Image from: The Historical Marker Database: Flemington Fairgrounds.
I published this in March 2018, but thought it was worth re-editing and repeating. In this version, the blog is a story of a site important to its community and history that ended up becoming a shopping center.
In the novella, The Enlistment, it is August of 1862, and Frankie learns that her beau Patrick and her sister Lydia’s husband are going to Flemington to enlist in the Army.
When Frankie protests, Patrick tells her, “I don’t want to go. I want to stay here with you. But this is something I need to do. Edgar and I will be going down to Flemington to enlist at Camp Fair Oaks. If all goes well, they’ll accept us and we’ll join the Fifteenth New Jersey Volunteers. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”
By 1862, Union regiments originally sent to fight the war with the Confederate States of America had been decimated by exhaustion, illness, injury, and death. The Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, responded to the crisis by reopening recruiting offices. In July, President Lincoln put out a call for more volunteers, asking them to serve a 3-year enlistment. (This was before the Enrollment Act – or Civil War Military Draft Act - of 3 March 1863.)
Five complete regiments were supposed to be raised in New Jersey. Previously, the state had only provided one regiment. They were then faced with the dilemma of raising up four more, truly an intimidating task. Part of the state's answer was to decentralize the recruitment effort and create military districts that would focus their efforts on their own regions.
Frankie Blaine and her family live in the town of Blaineton – based on the real town of Belvidere. Originally, I had been cagey about which New Jersey county was home to the town, but finally gave in and said it was in Warren County (also Belvidere's county). That mean, according to the history side of things, that Warren was in the same military district as the counties of Morris, Somerset, Sussex, and Hunterdon. This was the district seeking recruits to form the Fifteenth Regiment, also known as the Fifteenth New Jersey Volunteers.
The process for the entire state looked like this: recruits came to an induction center that was already organized as a military camp. They signed up. Each recruit was given a $2 premium, as well as a month’s pay (about $13), and a uniform. Then they were sent immediately into training. Having the process happen all in one fell swoop was a clever tactic. The flurry of signing up and then being marched off to start their training deprived inductees of the chance to change their minds.
One effective way to fire up young recruits and get them to district recruitment centers was to hold “War Meetings” in various towns. These were designed to appeal to young listeners’ patriotism. The gatherings also inspired well-to-do citizens to donate money to the cause. Money was another attractive enticement for potential recruits. In addition to local bounties, a new soldier also received a $100 Federal bounty once the regiment was mustered in. In addition, families of married men or men with widowed mothers received an extra $6 per month. Single men received an extra $2 per month.
It should be no wonder then that, in The Enlistment, new recruit Bill Crenshaw’s reason for joining the Army was money As Bill says, they “paid real good money to sign up and good pay after.” There is however, another reason the money is helpful to Private Crenshaw: Bill is a woman masquerading as a man who wants to help her family. She knows she can earn more doing this kind of “man’s work” than she can doing typical “woman’s work.”
The recruitment strategies worked. Over the course of a short period, the Fifteenth Regiment was full, with 925 officers and men. The regiment was mustered in on 25 August 1862 and left for Washington on 27 August.
Sadly, there is nothing left of Camp Fair Oaks now, save a small sign, which I hope to photograph and post in the near future. The Camp’s short life had been spent on the Flemington Fairgrounds, the site of an annual county and agricultural fair. The fairgrounds had been a part of the life of Flemington and Hunterdon County since 1848.
“The August fair was a summer staple, not just for Hunterdon residents, but for people throughout the state and for some Pennsylvania residents as well. The character of the fair changed as tastes and agriculture changed. In 1917, it became the site of the oldest weekly auto-racing track in the country.” (NJ.com)
In 2001, the Flemington Fairgrounds was placed on a list of the 10 most threatened states in New Jersey. But by 2006, though, the battle to save the site or even a small part of it as a memorial park and open space was lost. The location is now home to a Wal-Mart, Lowe's, a restaurant, and smaller stores and business. The agricultural fair survives and was moved to a county-owned site in East Amwell Township.
Historical preservation often collides with the economic and planning needs of states, counties, and towns. Sites may be and are torn down, built over, or paved over. Camp Fair Oaks is gone and now lives only in history. The fight to preserve history is ongoing.
Bilby, J. G. (1993). Three Rousing Cheers: A History of the Fifteenth New Jersey from Flemington to Appomattox. Hightstown, NJ: Longstreet House.
Hunterdon County Democrat. “Once among one of New Jersey’s most threatened historic sites, the Flemington Fairgrounds is ‘Gone Forever.” 18 May 2013.
Preservation New Jersey website. “Flemington Fairgrounds.”
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder