Historian's find may solve some Civl War mysteries

August 26, 1997

Less than a month before the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a local historian has made a discovery that may significantly change what we know about life in Washington County during the Civil War.

Tom Clemens, a professor of history at Hagerstown Junior College, recently made contact with a West Coast collector of Civil War material who has a random assortment of Hagerstown papers from the Civil War years.

Clemens said the collector, who he declined to name at this time, "does not want to sell them. But he is willing to have them microfilmed and share them with us."


Why is the find so signficant? Because for more than 30 years, the Washington County Free Library's collection of Hagerstown papers from the Civil War years has been missing.

According to Mae Talbott, a reference specialist who's been with the library for 35 years, the archive disappeared when The Herald-Mail Company and the library were located side-by-side on Summit Avenue. The library needed space and The Herald-Mail offered to store the old papers in its basement.

"They went over to your building across the alley, and somewhere along the way, someone helped themselves to them," Talbott said.

The loss was discovered when The Herald-Mail decided to begin microfilming its archive, Talbott said. Based on an 1989 inventory, the gap runs from June 1859 to January 1865, which means that every Civil War paper that turns up is treated like gold.

"We've got one from November 1861, and we've got about two days during the war, and that's it," Talbott said.

Could the missing archive still exist here or elsewhere?

It's possible, says Talbott, who notes that the library was once contacted after someone "found a lot of Hagerstown papers in a monastery in Arizona. Somehow, somebody had died and left them to the monastery."

Unfortunately, until Clemens' find, Talbott said the library had "never been able to find anybody who had anything from the Civil War years."

If someone has papers from the era that they've inherited, the library would be very interested, Talbott said. Library officials caution anyone with old newspapers that they must be handled very carefully, or they might crumble in the readers' hands. Both Talbott and Clemens said they'd be very interested in such papers, and would try to work out some arrangement to compensate them for allowing them to be copied.

Why all the fuss about some old newspapers?

"I'm speaking to a newspaper writer, so I don't have to tell you how important it is to get a daily pulse of public life," Clemens said.

He noted that while scholars know a lot about what happened during the Civil War years on the national and state level, what's missing is a picture of how the ordinary citizens were reacting to those events. It would be helpful for scholars to know what local events were going on at the time, Clemens said, and how local people felt about the war, perhaps through their letters to the editor.

"We have this big missing gap of information," Clemens said.

John Frye, director of the library's Western Maryland Room, agreed that it would be "tremendous" to find the missing papers. Without them, he said, "We have no way of knowing how the local area interpreted the Civil War."

The loss is a "terrible void," Frye said, because without the archive, there are no local reports of the damage the war caused here.

"The few that you guys have (on microfilm from those years), none of them are directly related to the battle," Frye said.

Other copies could exist, Frye said, but none of the scholars he's spoken to have ever seen one.

For the Rev. John Schildt, author of a dozen books about Washington County and the Civil War, the missing archive meant having to rely on Herald-Mail interviews with Civil War veterans who returned to Antietam years later to mark earlier anniversaries. Schildt didn't say this, but it seems logical that memories would be dimmed by the years, and that perhaps some of those with the most horrible and vivid recollections of the battle might not want to return at all.

Schildt, best known for "Drums Along the Antietam," an account of Washington County life from frontier times through the early 1970s, said that having newspaper accounts of the times leading up to the Battle of Antietam would be an invaluable resource.

"For me, history has always been about people and places. Diaries, letters and newspaper articles have always been wonderful sources," Schildt said.

The archive, Schildt said, "was a gold mine that was missing."

If you've inherited any Civil War-era newspapers that were published in Hagerstown, please contact Tabott or Frye at the Washington County Free Library at (301) 739-3250. Or call me at (301) 733-5131, ext. 7622.

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