Visiting the Civil War in Frederick, MD

Tombstone of Confederate soldier Private George W. Boatwright

“The stone behind it should say the same thing,” says the white-haired gentleman down the way from me; he must be retired, I guess, since it is a little after noon.

And, he’s right.  I’m kneeling in front of a nearly 150 year old tombstone, badly faded, but just legible is the name I was seeking when I walked down the line of Confederate graves in the Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, MD.  The front row is made up of the original stones and behind it are newer headstones, more easily read.  Along the line of graves, between every fourth grave and its neighbor, are crisp new Confederate flags.

Confederate graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

“Do you need a marker for that one?” he asks walking towards me, but I don’t understand him at first.  He’s wearing a white t-shirt from a Civil War event and belted khaki shorts with white tennis shoes.  I realize he is offering me a Confederate flag for the grave in which I am obviously so interested.

“Oh, Boatwright,” he says before I can answer him.  “I remember him.  We had a ceremony a few years ago, for him.  My wife invited one of his relatives up here.  We had a ceremony,” he waves in the direction of the Confederate memorial, nearby—a Confederate soldier standing guard with his eyes in the direction of his fallen comrades, flanked by a full-size Confederate flag, “and my wife read some letters we had from him.  And, we gave her a flag, not one of these; a big three-by-five one.”

The Confederate Memorial in Mt. Olivet

He goes on, explaining that he is putting the small flags between the graves back out, “I came out here last week and there were twelve missing in the middle.  I came out again and then they were all gone.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.  I asked here—they’re good to us, here—and he did some looking and found’em up in the main building.  We put’em out once a year, but especially this year being the Sesquentennial year.  So, I am putting’em back.  No one can tell me why they were taken down.”  He shakes his head.

I am not interested in a flag and try to be polite.  My interest in this grave was from a letter excerpt I saw at the Battle of Monocacy National Park Service (NPS) Visitor’s Center, “The caption said he was buried here and I just wanted to come … and, pay respects.”

“I know what you mean,” he says, nodding.

*   *   *

Earlier that morning I had been at the NPS’s Monocacy Battlefield and Visitor’s Center.  Recently renovated, the building is constructed like a barn, except with a shiny metal green roof reflecting the sun and different materials for better insulation and climate control than a barn.  The bottom floor has the visitor’s information desk, docent offices and the gift shop, while the second floor is the museum for the battle.  The exhibit first explains Maryland’s place in the war.  Wedged between the Mason-Dixon Line to the north and the Potomac River to the south, Maryland was a tense zone between fiercely Unionist Pennsylvania and the Confederate vanguard of Virginia.

Loyalties in Maryland were divided, here, as elsewhere, but the state’s location made it different from others.  Out of the four candidates that ran in the 1860 election Maryland voted as follows: John C. Breckenridge (added to the ballot by those Democrats who thought Stephen A. Douglas was too moderate) with 42,497 votes, John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party with 41,177 votes, Stephen A. Douglas of the Democratic Party with 5,873 votes and Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party with less than 2,300 votes, statewide.  All this, coming from the state bordering the president-elect’s new home on three sides, led to the Union effectively invading the state after bloodshed in Baltimore shortly following the secessions.  While Union sentiment grew under these conditions, southern sympathies remained strong in the state.  It was in Frederick, not the Union-occupied state capital, in Annapolis, that the Maryland legislature would vote on secession, concluding that they lacked the constitutional authority to make such a decision.

