by Katherine Heerbrandt
Nov. 24, 2004
The story of the Civil War goes beyond the bloody battlefields and the larger-than-life statesmen and generals. As a border state, Maryland plays a prominent role in that story, a role that some historians say hasn’t been fully explored.
"Maryland is an unusual case because it was a slave state that stayed loyal to the Union," said military historian Carol Reardon of Penn State University. "It doesn’t fit the stereotype in most people’s heads."
Reardon is among several national historians who met in Frederick last week to talk about a new project that aims to tell Maryland’s story.
"Crossroads of War: The Civil War and the Homefront in the Mid-Atlantic Border Region" is an ambitious, ongoing effort to give visitors, students and scholars of the Civil War a broader perspective through a Web site, guided tours, public programs, conferences and publications.
The Catoctin Center for Regional Studies, based at Frederick Community College, received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities this year to plan the project. The center will apply for a $350,000 grant in February 2005 to implement it. If successful, the project will get into full gear next fall.
Led by Dean Herrin, who doubles as a National Park Service historian and co-coordinator for the center, "Crossroads" will delve into the military and social historical aspects of the Civil War and be centered on six themes.
"We want to make it as comprehensive as possible," Herrin said. "Whereas a lot of historians look at the military side, we are interested in that and the homefront issues, African-American issues, and women’s issues."
While much of Frederick’s part in the War Between the States is well documented, "Crossroads" will highlight some of Frederick’s less-heralded history before, during and after the war.
Frederick has paid homage to Roger Brooke Taney’s place in history, showcasing his home, law office and grave site. As principal author of the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is a starting place for further research of the national debate that raged prior to the start of the war, Herrin reported.
But, how many people know that Dred Scott’s attorney, Henry Geyer, was also based in Frederick? He received his law license and practiced in Frederick before moving to Missouri, Herrin said.
Frederick also played a role in secession talks. The site of downtown’s Candy Kitchen once hosted the state’s legislators in the summer of 1861. At Kemp Hall, talk of secession was on the agenda that summer and many members were arrested.
Though Maryland had more slaves than free blacks, Frederick and Washington counties harbored the biggest share of freed slaves.
Few people realize, Herrin said, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free Maryland’s slaves. Nearly 18 months after the proclamation, a new Maryland state constitution in 1864 freed the rest of Maryland’s slaves. The proclamation and the constitution are two primary documents that Herrin wants to put on the Web site.
Another example of primary documents Herrin wants to make available is a letter from Gen. Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis before the Battle of Antietam. Lee wrote the letter asking for peace talks while camped out near Urbana. No evidence exists that Davis answered the letter, Herrin said.
The comprehensive project has something for everyone, according to Michael Powell, history professor at Frederick Community College.
The Web site will offer opportunities for research with primary documents, he said.
"We still need to identify what we want to do with the site," he said. "We would like to work with the tourism council to formulate some information to make it accessible to people interested in the Civil War, not to compete with anyone out there, but to supplement in a scholarly and informative fashion," he said.
Reardon said the "Crossroads" project is unique because it will help people look at history in a new way, focusing on how the war affected lives of regular people.
"We want to take off the blinders and not look at history in a traditional way, but use a social history that takes us down to the people level," she said. "You end up learning a lot more."
Reardon is one of several nationally known historians who Herrin will use as consultants and advisors. Each has a specialty, from African-American roles in the Civil War to using technology to deliver information to the public, he said.
Students will be an integral part in the project, from conducting research for the Web site to putting together public education programs.
And the public can get involved, too, Herrin said.
"If the public has information about the homefront civilian issues in Central Maryland — family stories, histories about how their families reacted to the war, what happened to them, we’d love to hear stories about that," he said.
The Catoctin Center for Regional Studies, created in 1998, is a partnership between Frederick Community College and the National Park Service. The center was founded to promote cultural and historical research in the area, and publishes "Catoctin History" twice a year. The magazine features articles on the region’s history.