January 3rd, 2012

Cecil County & the Civil War

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No Civil War battles were fought in Cecil County, but that doesn’t mean the war didn’t touch the home-front in other ways. Dispatches, letters and reports published in the Cecil Democrat and other newspapers kept local residents informed as they yearned for news about loved ones on the battlefield. There were times when the war raged nearby, and affected Cecil Countians strongly.

One such event was the battle of Antietam in September 1862. It’s this battle, and its importance to Marylanders in particular, that will be the focus of the 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 11 book discussion “Crossroads of Freedom” at the Elkton Central Library. In this book, author James McPherson examines not so much the battle as the politics and personalities surrounding it.

The Confederacy was desperate for recognition by the British and French governments, and as the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, the Union waged a political counterattack of its own in Europe and England. As McPherson emphasizes in the book, both sides sought a decisive military victory to support their claims in Europe.

Victory was elusive for the Union. At that time, George B. McClellan was commander of the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was the consummate organizer and administrator (his abilities if not his personality would be echoed later by another American general, Dwight Eisenhower). He had built a formidable fighting force. And yet he seemed reluctant to actually fight the enemy, claiming at every turn that he was ill-equipped or outnumbered. In his book, McPherson offers an interesting study of this complicated and talented individual in whom President Abraham Lincoln had to reluctantly put his trust.

Unfortunately for McClellan, it was Robert E. Lee who commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee was a military engineer by training (he spent three years in Baltimore building a fort that was never used) and early in the war was given the nickname “Granny Lee” by some who saw him as a milquetoast. When chance and fate passed command of the South’s largest army to Lee, he would turn out to be one of history’s most daring and capable military commanders.

When Lee marched his forces into Maryland, and McClellan finally mobilized to meet the threat to the Union, the result was the huge battle at Sharpsburg. In a single day, roughly 25,000 Americans would be killed or wounded. Many Cecil Countians fought and died there, including the men of Snow’s Battery, an artillery unit made up of volunteers mainly from the Port Deposit area. At least one local father traveled to the battlefield and brought home his wounded teenage son.

Ultimately, it was the Union victory at Antietam that gave Abraham Lincoln the confidence and political capital to make his famous Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved African-Americans in the states “in rebellion” … but not those in border states such as Maryland.

As we mark the 150th anniversary of this battle, this exploration of James McPherson’s book about the events leading up to Antietam—including events before and after the battle in Cecil County–should be a fascinating discussion for Civil War and local history buffs. To register for the program and receive a copy of the book, please call the library at 410-996-5600, ext. 481. (Reading the book is helpful, but not required).

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October 12th, 2011

Civil War Legends & Lore

Most of us know the “greater story” of the Civil War—the battles, the politics, the leaders. We’ve heard of Grant and Lee, Gettysburg and Antietam, Abe Lincoln and Jeff Davis. But it’s the “little stories”—the quirky ones about

people and events—that make this time period so fascinating even today. Some of these tales of Civil War legend and lore are funny, some sad, but they all bring a very human side to the war 150 years later.

These stories will be the focus of “Civil War Legends and Lore” at  7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, at the Perryville Branch Library. We’ll classify these stories as “legends and lore” because local tradition and folklore have filled in the blanks between the known facts.

Our region has no shortage of Civil War legends and lore, much of it spiced up by the fact that Cecil County residents had divided loyalties. Maryland itself was a border state, even though it is located south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In Cecil County and the rest of Maryland some were fiercely pro-Union; others were pro-Confederate to the point that they fled South to take up arms against the United States. Once war was declared, Cecil Countians for the most part supported the Union and its new president, even if they hadn’t necessarily voted for him.

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- How “mule skinners” took over the mansion and grounds at Perry Point, where the owners were pro-southern. The owners complained that Yankee officers banged up the elegant staircase with their swords.
- The C&D Canal played a huge role in the early days of the war, enabling Lincoln to bring loyal troops from “up north” to occupy Maryland after Federal troops traveling by train were attacked in Baltimore. The nervous canal superintendent in Chesapeake City constantly feared attacks by Confederate raiders.
- George Alfred Townsend spent his summers as a boy in Cecil County. The war made him famous as an Anderson Cooper-type newsman of his day who went on to be friends with Mark Twain. We’ll take a look at a story he wrote with a touch of dark humor about the topic of undertakers making their fortune after the battle of Antietam.
- A newspaper editor whose pro-Southern editorial got him marched out of town at bayonet point by Union troops and locked up in Fort McHenry.
- A Civil War romance that started when a Chesapeake City girl met a captured Confederate officer on his way to the prisoner of war camp at Fort Delaware.

As divided and cantankerous as the two sides could be here in Cecil County, one of the impressions that stands out is how people seemed to have put aside their differences after the war. It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on us today as we struggle through difficult, sometimes divisive times of our own.

Interested in more Civil War programs? Make sure to check out the complete list of upcoming programs.

Have you heard Civil War legends about Cecil County? Share them with us by commenting below and we hope to see you at the program.


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