New Jersey's 15th Infantry Regiment earned some terrible distinctions during the Civil War: Fighting in Fredericksburg through Gettysburg and on to Appomattox, it suffered one of the highest casualty rates among any Union unit. And, it boasted the youngest officer in that vast army: 16-year-old Lt. Ellis Hamilton, who was killed at age 18 at the Battle of the Wilderness.
These little-known facts appear in Joseph G. Bilby's Three Rousing Cheers: A History of the 15th New Jersey Infantry from Flemington to Appomattox, the first of 21 history books he has written since 1992. His second book detailed the untold story of New Jersey's 3,000 African-American soldiers, who volunteered despite the threat of execution if captured by the Confederates. He also has authored some 400 articles.
Not surprisingly, Bilby, 75, recently won The Richard J. Hughes Prize for a lifetime of achievement in New Jersey history by the New Jersey Historical Commission.
Bilby '65/M.A. '82 had this to say during his acceptance speech: "Looking over the list of previous prize winners, I see I am in very good company. Among the many well-known historians, I noted my college mentor, Dr. Carl Prince, who got me out of the army two weeks early to attend graduate school."
In 1967, Bilby was finishing a Vietnam tour with the Army's First Infantry Division before returning to New Jersey for graduate work that, interrupted, he finished more than a decade later. Of his educational experience, he says, "I was not only the first in my family to go to college, I was the first to go to high school. I found in Seton Hall a warm and inviting institution with excellent academic standards and a student body that was much like me — blue-collar kids hopefully moving up in the world. And we did."
A Newark native, he recalls that his interest in the Civil War grew from learning that his grandfather's cousin, George Bilby, had served with the 15th.
A historian who often corrects other authors' histories, he has a passion for accuracy and compelling anecdotes. In another reference to New Jersey's 15th Infantry Regiment, Bilby notes that he edited a book of 150 New Jersey Civil War biographies — 149 about humans and one about Chaplain Alanson Haines's horse, Restless, "which survived combat wounds to be buried years later with a full military funeral."
Bilby's latest book, The Rise and Fall of the KKK in New Jersey, co-authored with Harry Ziegler, is due out in 2019. Preview: the era was the 1920s, and its "Grand Dragon" leader was actually "a vaudeville performer" who passed himself off as a lawyer.
Serious scholarship combined with fascinating facts seems a trademark of Bilby's work. What else would you expect from a writer whom the state's Historical Commission calls "intelligent, inquisitive and witty."
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