Thursday, April 16, 2015

Connections with History: Private Elwood Rodebaugh and the Battle of Antietam

Working as a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield is a tremendous honor. As my fellow rangers and I say, for us, it’s the best job in the world. Every day, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to come to the most pristine and best preserved Civil War battlefield in the country. Our task is to help visitors from all across the country—and indeed, from across the world—understand and connect with the terrible events that took place here on September 17, 1862. For some, a trip to Antietam means studying military tactics, generals, and leadership. Others come here for recreational purposes, such as hiking, biking, or running. Others still come here to learn about the farmers and civilians whose worlds were turned upside down in September 1862 when Union and Confederate armies converged on this soil.

No matter the reason why visitors come here, for many, the visit ends up becoming something of a pilgrimage to the past, an avenue for exploring American history and learning about those who came before us. It is for this purpose that national parks exist. They allow Americans to connect with their country and its history, themselves becoming a part of it in the process.
Today, I would like to tell you about my connection with Antietam, and why this place matters so much to me.

 Sunrise at Antietam

The morning of September 17, 1862 dawned with a mist in the air left over from the rain that had fallen the night before. For Private Elwood Rodebaugh of Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, it would be the last dawn he would ever know. Elwood was but one of thousands of men who shared that distinction that fateful morning. Soon, the mist that filled the air would be replaced with the smells and sounds of battle and death. Elwood Rodebaugh, along with thousands of other men from both the North and the South, would soon become a casualty of America's bloodiest day.
The path that brought Elwood Rodebaugh to the banks of Antietam Creek was a common one among Civil War soldiers. When the war began in 1861, he was an ordinary shoemaker living in Canton, Pennsylvania. He was thirty-one years old, and had a wife and two children. Josephine, his wife, was twenty-six, his son Charles was two, and his daughter Heloise was four. The family’s possessions included a milk cow, a small house, and about fifty dollars. They were common people, representing the vast majority of those who fought during the Civil War. Elwood had nothing to do with why the Southern states decided to secede in 1860 and 1861, and he certainly was not the one who fired the first shot of the war at Fort Sumter. Yet, when the United States broke apart and Americans began waging war against one another, Elwood faithfully enlisted to defend his country as did so many others. On August 26, 1861, Elwood was officially mustered in to the Federal ranks, becoming a member of what would become Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.

Throughout his time in the service prior to Antietam, Elwood saw significant campaign time with the 106th Pennsylvania, which was originally designated the 5th California Regiment, as the state of California provided the funds to sponsor several regiments from Pennsylvania early on in the war. The regiment’s brigade was known as the Philadelphia Brigade because each of the regiments in it was raised almost entirely from the city of Philadelphia and its surroundings. Company D of the 106th was one of the only companies in the entire brigade not from Philadelphia. Originally led by Edward Baker and a part of Charles Stone’s division, the brigade was engaged at Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, though they saw much heavier action during the Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862. During the Seven Days Battles, Elwood was wounded in his right forearm, though it was not serious enough to keep him out of the ranks. When the Army of the Potomac left the defenses of Washington and embarked upon the Maryland Campaign in September 1862, Elwood was marching along with them to a fate unknown.

Elwood Rodebaugh was one of the thousands of men who comprised the 2nd Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General Edwin Vose Sumner. During the Maryland Campaign, Sumner’s 2nd Corps was one of the only veteran parts of the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan. The night before the battle saw Sumner’s men encamped on the fields of the Pry Farm, just east of Antietam Creek.

On the morning of the 17th, the men were woken early. Their impetuous commander had roused them at 3 AM in preparation for crossing Antietam Creek to support the right wing of the Union army in its attacks on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. George McClellan's battle plan called for Union assaults against Lee's left flank, to be followed up by a crushing blow against Lee's right. Joe Hooker's 1st Corps and Joseph Mansfield's 12th Corps were already across the creek that morning, preparing for battle, while the 2nd Corps lay in wait on the other side.

That morning, as with many mornings in his life, Edwin Sumner was an impatient man. He had preferred that his men cross the Antietam the night before, but was still awaiting his orders to cross on the morning of the 17th. As the fighting began in earnest at dawn, Sumner's men sat in their camps on the other side of the Antietam, listening to the booming of the guns with a growing anxiety and apprehension of what was to come. It was not until 7:20—almost an hour and a half after the fighting had begun—that Sumner received his orders from George McClellan to begin advancing his corps across Antietam Creek. The first part to move was John Sedgwick's division, followed by William French's command, and followed later by Israel Richardson’s division. Soon after receiving his marching orders, Sedgwick began crossing his men near the Pry Mill, just south of the Upper Bridge over Antietam Creek.

