Maryland: Crossroads of the Civil War

During The War Between the States, the State of Maryland was considered a border state. This was because Maryland did not have a majority of its people backing either the Union or the Confederacy. In addition, it was geographically located between the Northern free states and the Southern slave states. Maryland was a dichotomy before the Civil War as the state had almost as many free blacks as it did slaves. In early 1861, almost 84,000 “free Negroes” were identified while more than 87,000 black and mixed race individuals were listed as slaves.


Maryland was made up of merchants and business people in the central and western parts of the state with primarily farmers and slaveholders in the east and south. The merchant class, gaining control of the state legislature, felt that a war with the North would be economically devastating and could destroy their businesses. That was one of the main reasons Maryland did not initially join the Confederacy. In addition, the state legislature felt they’d be unable to protect their border with Pennsylvania, also known as the 244-mile long Mason-Dixon Line, from a Union invasion. They also feared a blockade of Baltimore Harbor by the Union Navy. While the business faction supported the Federalist philosophy of Washington and the North, many Marylanders sided with the State’s Rights agenda of the South. This schism caused massive upheaval in the state and many Southern sympathizers moved to Virginia and North Carolina when the state government refused to back their secession demands.


Maryland’s location was strategically key to both the North and the South which led to some of the most vicious confrontations between Union and Confederate soldiers during the conflict. Washington, capital of the Union, was surrounded Maryland and Virginia, the state in which Richmond, the Confederate capital, was located. The first casualties of the Civil War happened in Baltimore because of this geographic position.


The Baltimore Riot of 1861: On April 19, 1861, fearful of attacks by secessionists from Virginia and Maryland, President Lincoln ordered troops from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts be mobilized to defend Washington. On their way to Washington, trains carrying the troops had to be routed through Baltimore. The soldiers had to disembark from the trains and march through Baltimore to be loaded on a different line to D.C. As the soldiers proceeded through the streets, they were attacked by secessionists throwing rocks, cobblestones, and bricks. The situation deteriorated into total chaos in which twelve civilians and four soldiers were killed. In May, 1861, Federal troops seized control of Baltimore. In defiance of the Supreme Court, Lincoln ordered the suspension of habeas corpus. As a result, Union troops imposed martial law and rounded up and imprisoned the mayor, the police commissioner, one third of the state legislature, and anyone they felt was spreading dissension.


With Southern sympathies running so strong, many Marylanders crossed the Potomac into Virginia to support the Confederacy. These Confederate supporters were mostly from the Eastern Shore and southern counties in the state while many from the northern and western parts of the state enlisted in defense of the Union. In 1860, Maryland’s population was estimated to be around 690,000 people. Of that, it’s thought that approximately 60,000 fought for the Union and 25,000 volunteered to fight for the South.


The Battle of Front Royal: Several pivotal battles took place in Maryland, but one of the most historically significant involving Marylanders actually took place in Virginia. May 23, 1862, saw the beginning of the Battle of Front Royal in Virginia. In that battle, the Confederate 1st Maryland Infantry Regiment, Confederate States Army, (CSA) met the Union 1st Regiment Maryland Volunteer Infantry. This was the only time in US history that two military groups from the same state and using the same designation, 1st Maryland, fought against each other. The Confederates won that battle and, while rounding up Union survivors afterwards, many recognized friends and relatives among the prisoners. A Confederate officer, Major William Goldsborough, wrote in his memoir that one of the captured Union soldiers was Charles Goldsborough, his brother.


The Battle of Antietam: One of the bloodiest battles happened on Sept. 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland, with Marylanders facing each other on both sides. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia of 40,000 men met George McClellan’s 87,000 strong Army of the Potomac. The two forces met by the Antietam Creek. Both sides suffered heavy losses with the Union sustaining 12,401 casualties, including 2,108 dead and the Confederates losing 10,318 with 1,546 deaths. That day remains the costliest for a single-day battle in the history of the United States. The North’s victory that day stopped Lee’s advance to the north, refocusing his push toward Gettysburg. It was also the Union victory at Antietam that convinced Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and dissuaded France and Great Britain from officially recognizing the Confederate government.


The Battle of Monocacy: On July 9, 1864, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was under siege at Petersburg, VA. In order to relieve some of the pressure, the Confederates decided to try an end run and advance on Washington. Lt. Gen. Jubal Early was assigned the task and proceeded to march his army through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland. He was met at Monocacy Junction, about 9 miles from Frederick, Maryland, by Union troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace. Though forces were much smaller than in previous battles, fighting was no less destructive to both sides. At the end of the battle, the north had lost 1,294 dead and were retreating toward Baltimore. Lee’s army won the day, but the victory, the northern most for the Confederates in the war, left behind an estimated 700 to 1,000 dead on the battlefield. Word of Early’s victory and the retreat of the Union soldiers put Washington on alert. The battle cost Early one day’s march, which was enough time for Washington to reinforce their defenses and hold off Early’s planned attack. Early’s army, 20,000 strong at the beginning of the battle, had been reduced to about 8,000 effective troops, too small a force to overrun a highly defended Washington. Early’s army retreated across the Potomac, marking the end of the last advance of Confederate troops into the North for the rest of the war. In the 1970’s, parts of the area were designated the Monocacy National Battlefield. Dedicated in 1991, today there are five monuments commemorating fallen troops from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Vermont, and the Confederacy.


In March, 1861, seeing the coming conflict, the Maryland legislature passed a resolution in an attempt to protect its neutrality. The resolution proclaimed that Maryland interpreted any conflict by the Federal government to be strictly to restore the Union and to return state’s rights to what they were before hostilities. In other words, preserve the Union, but make no changes, especially in reference to slavery. Because Maryland did not secede, when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced on Jan. 1, 1863, Maryland was exempt. They were not forced to free slaves held in the state. It wasn’t until 1864 that a constitutional convention changed state law and banned slavery. Even with the end of slavery, Maryland did not ratify or recognize the 14th Amendment giving citizenship to former slaves or the 15th amendment allowing black males to vote. It wasn’t until 1867 that Maryland changed its constitution to give the right to vote to non-whites.


Maryland also played a huge role in the aftermath of the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth, born in Tudor Hall, Maryland, did not come from a family of Confederate sympathizers. There were even rumors that his father had been part of the Underground Railroad. Booth, however, had a deep seated hatred of Lincoln which led him to assassinate the President on April 14, 1865, just five days after the South surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. For the next 12 days, Booth led Union forces on a chase across Maryland and into Virginia, where he was finally caught and killed at Richard Garrett’s farm outside Port Royal, VA on April 26, 1865.


From its strategic location to the first casualties of the Civil War, and from its heroic participation in battle to the tragic aftermath of the Lincoln assassination, Maryland and its citizens were an integral part of a major turning point in American history.