cemetery is located here.

Since birth years of the ten soldiers ranged from 1834-1844, and since slavery was still present in Monmouth County to at least 1850, it is possible that some of the ten might have been born into servitude. The possibility rises with their parents and grandparents. More thorough research utilizing manumission records in Freehold could examine this.

African American troops were instrumental in the Union victory. By the end of the Civil War, around 179,000 – 10% of the Union Army – were black troops. Of these, 40,000 died, 75% from disease (of the 660,000 union deaths, two thirds were attributed to infectious disease.) The ten Matawan men served in two regiments.


The 25th United States Colored Infantry Regiment

Eight of the ten Matawan men served in this unit. It was organized at Camp William Penn on January 3, 1864 for three years’ service, commanded by Colonel Gustavus A. Scroggs (1820-1887). Born in Darlington, PA, he was an attorney residing in Buffalo, NY at the time of the war. Black regiments’ officers were white, with the NCO slots filled by African Americans.

On March 15, 1864, the regiment boarded the steamer Suwanee for New Orleans. The ship took on water and put into harbor in Beaufort, NC, and contributed to that ports garrison until repairs were made, continuing to New Orleans where it arrived May 1st. The 25th was subsequently transferred to Fort Barrancas, one of two forts in Union hands that controlled Pensacola Bay. It was there that the 25th served the war effort.

The Union Navy had earlier forced the surrender of the city of Pensacola, but Confederate troops controlled the surrounding countryside. Union forces would emerge from their fortified garrisons on raids or campaigns to address this threat. While I’m sure there were numerous patrols and minor raids conducted by elements of the 25th outside of Fort Barrancas, only one major engagement involving them was documented.

On October 25, 1864, the 25th, and two other “colored” regiments, the 82nd and 86th, along with elements of the Maine 2nd Cavalry and the white Iowa 19th Infantry Regiment, departed Fort Barrancas on an expedition to Blackwater Bay, 33 miles east of their base. The following day, they engaged the Confederate 1st Florida Cavalry at Milton, FL, but suffered no losses. They returned to their camp two days later. (The 82nd wasn’t so lucky in other engagements they suffered dozens of casualties on other expeditions from the fort.) The following soldiers associated with Matawan fought in the 25th:

Company B

Michael Bowles, born c. 1839 in Monmouth County, was the 2nd of seven children of Pero Bowles (c. 1815-1875) and his wife Margaret (1814-1903) – when his mother died in 1903 in Asbury Park at the age of 99, the local press characterized her as the county’s “oldest colored woman.”

Michael was enumerated in Raritan Township in 1850. He enlisted in the 25th on January 7, 1864 in Matawan, and was described as 5’6” tall, dark complexion, employed as a laborer. He was carried on the rolls as Michael “Boles.” On July 20, 1864 he was promoted to corporal and mustered out with the regiment on December 6, 1865. After the war, he married the former Catherine Taylor (c. 1849-1912) and subsequently had six children. The family moved to Neptune and Bowles was active in the Captain Andrew Cailloux GAR Post in Asbury Park, serving as the Post’s quartermaster in 1897 and sergeant major in 1901.

I could locate no information regarding his death or burial; however, his wife’s funeral was at the Matawan AME church and she’s buried in the Union Prospect Cemetery in Aberdeen. His pension index indicated a disability claim in 1881, but there was no death benefit claimed – he apparently was alive in 1912 per his wife’s obituary. He has numerous living great and 2nd great grandchildren.

Company D

William H. King, born 1844 in New Jersey, was the only child of Henry King (1827-1910) and his wife Elizabeth (1834-1869). He enlisted with the 25th on January 19, 1864 in Matawan, and was described as 20 years of age, 5’ 5” tall, light complexion, employed as a laborer. Muster roll records indicated he was one of two musicians in the company, most likely a drummer.

On July 7, 1864, records indicated he died of “dropsy” (edema) and is buried at the Fort Barrancas National Cemetery. His father received his death benefits.

James Sylvester was born around 1838 in Keyport, NJ. The 1850 census has him, listed as 12 years of age, residing with William (55 years old) and Clarissa  (62) Richardson, among others, in Raritan Township – these individuals may or may not have been his grandparents, and the 1860 census has the two in Matawan. In 1860, James married Rosanna Schanck in New York City. On January 19, he enlisted in the 25th at Matawan. At the time of his enlistment, he claimed to be 23 (which would indicate an 1841 birth year, if accurate), was 5’3” tall, “yellow” complexion and was employed as a laborer.

On the evening of July 9, 1864, Union gunboats were apparently shelling rebel positions near Bayou Grande, a body of water adjacent to Fort Barrancas. One shell prematurely exploded, causing a “friendly fire” incident which severely wounded Sylvester, in which he incurred “incurable lameness with the shortening of his left leg.” He was declared “totally disabled” and he received an invalid pension as of October 12, 1865. He was listed in Matawan with his wife in 1870. The 1890 Veterans’ Schedule enumerates him in New York City, where he died on November 13, 1902. A Military Headstone is in place at his grave in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn. He appears to have left no family.

