We were reluctant witnesses to history

September 17, 2012|By TIM ROWLAND |

Western Maryland bills itself as the crossroads of the Civil War, which is true enough as far as it goes. But Western Maryland in 1860 was also the crossroads of America, and factions on all sides were competing for our souls. We were the undecideds, the middle ground, the house that would tilt the neighborhood in one direction or the other.

In Richmond, the editor of the city’s leading newspaper presciently wrote that the South needed Maryland on its side to win. Lincoln famously said he would like to have the Lord on his side, but he had to have Kentucky.

He needed Maryland more.

Western Maryland was an Eastern state, but was still a Western frontier. The railroad had been in Hancock for less than 20 years. Maryland was at once the most southern of the Northern states and most northern of the Southern states. That wasn’t rhetorical. When Mason and Dixon were dividing North and South, they feared that the Potomac might in fact cross their carefully calculated line, geographically mingling north with south. It wasn’t until they climbed Fairview Mountain at Clear Spring and saw the river bending back to the south that they could breathe a sigh of relief.

Western Maryland was both free and enslaved. Slavery was accepted; slave auctions were routine in Hagerstown’s Public Square, and newspaper ads implored the return of runaways. But at the time of the war, there were more free blacks in Washington County than slaves, and the area was clearly conflicted. A preacher from Pennsylvania had come to town and preached an abolitionist sermon outside of Tilghmanton. He was arrested for this agitation, but a jury failed to convict him. The abolitionist preacher was defended by an attorney named Roger Taney, who went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and wrote the unfortunate Dred Scot decision, which recognized no rights of blacks that a white man was bound to respect.

Both sides appealed to Maryland, and in the east it appeared that secessionists would rule the day. Baltimore was thick with them, so much so that Maryland’s Gov. Thomas Hicks moved the state capital to Frederick, where he hoped cooler heads would prevail.

Our heads were not only cool, they were cold; we wanted nothing more than for the whole war business to go away. Our people today reflect some of the same dispositions of our people then. The state legislature, fearing Western Marylanders might rise against them if they voted for secession, tried to recall the guns that had been issued to the local guard units. The Williamsport guard, for one, told the state it could have its weapons when it pried them from their cold, dead hands.

In Hagerstown, the Herald of Freedom and Torch Light newspaper preached allegiance to the North on very practical (and today familiar) terms. If we went with the South, warned the editor, we would invariably wind up paying higher taxes: “If Maryland sticks to the Union, she has twenty millions of friends; if she attaches herself to South Carolina, she has six millions of friends and an enormous debt.”

Maryland never left the Union, a course of action that was never in doubt after Lincoln surrounded the City of Frederick (and the legislature) with U.S. soldiers and had a number of Southern-leaning lawmakers arrested and thrown into prison.

In the months leading up to Antietam, our people had kept one eye on the war and one eye on business. The newspapers were more interested in the latest harvesting technology and shipments of fine goods just arrived from the port of Baltimore. There was even some flippery accorded to the fighting: Advertisers offered specials on “bombshell hats.”

It’s easy to forget that even in times of war, life goes on. During the Civil War (after the Southerners had left Congress) the federal government passed progressive legislation establishing land-grant universities, providing settlers with homesteads and began planning the transcontinental railroad. Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet; federal soldiers kept on fighting the Indians in the West; the government began adding “In God We Trust” to coins and began delivering the mail for free. As Jubal Early was busy ransoming Hagerstown, gold was being discovered in Montana.

In Western Maryland, farmers planted as usual, women shopped as usual and children played as usual. Transportation being what it was, even a pitched battle at Manassas would have seemed a million miles away.

Opinion was crystallizing against the South, mainly because the Confederates were disrespecting the C&O Canal, which for many in Washington County was a lifeline. A hundred boats were stranded in and around Williamsport and the paper noted that “all business upon the Canal has been suspended, and the thousands directly and indirectly interested in its trade and commerce thrown out of employment, and otherwise aggrieved.”

As it often does, economics were trumping whatever Southern-leaning ideology the county had left. And there were even signs of indifference. Our farmers — some of whom would see their crops wiped from the face of the earth on Sept. 17, 1862 — were roundly criticized for concluding that their boys would be of better use tilling the soil than becoming part of it in some distant, fly-infested battlefield.

They couldn’t be bothered; they, and we, were busy.

Even as the Confederates crossed the Potomac River downstream near Frederick in the late summer of 1862, the indifference was eclipsed only by derision. “The condition and morale of the army,” sniffed the Hagerstown paper, “is beyond description. They came among us not only badly clothed and unclean in person, but in a half-starving condition. (T)hey fight desperately because forced by hunger and want. Many express an ardent desire to lay down their arms …”

The week before Antietam the editors were not even planning any war-related stories for their front page. Instead, a half page was dedicated to a fascinating work of fiction involving a woman who had sent her man packing, only to learn that his train out of town had crashed with no survivors reported (no worries, he missed the train).

This particular edition never made it to press. It was, in modified form, resurrected the week after the battle and by that time the paper’s idea of war had changed. Everyone’s had. This inconvenient irritant on the Western Maryland psyche had gone nuclear. People staggered under the weight of the knowledge that comes with seeing — as happened in the infamous Cornfield — a man fall every second. The newspaper staggered under the burden of reporting, of understanding, what it had just witnessed.

Wrote a correspondent: “It is beyond all wonder how men such as the rebel troops are can fight as they do. That those ragged and filthy wretches, sick, hungry and in all ways miserable, should prove such heroes in fight, is past explanation.”

So was the whole battle, the whole war. The stench of it was so bad that some churches-turned-hospitals were eventually demolished, because nothing could be done to rid them of death’s permeating smell. A year later, the fields were still littered with skulls and bones.

After the battle, the nation had descended on Washington County like flies on carrion. A grizzly tourism industry brought the curious and the souvenir scavengers. A more charitable breed came to help and to nurse. Heartbroken parents arrived by carriage to see if any blackened and bloated face belonged to one of their boys.

We remember all of this on Sept. 17, and at other times that we reflect on heroes and horrors.

It is our role to serve as custodian of Antietam, preserving its ground and its lessons. In 1862, the Hagerstown newspaper promised to “oppose (the Confederate’s) unholy cause to the bitter end.” Antietam shows that when mankind fails to civilly reconcile its differences, the end can be quite a bitter spot indeed.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist and author of “Strange and Bizzare Stories of the Civil War.”

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