Looking at Washington County, with its shopping malls, housing developments and parks, it can be hard to remember that the fertile land once was a battlefield, and stately homes served as hospitals for the wounded and dying.
During the Civil War years, soldiers patrolled the streets and the blood of thousands on both sides seeped into the ground. Behind closed doors, households in this border state were divided by sentiments of union and secession.
As war loomed on the horizon in 1861, the residents of Maryland were not all of one mind.
“Maryland was a very divided state,” said Gail Stephens, historian, author and volunteer at Monocacy Battlefield in Frederick County, Md. “People began to pull apart. People who were friends began to pick sides and there was a cooling of relationships.”
“But for citizens, choosing a side wasn’t like a pick-up basketball game,” said Thomas C. Clemens, Ph.D., a professor of history at Hagerstown Community College. “This was war. It would come with significant death and destruction, and some simply did not want to ‘play.’”
Thomas J.C. Williams in his “A History of Western Maryland,” published in 1906, wrote of the way the Civil War divided not just the local community, but families.
“It was literally a fratricidal strife and a fratricidal strife is always the most embittered,” Williams wrote. “It seemed that the words of the Prophet had been fulfilled. No trust could be placed in a friend, no confidence in a guide and it was well for a man to keep the doors of his mouth from her that lay on his bosom, for the son rose against the father, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and a man’s enemies were often the men of his own house.”
Williams wrote of “strife and division within the family circle. In some instances the father would sympathize with one side, the mother with the other. Some of the sons would join the Northern army and some the Southern or it might be that the father would be arrayed against his sons and not unfrequently would brothers be brought into direct conflict with opposing forces.”
In Washington County, “The news of secession in the far south which quickly followed upon the news that Lincoln was elected, was received with genuine concern and alarm by a great majority of our people,” Williams wrote.
Abraham Lincoln received only 95 votes in Washington County in the 1860 election. By the time he took office in March 1861, seven states had pulled out of the union and formed the Confederate States of America, said Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus with the National Park Service.
In Maryland, the question of secession dominated conversations.
Residents and even newspapers identified themselves as being secessionist-minded, Stephens said.
“That didn’t necessarily mean they felt Maryland should leave the union, just that they supported the right of southern states to secede,” she said.
As divided as Maryland was in sentiment, it was equally as divided in lifestyle.
Slavery was a major institution in the eastern counties, Stephens said, but west of Catoctin Mountain, it was rare.
“Slavery was not very common here,” Clemens said. “Our economy was not tied to slave labor.”
In the 1860 census, Washington County’s population was little more than 31,000, Clemens said. Of those people, 28,305 were white, 1,677 were free blacks and 1,435 were slaves, compared to the state, which the census found had a 25 percent slave population, he said.
As strongly as the state’s Eastern economy was tied to Virginia, residents in the western part of the state were as strongly tied to Pennsylvania through a shared German heritage, Clemens said.
The Hagerstown Herald of Freedom and Torch Light took a decidedly unionist position. In 1861, it blasted a group of moderate residents who canceled their subscriptions.
“It is a strange infatuation that can prompt any man in Maryland to discontinue a Union newspaper,” the editors wrote. “These papers advocated a policy and encouraged and sustained Gov. Hicks in maintaining it to which alone the people of this state are indebted for the happy exemption which they enjoy from the ravages of a horrid war.”
When the Confederate army moved into Washington County In September 1862, the editors and staff of The Freedom and Torch Light were in the process of preparing the Wednesday, Sept. 10, 1862, edition. They fled to Chambersburg, Pa. When they returned, after the Battle of Antietam, the following ran on Page 2 under the date Sept. 24, 1862:
“When the rebels approached Hagerstown we, in company with hundreds of other Union men, sought refuge in Pennsylvania, and consequently the publication of the Herald and Torch was suspended for two weeks. ... under the circumstances, we presume no subscriber will be ungenerous enough to censure us for deserting our post. We can print no paper under rebel rule, and this is our apology for printing none while that rule extended over Washington County.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Andrew G. Boyd, editor and publisher of the Maryland Free Press, a weekly paper printed in Hagerstown, was ordered removed to the South by the National Guard, and publication of his newspaper suppressed.
His paper was found to “encourage and foster insurrection, rebellion and hostility against the Government of the United States,” the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light reported in its May 6, 1863 edition.
The order by Maj. Gen. Schenck, as reported in the Freedom and Torch Light, said that Boyd, “being manifestly dissatisfied with the constituted authorities and power of the U. States and the loyal administration of the Government, will be sent beyond the lines of the army South of the Potomac, to give him the opportunity to find among armed Rebels, a place more congenial to his views and desires, with a warning that if he returns through the military lines during the continuance of the rebellion, he will be arrested and dealt with as a Spy.”
On the eve of war, Hagerstown leaders met to debate secession.
Richard H. Alvey, 35, then a judge and head of the county bar, publicly spoke his secessionist mind and it eventually landed him in jail.
In January 1861, Alvey issued resolutions calling for a convention and advocating the right of states to secede, Williams wrote.
Those in favor of the Union wrote their own resolutions declaring that the ballot box, not revolution, was the remedy.
But Washington County held about as much political clout in the 1860s as it does today, Clemens said.
So when the Maryland legislature convened in Frederick to debate secession, the majority felt it was not in their power to remove the state from the union, Stephens said.
“They felt the only way for Maryland to make that decision was elect citizen delegates to a convention,” she said. “That convention never happened.”
Even those who agreed with secession were fearful that seceding from the Union would make their state a battleground, Stephens said.