Monocacy Museum looking out at the old Georgetown Pike that leads to Washington DC

Twice the Confederate Army came through Frederick, MD on invasions of the North; twice it would fail.  The first attempt in 1862 terminated with the Battle of Antietam, near Hagerstown, MD, while the second ended with the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania the following year.  By mid-1864, the Confederacy was forced back to Atlanta, GA in the western front and to Richmond, VA in the eastern front.  But, to achieve this Gen. Ulysses Grant stripped down the capital’s defensive units for the advantage in troops.  Lee sought to use this and sent Lt. Gen. Jubal Early west and north around Grant into Maryland.  He hoped to shift the front back north, take Washington D.C., provide a victory for morale, and free Confederate prisoners of war held at Point Lookout Camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (later the author of Ben Hur) would meet Early just outside Frederick City at the Battle of Monocacy, at the junction of the river of the same name and the B & O railway, with an inferior force, both in experience and number.  Wallace would lose the battle, but in delaying Early by a day, he would give the Union forces enough time to reinforce Fort Stevens, protecting the District of Columbia.  Glenn H. Worthington, a six-year-old witness to the battle from the basement of his family’s farm, would grow up to become a judge and spearhead the campaign to get the battle its due recognition and to preserve it as a National Park.  In 1934, the measure was passed in Congress, preserving the site of the “battle that saved Washington.”

The Best Farm

Today the Battlefield is accessible by car and foot, paths leading around the houses and farmland that was caught in the crossfire of Union and Confederate guns.  I biked from the Visitor’s Center under a cloudless sky, except for some high wispy ones sauntering across the blue, to the parking sites—the bikes are not allowed on the footpaths—and, spent the rest of my day getting around on two wheels.  All three of the houses caught up in the battle’s movements, the Best, Thomas and Worthington farms, can be visited, as well as the old Gambrill Mill site.  After parking one can hike around the trails and see the different fronts of the battle and lines of defense and attack.  The Visitor’s Center explains the battle’s chronology with audio and a model of the terrain highlighted with small inset lights according to the troop activity.  I started there.  The NPS maintains an authentic look on the grounds by renting the land out to a local farmer.  Archaeology continues at the Best Farm, including the excavation of slave quarters which predate the Best’s residency on the site, beginning just before the Civil War, and when the dig is open visitors can access it to an extent, but it was closed the day of my visit.

Each of the houses and the mill became field hospitals for the battle’s wounded.  Nearby, Frederick City, would function as one large hospital during the war, taking over churches and homes.  The city also cared for the wounded from major battles, such as Antietam, as well as the numerous smaller skirmishes in the hills of western and central Maryland.  It is perhaps fitting, then, that the city is home to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD

Located in historic downtown Frederick, MD, lined with its historic houses and row-homes, on 48 East Patrick Street, the museum’s moniker is “Divided by Conflict, United by Compassion.”  It hosts two floors, seven thousand square feet, of exhibit space devoted to Civil War-era medical education, enlistment medical exams, camp life, evacuation and first responder developments, field care, Civil War-era hospitals, embalming and the modern military medical advancements.  As much devoted to setting the record straight as they are to general education, the museum curators emphasize certain myths debunked.  Principal among these is the commonly repeated line about surgeries performed without anesthesia or drugs, of which there were in fact many options.  Ether and chloroform were the most prevalent among these.

There is also emphasis on the development of the medical arts as a result of the damage done to the bodies of soldiers during the long war.  These include, most notably, the advent of facial reconstruction surgery and the advancements of prosthetics.  While these achievements are impressive, and my inner dork thrills to trace something so modern seeming to the Civil War era, I found some of the images a bit difficult to really study because of the mutilation that some suffered in battle.  I very much enjoyed the ongoing displays of Union Private Peleg Bradford’s letters which included much about the privations of the war and his experiences after being wounded.  Transcripts of the various letters are included and collection of them can be purchased in the gift shop.

Private Peleg Bradford's letters to home

Frederick City was located along the C&O Canal out of Georgetown, the B&O Railway and National Road out of Baltimore, which made it a good location for transporting the sick and wounded.  These transportation lines also made it a crossroads that both forces exploited during the war.  In particular, Frederick owes its early growth and significance to the National Road.  Developing into a “pike town” and then a small city with healthy farms surrounding it, reinforced its connection to Baltimore and the port.  This year the road celebrates its Bicentennial Anniversary.

