On Friday, Jan. 6, I had the privilege of speaking during the Battle of Hancock Sesquicentennial Commemoration at the Hancock Performing Arts Center. The four-day event was coordinated by Ms. Lily Wolford and included many activities for young and old alike. My hat is off to her and to the town of Hancock for their efforts. In my view, the Hancock event was a fitting start to Civil War commemorations statewide in 2012.
In preparing my remarks, I came across some information that I thought would be interesting to readers along the same lines as my column published last Sunday.
As for the particulars surrounding the actual Battle (bombardment) of Hancock, let me briefly relate this excerpt from Hancock’s History, Part 2: “… with the outbreak of the Civil War, Hancock was greatly affected because of the main arteries of travel transecting at this junction, the Bank Road, the C&O Canal and the B&O Railroad on the banks of the Virginia side of the Potomac River at Alpine Station (now Hancock, W.Va.). Troops were stationed there at various points to safeguard these supply and communications lines.
“On January, 5, 1862, Hancock, Md., was laid siege to by Major General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Coming up from Winchester, Va., Jackson drove troops of the 39th Illinois, stationed in Bath, Va., north across the Potomac River into Hancock on the 4th. On the 5th, after his demand for surrender was denied, Jackson began shelling, across the Potomac from Orrick’s Hill in Virginia toward Hancock. Union troops were positioned on a ridge behind St. Thomas Episcopal Church and St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
“From a first-hand account from local canal merchant James Ripley Smith: ‘Sunday, the 5th of January, the citizens of Hancock left by orders of the Southern General Jackson. One and one-half hours to leave, at one o’clock they came cannonading but we replyed (sic) which silenced them before night. About 100 shots were exchanged; one part of a shell hit my house and smoke house, a ball lodged in the garden in the ground and many other places in town.”
Such was the sum total of the battle; when the Union soldiers were reinforced, Jackson withdrew and moved on Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia).
Most Southerners in 1861-62 believed that Maryland would ultimately secede and, if so, the Union capital would be isolated from the rest of the Union states. Cutting communications and military relief lines from the west, the purpose of Jackson’s attack on Hancock became a prudent, tactical move. Also, most Southerners did not realize the geographic divisiveness within the state. The West remained strongly pro-union while the East leaned towards the Southern cause of states’ rights.
I am sure that Jackson was as surprised as anyone when he asked for the surrender of Hancock and the citizens refused. Maryland, please understand, had many citizens who sympathized with the Southern cause. Just look at the ninth verse of our state’s song, “Maryland, my Maryland,” particularly: “She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb; Huzza! She spurns the Union scum. She breathes! She burns! She’ll come, she’ll come. Maryland, my Maryland.”
In 1861, the governor of Maryland was Thomas Holliday Hicks. In his gubernatorial inaugural address, Hicks stated that he opposed abolitionists and supported slave owners. He denounced the attacks of fanatical and misguided persons against property in slaves and that the slave owners had a right under the Constitution to recover their property. Sure sounded like a “states righter” to me.
However, in April 1862, after bloodshed in Baltimore involving Union troops as they marched between railroad stations, Hicks informed President Lincoln that “I feel it my duty to advise you that no troops be ordered or allowed to pass through Maryland.” He offered to mediate a truce with the Confederacy, claiming that Maryland’s position as a border state was to remain “neutral.”
Prominent folks from all parts of the state lobbied Hicks to call the General Assembly into special session, purportedly for mixed reasons including supporting or opposing secession. Initially, Hicks called the session in Annapolis and then moved it to Frederick, considered a Union town. When the legislature convened, it passed unanimously a measure stating that “the State would not commit to secession, even though the Constitution gives the State the authority to take such action.”
From states’ rights to neutral to unionist, it is interesting to see “the politics of change” that occurred in the history of our state.
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.