Take a Step Back in Time…

April 5th, 2012


A few decades ago I migrated to Maryland from the west coast, armed with a fresh bachelor’s degree in History. Although California has a rich background—Spanish missions and the Gold Rush—it doesn’t compare to the extraordinary depth of history that transpired in Maryland.

Maryland—the seventh of the original 13 colonies–became a state on April 28th, 1788. The Colonial Era, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and more recent events have all left their mark on the politics and property of this state. Even now, artifacts appear in unlikely places: arrowheads and minie balls crop up in backyards, and a couple of years ago I found an 1893 penny while digging a hole for a tree.

For me, history is best learned through stories and lectures about the people. Facts are helpful, but I’d much rather hear what life was really like in those days. When I start to complain about how slow a website loads or about the cost of a gallon of gas, I try to remember that a couple of hundred years ago most people couldn’t read, and walking was usually how a person got from one place to another, no matter how far.

With that in mind, I’m very excited about several library programs coming up in April. On Saturday, April 14th, the grounds of the Perryville Branch Library will be transformed into a Civil War camp! Please stop by between the hours of 10 and 5 to experience a Civil War training camp, including company drills, demonstrations and firing of musket rifles (which I need to warn the police about in case they get calls…). The reenactors will represent actual Confederate and Union Civil War companies from Cecil County and Maryland. It will be fun for the whole family–no registration required.

Then, on Monday, April 23rd at 6:30, our Chesapeake City branch will also be hosting a Civil War program. Fort Delaware, located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, wasn’t completed until 1859, but it soon became home to several thousand prisoners of war. Author Bruce Mowday will provide details of the role that Fort Delaware played in the Civil War, including the story of Southern prisoners trying to survive and Northern guards trying to endure the desolate outpost. Register via our website, or call the Chesapeake City branch at 410-996-1134.

I still pull out my 1893 penny every now and then, but some of you may have stronger ties to history. What connects you to the past?

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Cecil County & the Civil War

January 3rd, 2012

burnside bridge

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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