Farms paid a high toll during Civil War

May 31, 2011

Monday was Decoration Day or Memorial Day as it is now known.

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, and was first observed on May 30,1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, hence the name Decoration Day. The first state to officially recognize the holiday was New York in 1873.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War.

Because of my love of agriculture and history, this will certainly not be my last article on the subject as we will remember this turbulent time over the next four years.

To set the stage a little, America was a thriving agricultural economy exporting $182 million per year or 75 percent of total exports. Wheat was a major export for the country and a major crop for Maryland and many northern states. Cotton, of course, was the major export of the Southern states.

Washington County was a major cereal grain producer growing oats, wheat, barley and spelt. These grains were milled into flour at the mills in the area. Many of our road names still bear witness to the milling that occurred here. Our abundant water power in addition to our fertile fields were key ingredients for the success of these industries.

The battlefields saw the loss of life of many a farm boy and his city cousin, but the farms paid a higher toll primarily because their land turned into killing fields. Crops, livestock, barns and homesteads were destroyed by these engagements.

While I won't dwell too much on Antietam until September 2012, I will give you an example of how the war devastated the noncombatants, as well. Death, disease and destruction took its toll for decades after the battle. Sharpsburg is still to this day affected by the battle. Today, the town is limited to its change and growth because of the significance of that day in September.

But let's took a look at the price paid by one man, Joshua Newcomer and his family. He attributed the damages to soldiers on both sides. Newcomer attributed $445 worth of damage to the house, barn and outbuildings, no small sum for 1862. In addition, $1,441.95 of property taken or destroyed, such as 4,950 fence rails and more than 800 feet of board fence, all of which I am sure fueled the fires of the military camps.

Joshua also lost 73 fat hogs, 215 shoats, two horses, 12 steers, 100 barrels of flour, 400 bushels of fruit, 150 bushels of potatoes, three barrels of cider vinegar, 200 chickens, 16 turkeys, six bee hives and several hand tools and harnesses. All totaled, his losses were $3,097.15 of which the U.S. government paid him $145. Its claim was it could not adequately distinguish whether the damages were caused by Union or Confederate soldiers.

As if the cash loss wasn't bad enough, the loss of food as listed above was typical for Sharpsburg area families which meant the winter of 1862-63 was a hungry one. Newcomer, like many others, never recovered from his losses, and on March 27, 1866, his farm and mill were sold at public auction.

All this to say, I trust you remembered the veterans who gave their last full measure of devotion to protect this nation.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

The Herald-Mail Articles