Company E

Simon Conover’s year of birth is unclear. When he enlisted in the 25th on February 8, 1864, he gave his age as 24; however, census records indicated he was older. He can definitively be placed in Matawan in the 1850 census – it indicated he resided with Ruliff and Gertrude Schenck, occupation listed as laborer. It is known the Schenck family operated the large estate which now comprises the subdivision of Edgemere Heights in town – their known residence still stands, now 298 Main Street.

No information regarding his parentage could be found, but he did marry one Harriet, last name unknown, sometime after 1850. The 1860 census had them in Matawan, along with their 4-year old daughter, Catherine Matilda. He apparently accepted a $100 bounty to enlist and was discharged with the rest of his regiment December 6, 1865 after serving at Fort Barrancas.

The family was in Keyport in 1870. Daughter Catherine married a man name Williams and died in New York in 1893 – it’s unknown if she had any children. Simon died March 18, 1902 in New York City, and like James Sylvester is buried in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Charles Hendrickson, referenced in the above stabbing incident, was born around 1835 in Red Bank. Although his parents are unknown, he married one Hannah in the late 1850s. Their son William was born in 1857, another son Joseph in 1859 who subsequently died in 1861, and a third son Charles, Jr, who was born in 1864 after he had arrived in Fort Barrancas with the 25th. After he was discharged on December 6, 1865, he returned to New Jersey and he and his wife had three more children. For the next 20 years the family resided in Matawan, eventually moving to Neptune where he was enumerated in the 1890 Veterans’ Schedule.

When he enlisted in the 25th on January 21, 1864, he gave his occupation as “farmer”, and was described as 5’ 6” with grey eyes. Muster records indicated he served as a “boatman” in the company. He belonged to the Caillaux GAR Post with Michael Bowles and served as its senior vice commander in 1897. After he moved to Neptune, he was employed as a gardener and furnace attendant in Asbury Park. He died in the Hospital for the Insane in Trenton on January 29, 1910 and is buried in the Saint James AME Zion Churchyard, Matawan, NJ.  One 2nd great granddaughter of Charles was located in Philadelphia.

William Augustus Jameson was born in New Jersey in 1842, the only child of James Jameson (c. 1782-1861) and his wife Elizabeth (c. 1814-?). He enlisted in the 25th on January 21, 1864 in Matawan and mustered out with the rest of his regiment on December 6, 1865 after serving in Florida. He married one Mary (last name unknown) in 1883, and they had a daughter Lucy in 1889 – Lucy has two living grandchildren.

Enlistment records indicated he was 5’ 10” tall and had worked as a seaman. Growing up, he had been a neighbor of Michael Bowles, and the two most likely had played together as children. He died March 10, 1911 and is buried in the Saint James AME Zion Churchyard in Matawan.

James H. Riley, born in 1844 in Monmouth County, he enlisted with Charles Hendrickson and William Jameson on January 21, 1864. No census records could be located for him in the surrounding area prior to 1890. There was another James H. Riley with a son James Henry living in Matawan, but it was determined that these individuals were not related – different obituaries were identified for all. This James enlisted in Marlboro for the 25th and was described as 5’ 7” tall with his occupation listed as laborer.

On July 3, 1890, he married the former Georgiana Holmes (1848-?) in Matawan. They had no children. The 1890 Veterans’ Schedule and 1895 New Jersey census lists them in Matawan. He died April 7, 1900 in Matawan of acute gastritis. His obituary indicated that at the time of his death, he was commander of the colored GAR Post in Red Bank. After his largely attended funeral at the Saint James AME Zion Church in Matawan, he was buried in the churchyard there.

Company G

Lewis “Louis” Alonzo Willis was born on May 20, 1845 in New Jersey, the only son of George and Sarah Willis. The 1850 census has him in Atlantic Township with his parents – that township was created in 1847 from parts of Middletown, Shrewsbury and Freehold Townships. In 1860 he resided in Freehold with a Foreman family.

On February 19, 1864 he enlisted in the 25th in Philadelphia and was immediately promoted to Company G’s first sergeant at 19 years of age. From available documentation, it was apparent that he was an educated, intelligent individual. He shipped out with the regiment and served in Florida. On May 10, 1865 he requested permission to return to New Jersey to assist in settling his grandfather’s estate, which was granted. When he returned, he was promoted to Sergeant Major of the entire regiment.

This was quite the accomplishment for a 20-year-old. If he had been white, he most likely would have received a commission as an officer in the regiment. One could make the argument that he was the best soldier in the unit.

Willis mustered out with the rest of the regiment on December 6, 1865, returning to New Jersey. In 1870, he resided in Manalapan with the Hampton family, whose daughter Catherine he had married in January of 1866 in Freehold. They subsequently had two children, Sarah (1869-1897) and Alonzo (1876-1959). In 1872, Willis built a home on 3rd Street in Keyport, where his wife and son Alonzo lived in until after the 1940s.

Sometime after 1880 he left his wife and married Lydia Falkamp (1864-1935) in Pittsburgh. They subsequently had one son – Frederick Lewis Willis (1886-1953). Lewis, Lydia and Frederick resided in Columbus, OH but returned to Jersey City in 1903. On April 25, 1903, the Jersey City Evening Journal published an article entitled “Colored Man Buys on Kensington Avenue. Willis, Who Has a White Wife, Has Moved into His New Home. Newcomers Say They Are Here to Stay.”

Willis died on Christmas Day in 1916 in Jersey City and is reportedly buried in Bay Cemetery in that city.

His son Alonzo was a survivor of the USS Maine explosion in 1898 and was quite the celebrity in Keyport.  Alonzo’s descendants reside in the area. Alonzo’s 2nd wife was Lucy Jameson, the daughter of veteran William Jameson, above.

Company I

William D. Vancleaf was born around 1837 in New Jersey, the son Of William V. and Sarah A. Vancleaf, with whom he resided in 1850 per the census in Raritan Township. Father William was apparently a freed slave. The census indicated he had four younger sisters in the household. In the 1860 census, those four children were with the parents in Keyport – William, Jr, was not listed.

William enlisted in the 25th on July 3, 1864 at Matawan. He was described as 5’ 3” tall, gray eyes, and listed “laborer” as an occupation. He was carried as “VanCleave,” “VanCleve,” “VanCleif” and “VanClive.” Attempts to locate additional information regarding him – pension records, veterans’ schedule data, date of death and burial – were unsuccessful.


127th United States Colored Infantry Regiment

On August 23, 1864, seven months after the 25th was activated, the 127th U.S. Colored Infantry was also formed at Camp William Penn. After completing basic training, the regiment was sent to Virginia and participated in the siege of Petersburg and was involved in the final actions of the war, including the Appomattox Campaign which led to Lee’s surrender – the 127th was with the final surge which led to the rebel capitulation. (They were in the same corps as that of my 2nd great grandfather, Pvt Charles Byron Glass, who served with the 20th New York Volunteer Cavalry. On the final day of the war, his unit supported their advance.) In June the regiment was sent to Texas, where it was assigned duties along the Rio Grande. Most of the regiment was disbanded in September of 1865, and the soldiers returned to their homes.

Company F

David H. Hampton, born February 1840 in New Jersey, was the second of four children of William and Stacy Hampton. David’s youngest sister Catherine was the first wife of Lewis Willis, discussed above. The family was in Manalapan in 1870 – Lewis lived with the Hampton family in that hamlet.

Hampton registered for the draft in Manalapan on July 1, 1863 and subsequently enlisted in the 127th on September 1, 1864 under the alias “Charles Williams.” Soldiers often used assumed names when they had enlisted in another regiment under their true name, claimed the bounty, then “jumped.” It is unknown if this is the case with Hampton – his pension index indicates his alias AND true name. There were several other “Charles Williams” in the regiment. He apparently was promoted to corporal while in the unit, was discharged September 7, 1865 and returned to New Jersey.

The 1885 census has him in Matawan, and it appears he may have married Ellen Suydam in that borough in 1888, although she’s not listed with him in subsequent census records.  His obituary published after his death in Matawan on July 9, 1914 listed no wife or children. He is buried in the Midway Green Cemetery, Aberdeen, NJ.

Company H

William H. Shemo was born about 1841 in New Jersey. He registered for the draft in Marlboro in June of 1863 and enlisted in the 127th on September 3, 1864.  After mustering out with the regiment on September 7, 1865, he returned to New Jersey and married Phoebe (last name unknown) prior to 1870 and the had three daughters. He lived in Matawan until his death on January 30, 1889, and he’s buried in the Saint James AME Zion Churchyard, Matawan, NJ.  Several living descendants of William have been identified.

Possible 11th Soldier

Former Aberdeen Historian Edward Fitzgerald advised me he’d seen a record indicating one “Thomas Higgin” had served from Matawan. I was able to locate one Thomas Higgins, born around 1829 in New York who registered for the draft in Middletown Point in 1863, but could locate no record indicating he had served.

Additional information can be reviewed upon gathering pension records of these soldiers from the National Archives.

Even though these brave men were treated as “less than equal” by many of citizens in Monmouth County, they chose to risk their lives and fight for the Union. Returning African American veterans faced the same thing as they returned from the Spanish American War, WWI and WWII. Black soldiers were denied GI Bill benefits in the 1940s. Twenty years later, trainees at Fort Polk, LA, going off to fight in Vietnam, had to frequent clubs that were segregated. Our black fellow citizens of this borough who risked their lives 160 years – one did die and is buried in Florida – deserve our respect and appreciation.