Between the hours of 8 and 9 AM, Sedgwick's men, with Edwin Sumner riding along, traversed the fields and hills between Antietam Creek and the East Woods. Arriving in the East Woods near 9 AM, Edwin Sumner began to survey the situation. William French's men were still moving toward the battlefield after crossing the creek. They were operating under orders telling them to move to support Sedgwick's left upon arriving on the field. As for the moment, Sumner only had Sedgwick's division to work with. Numbering over 5,000 strong, this force would suffice. Sumner recognized that Union forces commanded by George Sears Greene of the 12th Corps had given him an opportunity. Greene's Division occupied a plot of ground now covered with the park visitor center. Seeing these troops, Sumner decided to push due west into the large woodlot to the north and west of the Dunker Church, an area known as the West Woods.

As Sumner moved Sedgwick's men westward he positioned them into three lines of battle. First in line was Willis Gorman's brigade, followed by Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana's brigade (a military name if there ever was one), and the last line was the Philadelphia Brigade, commanded by Oliver O. Howard. Howard's brigade was arranged with the 69th Pennsylvania on the far left, the 72nd Pennsylvania on the center left, the 106th Pennsylvania on the center right, and the 71st Pennsylvania on the far right of the regiment. As these men advanced across the Hagerstown Turnpike and into the West Woods, the 106th Pennsylvania, commanded by Colonel Turner G. Morehead, found themselves along a tree line at the far edge of an open clover field, by this time covered with bodies of both Confederate and Union soldiers from fighting earlier that morning.

The tree line along which the 106th Pennsylvania was situated in the West Woods

Once Gorman’s brigade moved deep into the woods, Confederate artillery opened on their position from Hauser Ridge, stopping the Federal advance. For the men of Dana's and Howard's brigades, there was not much to do but to wait for Gorman's men to push through this fire, allowing the division to turn southward and roll up Lee's flank. Many of the men in these brigades lay down to avoid the shot and shell, as well as to take a quick respite before their fight began in earnest. As these men lay in the woods, events beyond their control were in motion to bring about their demise.
At this point in the battle, Robert E. Lee was fast becoming aware of the need for even more troops on his left flank. All morning he had been sending any reinforcements he could find to stop the 1st and 12th Corps of the Union army. Now, 2nd Corps troops were poised to drive the Confederates from the field and they needed to be stopped. To accomplish this desperate task, Lee turned to a force which was an amalgamation of several divisions, led primarily by Lafayette McLaws's division, having recently arrived from Harper's Ferry. McLaws's men were sent north from Sharpsburg and directly into the left flank of Sedgwick's unsuspecting troops.

For the men of the 106th Pennsylvania, and for Elwood Rodebaugh, the attack came fast and seemingly out of nowhere. Firing began on their left flank when Confederate troops encountered the 125th Pennsylvania and the 34th New York, the far left flank of the Union foothold in the West Woods. The sounds of the advance were what several soldiers described as a "fiery avalanche" descending upon their flank. As the fire intensified, General Sumner, sensing danger, rode back into the lines of his men to save them from their impending doom. Sumner rode directly into the ranks of the 106th Pennsylvania, proclaiming, “Back boys, for God’s sake move back, you are in a bad fix!”. Volleys of musket and artillery fire soon tore into the Pennsylvanians, clarifying the emerging Rebel threat. The men of the 106th, along with the rest of Sedgwick’s division, began to break for the rear in droves. The chaos was all encompassing. Men were firing into their own ranks from all directions.

The men of the 106th Pennsylvania and Sedgwick's division retreated across these fields. Some of the soldiers in the 106th made a defensive stand along the fence line pictured above.

As disaster enveloped the men of the 106th Pennsylvania, slowly but surely, bravery and courage began to shine through the confusion. Color Sergeant Benjamin Sloanaker planted the regimental colors along a fence line perpendicular to the Hagerstown Turnpike (this fence line now runs along Starke Avenue). Men began to rally around the colors in an attempt to stem the tide of the Confederate advance. Among those who formed this line was Charles E. Hickman of Company A, the company Sergeant. With great bravery and coolness under fire, Hickman moved his company out of the West Woods and into the fields to the east of the Hagerstown Turnpike. There, the Pennsylvanians were joined with several companies of Massachusetts soldiers, possibly from the 15th Massachusetts, who were making their own retreat from the woods. In the process of making this stand, Sergeant Hickman paid the ultimate price and lost his life. He was killed instantly by a rebel bullet to the head.

