OPED LOCAL-HISTORY-COMMENTARY MCT

Silvio Laccetti

Courtesy Silvio Laccetti

Important historical material is often found in unlikely ways. Such was the case when I accidentally discovered information about Simon Douglas (1843-1950). Simon was once a slave in Fairfield County, S.C. who, after the Civil War, settled in my hometown of Fairview, N.J. Simon lived to be the last surviving Civil War soldier in New Jersey.

It all began with my being in the wrong place at the right time. Some time ago, I received a packet, curiously displaying many 50-year-old stamps, addressed to Michael Orecchio, the deceased previous owner of my house, where I have lived for decades. When I opened it, I realized what a treasure had fallen into my hands.

The contents had been sent by University of Maine Professor Jay Hoar who had dedicated decades of his life researching various categories of Civil War veterans. The packet contained a detailed biography and photographs of Simon Douglas. The main 20th century source of this information was a lost short history of Fairview written by Orecchio. Our town historian had been researching Douglas for some time.

At last, we had the whole story.

Simon Douglas came to life in the elegant prose of Professor Hoar and in that of the town elders from my childhood. His saga offers lessons for today and for many tomorrows to come.

In his early 20s, Mr. Douglas, like many other slaves in the South, went to the front lines as a servant to his master (or his master's son). When the opportunity arose, such men crossed over to the Union lines in an act of self-emancipation. Professor Hoar figures that Simon became free by 1864, and moved north with Sherman's army as a forager and a blacksmith. In 1866, Douglas settled in what was to become Fairview. It seems he liked what he found. He married a local woman, had a son and daughter, and spent the rest of his 84 years in town. He ran his own blacksmithing business into his 90's.

We learn more about Simon's life and status in Fairview from a local history written in 1987 by Orecchio, who had a long friendship with the Douglas family.

Hoar relies on Orecchio's writings, and his compilations of letters from other townsfolk concerning Simon Douglas, in portraying Douglas as a very modest man, unassuming, but with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. He loved to talk about horses, but rarely talked about his early life. He loved children, was very attached to his family and was a model father to his two children.

Two events showed the great love and affection that the community held for Simon Douglas. In his last decade of life, Simon was largely unemployed, sick and nearly blind, and way behind on his taxes. Yet he and his family stood proud and never sought any public assistance, such as there might have been in 1949. So in that year, a county court judgment seized his homestead.

Hearing the news, the town was aghast. In short order, the total taxes were collected from Fairview townsfolk eager to help, and the property title was restored to Simon.

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In another matter, a town leader led an unsuccessful fight to obtain a Civil War pension for the old soldier. He failed in his effort because Douglas, like so many others, was not officially mustered.

Hence, officially, the oldest Civil War veteran of New Jersey is George Ashby, not Simon Douglas, who actually never described himself as a vet, just a soldier.

In concluding, Orecchio states: "My family and this community where I live are richer because the Douglases lived among us."

The history of Simon Douglas in Fairview can inspire all of us to access the "angels of our better nature," as Abraham Lincoln adjures.

This year, Fairview will honor the memory of its iconic citizen in a series of ceremonies. Such is the power of history to motivate, transform, commemorate and to teach the youth.

Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and a long-time Fairview, N.J., resident.

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