Following the development of the city along the National Road, it grew further as a “canal town” and “rail town” becoming a city by the day’s standards.  In 1862, on October 4, following the Battles of Antietam and South Mountain, Abraham Lincoln would stop and give a speech of gratitude to the soldiers and the people of Frederick from a railroad car platform, thanking, “the good citizens of Frederick, and to the good men, women, and children in this land of ours, for their devotion to this glorious cause, and I say this with no malice in my heart toward those who have done otherwise.”  A plaque on the street corner, part of the Civil War walking tour, commemorates the spot where the speech was delivered.

The B & O railway station from which President Abraham Lincoln gave his speech to the people of Frederick

There are a number of walking tours, both guided and self-guided that will take one through the city’s historic landmarks.  Materials for the self-guided tours, such as the African American Heritage Sites tour pamphlet, and information regarding guided tours are available at the Frederick Visitor’s Center located at 151 S. East St.  In conjunction with a small exhibit space extolling the virtues of Frederick City and County, is a brief video focusing on the highlights.  Located nearby is the Museum of Frederick County History, housed in a historic residence at 24 E. Church St.  It also holds the city and county archives.

All of this is located in Frederick’s thriving historic district.  Still fed by regional farming, the city has numerous eateries.  The Black Hog BBQ and Bar, named after one of the rarest and endangered heritage breeds of hogs, serves quality BBQ in several American styles.  Café Nola, decorated by local artists, lending it a funky feel, serving Illy coffee and espresso with wide variety of breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch samplings made from locally farmed organic produce, eggs and meat.  The Brewer’s Alley, which micro-brews its beers in-house and also sources its ingredients locally, and is housed in the original town hall, it continues a long tradition of Frederick beer brewing.  In addition to food, the downtown area has filled up with specialty shops, such as the Trail House, specializing in outdoors gear and a great hub of knowledge for exploring the wild environs around the city; and, Earthly Elements, devoted to rocks, semi-precious stones and fossils, as decoration or jewelry.  A healthy arts scene also supplies fine arts galleries, theater and music.  Just outside of town, the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A affiliate, the Frederick Keys, plays America’s pastime during baseball season.

Cafe Nola looking out on East Patrick Street

On the edge of town, just before the Francis Scott Key Mall at the I-70 junction, is Mt. Olivet Cemetery.  It is not the only cemetery in the city, and had laid its first internee to rest a mere seven years before the start of the Civil War, but is home to two hundred eighty-two Confederate prisoners.  Many of these are Confederate prisoners of war captured in the Battles of South Mountain (1862), Antietam (1862), Gettysburg (1863) and Monocacy (1864).

Private George W. Boatwright, of the 12th Georgia Light Artillery, wrote a letter on June 4, 1864 to his sweetheart, Martha “Mattie” Jane Burrows, asking for her hand in marriage.  Five days later, at the Battle of Monocacy, he would receive a mortal wound, dying on July 12th; Mattie’s answer is lost to us.  He was buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, drawing me to it as I biked back into town from the battlefield.

*   *   *

I ask the man setting the flags out where the Union soldiers were, and he explains that during the war, Confederates soldiers were not buried with Union soldiers.  In Maryland, there is another Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, but soldiers not buried there could have been shipped as far as Hollywood in Virginia.

Biking through the battlefield

I bike along the car’s path, visiting other noteworthy graves, such as Barbara Fritchie, memorialized in a Whittier poem for her loyalty to the Union, and the World War II monument.  Looping back to the entrance I am passing the cemetery’s Babyland, when I come upon the gentleman’s spotless red GMC Sierra parked on the side of the road, where he is marking a Confederate officer’s grave with a flag.  His license tag is a Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans vanity plate.  Exiting past the Francis Scott Key memorial, I think about two quotes I saw at the Battlefield’s Visitor Center that morning:

…It will be a glorious day for our country when all the children within its borders shall learn that the four years of fratricidal war between the North and South was waged by neither with criminal or unworthy intent, but by both to protect what they conceived to be threatened rights and imperiled liberty: that the issues which divided the sections were born when the Republic was born, and were forever buried in an ocean of fraternal blood.

