Weeds creep over heroes of Civil War

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2007.)


The tattered and faded American flag lies crumpled in the overgrown grass.

A large tree branch rests where it fell, propped across the tombstone of George H. Miller, Co. A, 25th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troop.

The dead lie beneath the ground here in Ambury Hill Cemetery, apparently forgotten.

Fifteen years ago, dozens of people descended on this historic graveyard, where black veterans of the Civil War were buried in the latter part of the 19th century. They removed trees, cut grass, cleared out brambles and moved stones in a near decade-long effort to restore the graveyard.

Today, few signs of those efforts remain. The grass has grown long. Branches litter the area. A gauntlet of thorns blocks access to several graves. White crosses lie broken and corroded on the ground.

Here also lie the remains of local men who fought for the North during the Civil War: John Williams, Jeremiah Brown, Robert Gould, William Bryant, J.R. Riley, Benjamin Clark. On many graves, the words “U.S. Col. Troop” are clearly legible.

“They made such an effort to clean it all out, and now it’s back the way it was,” said Penny Watson, a historical architect and Greenwich native who helped design restoration plans for the church that owns the land.

This graveyard sits adjacent to where the church of the Society of Colored Methodists of Greenwich once sat in Othello, a small community up the road from Greenwich proper that was founded by former slaves in the late 18th century. After the church burned down in 1838, the congregation built a new one about a mile away on Sheppards Mill Road in Springtown. The church is now called Bethel African Methodist Episcopal.

Springtown was a key location along the Underground Railroad, where slaves were smuggled across the choppy waters of the Delaware Bay into this haven of a black community.

In the late 19th century, the congregation buried its members near the old church site, today called Ambury Hill. Some say the site has unmarked graves of Lenni Lenape, too, in addition to the black Civil War veterans.

Today, the church has about five members, down from a range of 25 to 50 just a few years ago. It’s an elderly congregation. Many members have died. Some have moved away, such as Laura Aldrich, who was a driving force behind efforts to certify the church on the National Historic Register.

They simply don’t have the manpower to tend the cemetery.

“We can’t keep the church open and the graveyard as well,” said Doris Davis, a Bridgeton native who regularly attended the church until about a month ago.

There’s even a question of how long the church can stay open. Rev. Cassandra Hill, a 31-year-old Pennsylvania native, became pastor here last year. She hopes to reach out to other communities to draw people to Springtown by stressing its role in history.

“The kind of people who would be interested in our church just don’t live around here,” Hill said.

The cemetery isn’t completely out of mind, however. Rich DeMarco, a local history buff, climbed the small hill to the cemetery this past spring and cut the grass. He’d like to do so again, but he just hasn’t been able to reach the few church members to gain the permission he feels he needs to walk the cemetery’s grounds.

“The thing is, I was sort of doing it on my own because it was sort of a disgrace,” DeMarco said Saturday, as he stood about a mile from the cemetery in the Lummis Library, the home of the county historical society. “I have the equipment. I have the time.”

Randy Winchester grew up in Springtown and went to that church. Years later, shortly after his mother died, Winchester took on the role of caretaker. Every weekend, he cut grass and cleared brush there. Meanwhile, the carpenter and retired auto worker helped restore the church building. He built a barn behind it for use at church functions. He planned to build two more.

Last year, his car broke down on Route 55. The 60-year-old Winchester got out to push the vehicle. His wife, Sharon, remembers him calling her via cell phone right after, saying he had chest pains. It was the last time she spoke to him. He died of a heart attack that day.

Sharon Winchester goes to church every week now in Springtown.

“Right before he died, we started having a problem, and I started to go,” she said.

They would have been married 30 years this May. She cried while speaking of him. Her husband’s church is now her church. The graves he cared for are now hers.

George H. Miller was a private in the Army before he was buried in one of those graves. He enlisted Jan. 5, 1864 and was discharged Sept. 19, 1865, according to the Web site http://www.pa-roots.com. How he lived his life after that isn’t clear.

Today, what remains is a tree branch across his tombstone and a fallen and faded American flag.

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Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church sits on Sheppards Mill Road, County Road 607, in Greenwich Township. Ambury Hill Cemetery sits on Ye Greate Street, about one-third of a mile north of Sheppards Mill Road’s western end.