The Civil War Years on Display at the Schoolhouse Museum

Latest museum chronicles life in Ridgewood during some of America's darkest days

The Civil War perhaps wasn't so much a divide between the north and south, as much as it was a question of economic interests and fundamental questions of governance and ethics. Yet, something often lost in the pages of history books is the widespread impact it had right here in our local community. Were things as clearly drawn between North-South as is commonly thought? What did the shots of Ft. Sumter mean for families here in Ridgewood?

That's precisely what the Ridgewood Historical Society set out to discover with its Civil War exhibit at the , which opened Sunday and displays a large collection of guns from the period, a local soldier's infantry uniform, dresses from the time, farming tools, flags, historic documents, periodicals and quite a bit more. The exhibit will be ongoing until summer of 2012.

"I think this will be a big draw," said Museum Curator Joy Hamburger of the exhibit, which also counts an embellished military drum and an engraving of Abraham Lincoln with his signature among the artifacts.

"I think that we are often so busy that we forget to appreciate the past and who went before us and the similarities and differences in life," Historical Society President Sheila Brogan added. "Today we have men going off to war and families being left alone to make it. Maybe they're not farmers but there's a lot of commonality."

You might be surprised to find New Jersey was the last of the northern states to abolish slavery in 1846. Heavily dependent economically on textiles, voting records are perhaps the clearest example of its divisions, said Brogan. In the 1860 presidential election 52 percent voted for Stephen Douglas and 48 percent voted for Abraham Lincoln. Fewer than 100 homes were in Ridgewood–then considered part of Franklin Township and Washington Township–at the beginning of the war and most were farmers. War in those times rarely resulted in profit for farmers, so most were neutral in their support, Hamburger said.

Garrett Ackerman was one such farmer who had been dispatched to war. The 30-year-old left behind his wife Rachael and his children to tend to the farm on East Saddle River Road, Hamburger said.

"Ackerman was torn about leaving his farm," according to the museum curator. In his letters, the farmer wrote of the hardships he'd faced, of his longing for his family. He requested his family send him meats and other items he could not find while at war.

Another soldier, a Van Emburgh, had similar troubles on his mind and also expressed concern for relatives on the battle field. The letters chronicle the difficulties soldiers faced, Hambuger said.

An infantryman in New Jersey's 22nd regiment, Ackerman was largely tasked to build roads, railways and to protect critical infrastructure. He and his fellow soldiers saw battle in Chancellorsville but that was believed the only battle for the group during its nine-month tour. 

A total of 41 soldiers in New Jersey's 22nd never returned home. Most, Hamburger said, were lost to disease. Ackerman and fellow soldiers likely knew a great deal of the soldiers in the over 900-man regiment. The world was smaller back then, she said. A total of 19 Ackerman men fought in the Civil War and not all were in the 22nd Regiment, Hamburger added. Ackerman survived the war and lived out his days in Ridgewood until his death at age 82.

While the men of the 1860s had faced the whizzing musket fire, disease and piercing bayonetes in open battle, women too found great difficulties. Food still needed to be harvested, children cared for. Life did not stop because the man was out warring.

"It's just is so interesting that left alone on the farm with your husband, father, son going off to war, you'd be responsible," said Brogan. "At the time the school year was only 12 weeks. Many children were responsible for farming during the war. It was a hard life."

On display are dresses women had worn during the Civil War, which were "big hooped" and formal. Women commonly subscribed to magazines that contained colored plates of yarn and patterns to demonstrate how to make a dress. The wealthier may have had seamstresses make them, but commoners were especially well versed in creating dresses. Most had one nice dress, usually the same wedding dress they'd taken their vows in. Dolls too were commonplace back then and there's a diverse collection the Schoolhouse Museum on display.

Ridgewood really transformed after the Civil War, Hamburger said. What was once an agrarian society with fewer than 120 homes exploded to a 1,200 family suburban village more closely resembling the community we see today. It's good reason for students and citizens of the new millennia to reflect back on the transformation, the historical society says.

"The Ridgewood Historical Society is so fortunate to have this extensive collection of artifacts from such a momentous time in history," said Hamburger. "Ridgewood was a small farming community in 1861 and its citizens held diverse views about the war. We’re excited to share the story about the local soldier’s life and the everyday citizen during the Civil War with today’s generation."

Museum hours are from Thursday and Saturday 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $5 per adult, $3 a child, or $10 for a family.

Michael Berger October 23, 2011 at 07:35 PM
Someone should write an article about Colonel Gilliam Van Houten who was the commander of the 21st New Jersey Infantry Regiment, killed near Chancellorsville (Salem Church), and is buried in Franklin Lakes off of Vee Drive. I believe he was born in Paterson.


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