The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New book challenges Civil War’s old myths

Charles W. Mitchell, co-editor with historian Jean H. Baker of the new book, “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered,” at his home in Parkton, Md., on Nov. 21.
Charles W. Mitchell, co-editor with historian Jean H. Baker of the new book, “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered,” at his home in Parkton, Md., on Nov. 21. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
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Regular folks and history buffs who believe Maryland leaned strongly toward the Confederacy during the Civil War era have never lacked evidence for the claim.

It was a Marylander, after all, on the U.S. Supreme Court who wrote the opinion in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, which found that Black people were not citizens — a ruling that helped spark the fighting. And Marylanders voted for a Southern sympathizer, not Abraham Lincoln, for president in the election of 1860. Then, some 20,000 Marylanders took up arms for the Confederacy.

But such facts can be deceiving if looked at in a vacuum — or so say the scholars behind a critically acclaimed new book that aims to explode long-standing myths about the period.

In “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered,” a collection of 13 essays assembled and edited by Baltimore historians Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker, are independent thinkers from as far away as California and England and as close as Johns Hopkins University. They point out, among other things, that contrary to popular belief, Maryland judges refused to put the Dred Scott decision into effect; that more Marylanders voted, in total, for the three presidential candidates who backed the Union than they did for John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat who carried the state in 1860, and that four times as many Old Line State men fought for the Union than for the South.

Maryland, in short, was less sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and more behind the Union, than generations of historians have implied, says Mitchell, a self-taught Civil War expert, author and editor who got the sprawling essay project rolling four years ago.

History, he says, is framed by the values of those who pass it along. In the case of Maryland’s antebellum and Civil War history, the men and women who shaped it first were people who held to the notion that the Southern cause — far from being a bloody campaign to preserve slavery — was a matter of states’ rights. They viewed it as a noble crusade that failed only because the Union side was better equipped and funded.

The earliest chroniclers, he says, were Confederate veterans. The generations of historians who succeeded them wrote at a time when powerful Democrats, North and South, were still working to deny African Americans full enjoyment of their freedoms.

“The same Confederate sympathizers who had lost the war worked hard to win it in the history books, and for many years, they succeeded,” Mitchell says, including in textbooks used in Maryland well into the 20th century.

It wasn’t until the last 20 years or so, Mitchell adds, that younger scholars began training their focus on the kinds of period documents their forebears ignored.

By diving into court and estate records, schedules of enslaved people, letters written by ordinary citizens, articles in the Black press and more, those scholars, including several represented in the book, began to put together a more comprehensive history — one that weakens Maryland’s “Lost Cause” narrative.

Mitchell and Baker, a former history professor at Goucher College and the author of multiple award-winning books, conceived “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered” as an entry in that new vein. Early reviewers say they’ve struck a blow for a more accurate, fuller telling of the state’s story.

“The deeply researched and tightly written essays in this volume provide new information and insights on the role of a crucial border state in the Civil War,” writes James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” in his blurb on the essay collection’s book jacket.

And William W. Freehling, another leading Civil War scholar, adds that “multiple generations’ perspectives yield exciting insights on a state as torn as the nation itself: No student of the American Union’s fall and rebirth can afford to miss the revelations.”

For years, the editors say, the “Southernizing” of Maryland history meant omitting important realities inconvenient to the prevailing narrative, including how African Americans lived before, during and after the war. Three of the book’s authors help to fill that void.

University of Maryland history professor Richard Bell, author of the award-winning 2019 book “Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home,” focuses on how a black market network of human traffickers functioned in the slave state of Maryland.

His essay, “Border Wars,” describes how those who ran this “reverse Underground Railroad” kidnapped African Americans in the free commonwealth of Pennsylvania, took them to Baltimore, and kept them in “pens” before selling them into enslavement in the Deep South.

Another author, Jessica Millward of the University of California at Irvine, brings to life individuals such as Charity Folks, a woman who was born into slavery in Anne Arundel County in the mid-1700s and was later freed. By describing how she gave birth to both free and enslaved children, Millward illustrates how such factors as gender could complicate the supposedly clear distinction between slavery and freedom in Maryland.

And it’s Johns Hopkins professor Martha Jones, a prominent scholar of African American history, who combs old court records to show that the Dred Scott ruling had little practical impact locally. Though it portended catastrophe for the state’s 87,000 free Blacks, Jones demonstrates that Maryland judges overwhelmingly defaulted to state laws that kept the group’s essential rights intact.

Mitchell himself adds twists to a topic that has long held his attention. In his 2007 book, “Maryland Voices of the Civil War,” he drew on personal letters and other original source documents to argue that his home state never seriously considered secession.

In his essay, “Maryland Is This Day True to the Union,” Mitchell draws on petitions, pamphlets, voting statistics and public meeting records. They show that even though Breckinridge, the Southern sympathizer, carried the state in the 1860 presidential election, his 45 percent of the state vote was dwarfed by the 54 percent who went for the three pro-Union candidates (including Lincoln, who finished fourth).

Mitchell reiterated the point in a conversation from his home, a rustic 1800s-era farmhouse where Civil War memorabilia is on display. It includes the Union discharge papers of the great-grandfather of his wife, Betsy.

“During the so-called secession winter of 1860, it was actually Union voices that predominated in this state,” he says, adding that his research shows that sentiment remained through the war.

The Louisiana State University Press published “The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered” late last year. It includes contributions from other prominent historians, who focus on such matters as women’s organizations that supported the Union, the horrors that Union soldiers discovered when they arrived at Antietam after that battle ended and the successful recruitment of Union soldiers in Baltimore.

The book is the 13th written or edited by Baker, including a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and several influential works on the American suffragist movement.

It’s the third for Mitchell, whose interest in the Civil War was awakened years ago when Betsy inherited a box of memorabilia. The Parkton, Md., man works full time as alumni director for his alma mater, St. Paul’s School.

The new book is unlikely to hit the bestseller lists, he concedes, but he hopes it will add to the unfolding history of the war in his state, helping his fellow Marylanders better grasp who they were and are.

“As a historian, you always look for original source materials that can help you tell a new story or put something you think you know in a new light,” he says. “There’s always something new.”

— Baltimore Sun