Clemens said lawmakers knew that Maryland’s proximity to the federal government in Washington, D.C., meant that it could be held in the Union by force.
When Union troops seized Federal Hill in Baltimore on April 19, 1861, their fears were confirmed and secession was no longer an option for Maryland, Stephens said.
“Indeed men’s minds were strangely unsettled and it was a long time before they finally settled down to conviction,” Williams wrote of Washington County.
“It was realized that when the hour for the parting of the ways arrived it would be an hour of sadness, rather than of hatred; of regret and sympathy, rather than of wrath and vengeance,” he wrote.
Bearss called Maryland “a border state,” a place where sentiments were divided, where brother would fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor, where the North and the South would converge in bloody battle.
Stephens said that once war was declared, many chose to join the Union and fight for Maryland. Others were drafted.
Some crossed the Potomac River to Harpers Ferry to join the Army of Northern Virginia, she said.
Some, like Bradley Johnson of Frederick and Luke Tiernan Brien of Urbana, became officers in the Confederate army, she said.
Others never made it to the South.
A young Williamsport man, Dewitt Clinton Wrench, wanted to fight for the Confederacy, Clemens said.
To join the Confederacy after the war started, men had to steal away across the Potomac River, but when Wrench tried to leave Williamsport, Clemens said, he was beaten to death in the streets.
In Hagerstown and Frederick, Southern sympathizers were rounded up as spies, Stephens said.
Some, she said, were hanged.
The shot that counts
“There were other first shots in the Civil War, but the shot that counts is the shot that was fired at Fort Sumter, at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the 12th day of April,” Bearss said.
Until the end of 1861, the war had not seriously distressed the people of Washington County, Williams wrote in 1906.
“The presence of the army, whilst offensive to many of the people, had been rather to the advantage of the county in furnishing an excellent market for all kinds of products,” he wrote.
Stephens said residents became opportunists of sorts, selling to whichever army occupied their county at the time.
She told the story of a 6-year-old girl named Virginia Thomas, the daughter of Christian Keefer “CK” Thomas of Frederick County, whose farm would be at the center of the battle at Monocacy.
While staying at the Thomas farm in August 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant asked Virginia whether her parents supported the Union or the Confederacy, Stephens said.
Virginia told Grant that when the Yankees were here, her father was a Yankee; when the Rebels were here, he was a Rebel.
“That is how people felt in this state, it was the nature of being where the armies were marching, where there was constant military presence,” Stephens said. “No one wanted to upset an army capable of destroying their families and farms.”
Washington County was “a battlefield. It was overrun by both armies,” Williams wrote. “Vast quantities of property were destroyed. The population were divided in sentiment, and each portion ascribed to the other the losses and indignities they suffered.”
Residents of central and western Maryland would become so accustomed to troops marching through their towns, taking their livestock and fighting on their farms that they would become callus to the horrors of war, Stephens said.
The horror of Antietam
On Sept. 14, 1862, the Battle of South Mountain took place, a precursor to a battle that would rage three days later in Sharpsburg and would become known as the bloodiest day of the Civil War.
An account in the issue of the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light with two dates — Sept. 10 and Sept. 24 — told of horrors witnessed during the Battle of Antietam: “Many were deprived of an arm, leg and eye, still surviving, impatiently awaiting their turn for medical assistance. The real horror can better be imagined than described, and a visit to the hospital where amputations are being made will fully impress the visitor with its startling horrors.”
By day’s end, more than 23,000 were dead, wounded or listed as missing.
“No human being who has never witnessed such a scene can picture in his mind the horror of that field,” according to an account Williams relates in his book. The whole cornfield, “... was dotted with the dead, single and in heaps, and the air was filled with the groans and the lamentations of the wounded and dying, calling for help and begging piteously for water.”
Homes, town halls and churches became hospitals, mothers became undertakers.
“The remains of the dead, who fell at the battle of Antietam, continue to be removed by their friends. Last week we saw two ladies riding from that vast graveyard in a one-horse vehicle, both being seated upon the coffin which contained the remains of a relative,” the Hagerstown paper reported in its Nov. 5, 1862, edition.
During the Battle of Monocacy in Frederick County in July 1864, citizens sat on fences and watched the battle rage, Stephens said.
Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, who went on to write “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” even sent a soldier to tell the spectators to go home lest they get hurt, she said.
When the soldier returned, his message to Wallace was that the people refused.
“They were so used to battle, so used to armies that they were going to stay,” Stephens said.
As accustomed as the state had grown to war, many families lost everything when war spilled over our borders, according to the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light.
“We have hitherto read of and contemplated the ravages of war at a distance, but alas! a large portion of our fertile county has fallen a victim to them, and we now see and feel them in all their intensity,” an article on the aftermath of Antietam said. “The beautiful district of country over which the great battle of Wednesday raged presents a melancholy picture of devastation. A number of houses and barns were destroyed, fences scattered as if a tornado had swept them away, hundreds of acres of corn trampled down and devoured, and wreck, ruin and desolation meet the eye at every turn.”
To look upon the battlefields 30 years after the war, however, was to see the marks of destruction had disappeared, Williams wrote in his book, published in 1906.
“Several of the most conspicuous buildings in Sharpsburg including the old Lutheran and Episcopal churches were greatly damaged by cannon balls. All these marks have disappeared,” he wrote. “The little Dunkard Church, which was so shattered that people could ride on horseback through the breaches in its walls, has been repaired and painted so that all marks of the injuries it received have been obliterated.”