~ Lt. Gen. John B. Gordon, CSA, Reminisces of the Civil War

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it,—those who fought for liberty and justice.

~ Frederick Douglass, Decoration Day, 1871

Considering the divisions within Maryland then, I have to wonder, still, which of these two gentlemen hits nearest the mark.  I have not resolved this in my own mind.



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

8 responses to “Visiting the Civil War in Frederick, MD

  1. Will C

    Excellent work, very entertaining and informative. I never got to Frederick and the Monocacy Battlefield when I lived in DC (passed ’em on the way to Antietam, though). Always meant to. Our country owes Lew Wallace’s gallant fellows a greater debt than it knows, they saved Grant’s bacon, and Lincoln’s come to that.

    As to your final question, John Gordon has a particular place in the Lost Causer Pantheon. He probably would have wound up with about as many stars on his collar as the CSA could dig up had the war gone on longer, and he has a reputation as an excellent battlefield commander, for gallantry and dignity in defeat (see: Chamberlain and Gordon at Appomattox, – scroll down a bit) and all that stuff that neo-Confederates love so much. And although he was certainly a fine commander, his legacy owes as much to his writing as anything.

    The above quote is basically the essence of the Lost Cause: “Let’s us not bother our heads too much about who was right and who was wrong, both sides believed in their cause, and that makes both sides admirable. And oh by the way, whatever it was that started the fussin’ and the feudin’ is buried with 600,000 dead Yankees and Johnnies, so let’s not waste anymore breath over that.” That’s one hellishly convenient line of thinking. Also, let’s not forget that General Gordon was a big wheel in the Georgia Klan after the war. So all-in-all, not a great guy.

    I’ll go with Fredrick Douglass, is I guess what I’m saying. 🙂

    More travel writing, please!

    • Thanks, Will! Yes, I really struggle with the Civil War legacy. Even if we accept the southern cause as one over states’ rights, the right they were primarily defending was clearly in the wrong. But, then we have guys like Lee and Early–who voted in the state legislature against Virginia’s secession–and they clearly had a point of view that I have failed, as a historian, to grasp. If it reinforces anything to me, it is that the past is every bit a foreign country as is a landmass that is an ocean away.

      • Will C

        Yeah, it’s all very complex isn’t it? My personal opinion (as I imagine you’ve inferred) is that the war was over slavery, basically any cut you take on it you wind up there. And of course if you read what was actually written by the red-hot secessionists at the time, it’s pretty damning. But you’re right, there’s so much nuance too! It’s almost too much to process at times!

        In any case, to avoid monologuing any more, I’ll simply leave a link to a blog I read pretty consistently. If you’re not familiar, highly recommended:

  2. I agree that for the vast majority of literate Confederates, according to their own record, the issue was about slavery. If I am not mistaken, Texas, in its secession bill, makes it very clear that a threat to slavery is the impetus for leaving the Union. But, there are individual cases that really challenge me. On both sides of the debate, too, such as Baltimore’s mayor: he is a staunch Unionist, but he complains to Lincoln after the DC Emancipation because all the slaves are running away to DC–clearly a pro-slavery guy. Of course, just because people in the North supported the Union and were [perhaps] sympathetic to the abolitionists’ cause, did not mean Northern racism did not exist. It is a much more difficult period to access than most people realize–yes, it is American, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t foreign.

  3. Pingback: My Favorite Posts that don’t make the Top Ten | Brush off the dust! History now!

  4. Pingback: On those days when it is hard to write… | Brush off the dust! History now!

  5. so detailed and so good. the monuments side by side with the road were looking nice

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