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Maryland's Civil War History
By Lee Barnathan
If the best way to see America is in an RV, then, Mitch Bowman reasons, the best way to learn about American history is in an RV. The chapter of history Bowman is most interested in is the Civil War, much of which took place on what we now call “back roads.” As executive director of the Civil War Trails program, Bowman knows that to see America, one must venture off the well-traveled highways and byways.
The nonprofit program has a goal of telling the stories of the war through various markers and signs. This might be why the second image in Bowman’s presentation shows an RV passing by one of the Civil War markers. And those markers are everywhere: in Virginia, in North Carolina, in Maryland … Maryland?
“There are 212 sites in Maryland, and at every single one of them, a recreation vehicle can pull up to the marker and the family can read the interpretation,” Bowman says.
While most people probably know Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, Manassas (Bull Run) is in Virginia, Shiloh is in Tennessee and Sherman’s March to the Sea was through Georgia, the bloodiest battle in the war (Sept. 17, 1862) took place at Antietam. But many people don’t seem to know that Antietam is in Maryland.
Bowman thinks he understands why. “Maryland did not have a good sense of itself. It was a slave state south of the Mason-Dixon line. The southern part of the state was pro-South, while the mountain and Baltimore regions were pro-North.” In fact, Maryland was one of four slave states that did not secede from the Union (Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri were the others), but that fact also is not widely reported in history books. Nor is the reason why: Not only were the state’s allegiances split, but President Abraham Lincoln had half of the Maryland Legislature arrested before it could vote on secession.
Yet, Maryland is awash in Civil War history because of its location. According to Don Pierce, publisher of the Civil War Traveler guides, Maryland—by virtue of bordering the Mason-Dixon Line—was located near all of the major fighting that took place in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
As a result, armies from both sides marched through Maryland to reach places such as Gettysburg and Manassas. In fact, Pierce said, Antietam is a 45-minute drive from Harper’s Ferry and just 1-1?2 hours from Gettysburg.
When opposing armies meet up, they have battles. Action took place not only at Antietam, but Frederick, Hagerstown and Sharpsburg. Maryland soil was also witness to Confederate General Jubal Early’s raid on Washington, D.C.
Frederick is the home of the Museum of Civil Ware Medicine. Baltimore is just an hour from Frederick and where you’ll find Fort McHenry, best known as the site that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812. It was used to house Confederate prisoners of war. Another Civil War-era prison camp was located at Point Lookout. There also is a Confederate cemetery at the site, with the names of 3384 people known to be interred there. It was the first monument to the Confederacy erected by the U.S. government.
View the Battlegrounds Through Their Eyes
One of the wonderful aspects of the Maryland trails, Pierce says, is that many of the markers are in locations that offer the same viewpoint as they did 140 years ago. So, one could stand exactly where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan stood at Antietam and see what they saw.
Today, Pierce calls it “beautiful landscape, well-preserved battlegrounds, no housing developments, no fast-food places—well-preserved by the National Park Service,” he said. “You can envision the soldiers being there, without a lot of (modern-day) distraction.”
These trails also let visitors dig deeper into the war’s history. For example, Pierce said, one could wonder: How did the 132,000 troops at Antietam get there? “It’s like moving entire cities—tens of thousands of men, horses, food, cannons, medical supplies. It took days.”
Because there is so much Civil War history in Maryland, it is impossible to see it all on one trip. So, Bowman and Pierce recommend the following sites:
– “If you go to one Civil War site in Maryland, make it Antietam,” Pierce said. After pursuing Lee into Maryland, McClellan launched attacks against Lee’s army, in defensive positions behind Antietam Creek. Despite having a larger force, McClellan failed to destroy Lee’s army, but did force it back into to Virginia. The battle was touted as a victory by the Federals and gave President Lincoln the confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation.
– It is home to the Museum of Civil War Medicine, where numerous illustrations and artifacts related to medicine are housed. Medical advancements can be studied, such as changes in surgical techniques and the expanding role of nurses. Medicine of that era is described and there are dioramas of how field hospitals looked.
Another notable Civil War location is the former home of Barbara Fritchie, the woman who (according to legend) waved the Stars and Stripes in defiance of Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his troops, as they marched through downtown Frederick.
These events are the subject of an 1864 poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. Pierce doubts the events in Whittier’s poem really happened, much as the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem about Paul Revere takes liberties with the truth. But Pierce says the poem accurately depicts the mood in Frederick at the time. Barbara Fritchie’s burial place is located next to those of Thomas Johnson and Francis Scott Key in Frederick.
Several Civil War trails intersect Frederick. The Monocacy Battlefield lies just outside the city limits, while Antietam and Gettysburg are approximately 35 miles to the west and north, respectively.
Monocacy is also known as “Early’s Raid on Washington,” in which outnumbered Union forces under Gen. Lew Wallace delayed Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s charge to Washington, D.C., by a day—long enough for the capital to be reinforced and thwart Early’s attempt to capture it.
The visitor center in Gambrill Mill features a good electronic map explaining Early’s campaign and the battle, as well as an interactive computer program. While you are there, be sure to pick up a driving tour brochure that includes key points.
– One week after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, launching the war, Lincoln ordered Union troops to Washington, D.C. The Sixth Massachusetts Regiment went through Baltimore and ran into a mob of secessionists and Southern sympathizers at the Inner Harbor. Four soldiers and 12 civilians were killed in the first bloodshed of the war. Ft. Sumter had fallen without any lives lost.
The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a lifeline to the North, causing the South to attack it throughout the war. If you visit the area today, you can read six markers in a one-mile area. The one drawback: Only the President Street train station still stands as it did in 1861. The Platt and Camden stations have been rebuilt.
– Here stands Mary Surratt’s house, now a museum. Surratt was involved in John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln. Booth, a native Marylander, stopped here on his escape route to Virginia. Surratt was tried and convicted by a military court, which sentenced her to death by hanging. Surratt holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first woman to be executed by the U.S. government.