It was also at this time that Elwood Rodebaugh, a humble shoemaker from Canton, Pennsylvania, lost his life in the service of his country. Captain William Jones of Company D would later write that Elwood “was last seen, when we commenced falling back, fighting bravely….” Two men from Elwood’s company, Samuel Riggs and Daniel Fitzwater, later testified that they had last seen Elwood along the same fence line where portions of the regiment attempted to make a defensive stand. He was killed, as Captain Jones wrote, “with unflinching bravery to wit….” Jones, Riggs, and Fitzwater all later noted that Elwood’s body was not identified in the aftermath of Antietam due to his having shaved off his beard just a few days before the battle, making him unrecognizable to burial parties.
Sedgwick’s repulse in the West Woods came at one of the most intense and bloodiest moments of the Battle of Antietam. The fight was still but a few hours old, and already, twice as many Americans had fallen as casualties than fell on D-Day in 1944. The carnage was far from done. Combat raged between the two armies for the rest of the day until darkness mercifully drew the curtain on the bloodiest day in American history.

Antietam's Philadelphia Brigade Monument at dusk

While the specific results of Antietam are still hotly debated, it is clear that the battle had an unmistakable impact on American history. Two days later, Lee’s Confederate army was back in Virginia, and three days after that, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that from that point onward, the war would be fought to preserve a better Union, one without slavery. 

After Antietam, the war continued on, as did the men of the 106th Pennsylvania. In its brief but fierce action in the West Woods, the regiment lost 77 out of 492 present. Howard’s brigade lost 545 men in the short time span they were engaged that morning. Two months later, the 106th fought bravely at Fredericksburg in December 1862, and a few months after that, they held the Union line at Gettysburg in the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on the North American continent. When the 106th Pennsylvania finally mustered out of the service, 197 of their men had died from battle wounds and disease during the war. Elwood Rodebaugh was just one of them.

In all likelihood, Elwood was buried on the field where he fell and was removed to Antietam National Cemetery several years later. Because he was buried without identification, to this day he is among the 1,836 unknown soldiers who rest in Antietam National Cemetery. Of the 4,776 Union soldiers interred there, roughly 40% are in unknown graves.

Josephine, Charles, and Heloise were never able to visit Elwood’s grave nor have the final closure of a fitting funeral for their beloved father and husband. But they continued on regardless. Josephine applied for a widow’s pension through the Federal government in 1863, and her request was granted. She remarried in the 1870s and lost her second husband to illness in the 1880s, becoming a widow once again. She ended up living into the early years of the twentieth century, passing away in 1903. Up until her death, Josephine was illiterate. All of her pension documents were marked only with an “x” for her signature.

What does all of this have to do with me, a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield? When I was a boy, I remember going on long car rides to visit my grandparents in Canton, Pennsylvania, the same town where Elwood Rodebaugh lived many years before. I remember sitting in the back of my Grandma’s kitchen in a rocking chair with my grandfather, and he would tell me about history, mostly that of the Civil War. Grandpa frequently spoke of the men from Canton who had served in the war. Among them was his own great-grandfather, and my great-great-great grandfather, Private Elwood Rodebaugh. I remember going on sunny afternoon drives with my dad and my grandfather up to a lake near where Elwood lived. While we went fishing, my grandpa would tell me about Elwood and his service in the war. He took me to a local cemetery where Charles—Elwood’s son—was buried, and we talked there about our family and its history. Our conversations always seemed to come back to Antietam. Before he passed away, my grandfather gave my father an old regimental history of the 106th Pennsylvania, something which was in turn given to me. In the back of the book, published in 1883, is the roster of those who served. A small red x rests next to Elwood’s name. The description for Private Rodebaugh is simple: “Killed in Action at Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.”

On September 17, 2012, I had the opportunity to read Elwood's name during the ceremony in the Antietam National Cemetery reading the names of those who died in the battle 150 years before.

Our memories of the past comprise who we are every day of our lives. The same is true for our country. History is not a stale, dusty old subject in a book. It is a living and breathing thing. Our connections with America’s past help to forge our bonds with our country today. Those connections teach us how dearly we should appreciate all that we have. In his official report describing the action of the Philadelphia Brigade at Antietam, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard spoke to this, writing, “[My men] have poured out their blood like water, and we must look to God and our country for a just reward.” Today, preserving Antietam National Battlefield is but a small part of the reward we try to continually repay on a daily basis to honor those who fought and died here.

The Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 23,000 men were killed wounded or missing in a twelve hour time span. It is easy to let that statistic simply be a number or a piece of trivia, but every time we remind ourselves of the humanity of those who fought here, the battle takes an entirely new level of importance.

Working at Antietam every day has been a tremendous blessing and an honor. Knowing that my own ancestor fought and died here for his country gives it more meaning that I can say. Not knowing exactly where his grave is located makes the entire battlefield more special because it is preserved as a final resting place for Elwood and the thousands of those who also died here on September 17, 1862.

No battle in history has ever been fought by lines on a map. No battle has ever occurred in the pages of a history book. Battles are fought by individuals, ordinary people who do extraordinary things and forever shape the flow of history. Remembering that each casualty of Antietam was an individual such as Elwood Rodebaugh—a soldier with a family at home, someone with hopes and aspirations just like us—makes the human cost of the battle more readily apparent. The fact that Josephine Rodebaugh lost her husband at Antietam is as much a consequence of the battle as was the Emancipation Proclamation. Without the sacrifice and heartbreak of one the promise of freedom afforded by the other would not have been possible.

Because soldiers such as Elwood Rodebaugh did their duty with bravery under such harrowing circumstances, we have been entrusted with an incredible legacy. Antietam stands as not only one of the most consequential days in American history, but also one of the most important days for remembering that freedom is never free. Antietam reminds us that as long as freedom needs defending, Americans will rise to the challenge. The price for freedom has been paid on many fields by many soldiers. One of those soldiers just happened to be an ordinary shoemaker from Canton, Pennsylvania named Elwood Rodebaugh, my great-great-great grandfather. Private Rodebaugh’s sacrifice at Antietam was not only for the freedom of Charles and Heloise, but for the country their descendants, their families, and millions of others who call America home still enjoy to this day.

And that is one very important reason why Antietam National Battlefield is a very special place for me, and a very special place for our country. It has been an honor of a lifetime to work here, and I hope you will visit to form your own connections with our country and its rich and incredible history.

Dan Vermilya
Park Ranger

Monday, February 16, 2015

Presidential Visits to Antietam

Presidential Visits to Antietam National Battlefield by John David Hoptak

President Lincoln Meets With General McClellan on the Antietam Battlefield
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There is a strong presidential connection to the Antietam Battlefield. . .In addition to future president William McKinley serving as a commissary sergeant in the 23rd Ohio during the battle itself, no less than eight sitting presidents have visited the Antietam battlefield.
The first, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, who spent four days travelling over the field in early October 1862, just two weeks after the guns fell silent. He met with McClellan, trying to prod his young Napoleon into action, met with other generals, and with thousands of wounded soldiers. . .both Union and Confederate. His trip was well-documented, and the photos of his visit are among the most famous of the entire war. Oh, and who can forget the 26-minute long film, "Antietam Visit," which details Lincoln's famous visit and shows on the half hour at the Antietam National Battlefield's Visitor Center?

Lincoln with McClellan. . . and George Morell, Fitz Porter, Henry Hunt, Jonathan Letterman, Andrew Humphreys, Henry Hunt, and even a young George Armstrong Custer

Lincoln with private eye extraordinaire Allen Pinkerton and Major General John McClernand
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Lincoln's successor to the presidency, Andrew Johnson, was the next to pay a visit to the Antietam Battlefield. While the Radical Republicans in Congress were doing everything in their power to impeach him, Johnson journeyed out on September 17, 1867--the five year anniversary of the battle--to deliver an address at the dedication of the National Cemetery.

Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States

Dedication of the National Cemetery at Antietam (NPS)
While certainly not as famous or as eloquent as Lincoln's 1863 cemetery address at Gettysburg, Johnson's was at times stirring. . ."When we look at yon battlefield, I think of the brave men who fell in the fierce struggle of battle, and who sleep silent in their graves. Yes, many of them sleep in silence and peace within this beautiful enclosure after the earnest conflict has ceased."
Accompanying President Johnson that day was the general-in-chief of the United States Army, Ulysses S. Grant. Apparently Grant didn't get to see enough of the battlefield with Johnson, so he returned two years later. . .when he was president.
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Ulysses Grant, 18th President of the United States, was the third sitting president in a row to visit Antietam
Grant toured the battlefield on October 15, 1869, with his good friend William T. Sherman. I can just imagine the conversation: "Boy, if I were here, Cump, I would have pitched right in!"
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The trend of presidents visiting Antietam stopped for a while after Grant. . .no Rutherford B. Hayes, no James Garfield nor Chester Arthur, not even Grover Cleveland or Benjamin Harrison. But then, William McKinley made a return visit.
Sergeant William McKinley, Commissary, 23rd Ohio Volunteers
Perhaps no other president--save for Lincoln--is as closely associated with the Antietam battlefield than William McKinley. He served at Antietam as a sergeant in Company E, 23rd Ohio Infantry, the so-called President's Regiment. Just three days before Antietam at the battle of South Mountain, McKinley's regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, had his left arm shattered by a musket ball and was forced to relinquish command. As a 19-year-old commissary, McKinley kept the boys of the regimental well-fed, even while on the firing line. After the war, he served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives, then as a two-term governor of Ohio before being elected president of the United States in 1896 and 1900.
President McKinley returned to the Antietam battlefield on May 30, 1900--Memorial Day--to deliver an address at the unveiling of the Maryland State Monument. Interestingly, among McKinley's guest of honors were Mr. and Mrs. James Longstreet.
William McKinley, 25th President of the United States

Having survived the Civil War unscathed, McKinley was struck down by an assassin's bullet in September 1901, in Buffalo, New York. He died on September 14, thirty-nine years to the day after his former commander Rutherford Hayes fell wounded at South Mountain. . .(I know, I know, the connection is a stretch, but still interesting).

McKinley Monument (NPS)

In 1904, the McKinley Monument, which stands near the Burnside Bridge, was dedicated in memory of the slain president.
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The next president to visit Antietam was McKinley's successor, the old Rough Rider himself, Theodore Roosevelt. Born in 1858, Teddy was too young to serve in the Civil War, but he did vividly remember watching the Lincoln Funeral cortege make its way through the streets of New York from his parents' bedroom window in May 1865. He visited the battlefield on September 17, 1903, to deliver a speech at the dedication of New Jersey's state monuments.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States
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Once again, following Teddy's visit a number of years passed before another presidential trip to the Antietam battlefield. In fact, it wasn't until 1937. On the 75th Anniversary of the battle, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered an eloquent address to an estimated crowd of some 50,000, and even spent some time shaking hands with a few Civil War veterans. 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States
Roosevelt paid a second visit to the battlefield on May 28, 1944. . .just a week and a half before D-Day.
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Only two presidents have visited Antietam since FDR in 1944. . .John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Kennedy toured the battlefield with his wife Jackie and brother Ted on April 3, 1963, just seven months before his fateful ride in Dallas. . .

James Earl Carter, 39th President of the United States
Jimmy Carter was the eighth--and last--sitting president to visit the Antietam battlefield. He did so with his wife Rosalynn and esteemed historian Shelby Foote in July 1978. The story goes that as the presidential motorcade made its way from Harper's Ferry up Maryland Route 230, it was stopped for the more than 20 minutes by a herd of cattle crossing the road. . .
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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Emancipation in Maryland 150: The Maryland Constitution of 1864

150 years ago today, a new constitution for the state of Maryland came into effect, abolishing slavery in the state. This article is a look at how that constitution came into being, and it places the events of 150 years ago in the context of the American Civil War...

The Maryland Monument at Antietam National Battlefield

Baltimore, Maryland. April 19, 1864…

Ladies and Gentlemen—Calling to mind that we are in Baltimore, we can not fail to note that the world moves. Looking upon these many people, assembled here, to serve, as they best may, the soldiers of the Union, it occurs at once that three years ago, the same soldiers could not so much as pass through Baltimore. The change from then till now, is both great, and gratifying. Blessings on the brave men who have wrought the change, and the fair women who strive to reward them for it.

But Baltimore suggests more than could happen within Baltimore. The change within Baltimore is part only of a far wider change. When the war began, three years ago, neither party, nor any man, expected it would last till now. Each looked for the end, in some way, long ere to—day. Neither did any anticipate that domestic slavery would be much affected by the war. But here we are; the war has not ended, and slavery has been much affected—how much needs not now to be recounted. So true is it that man proposes, and God disposes.

But we can see the past, though we may not claim to have directed it; and seeing it, in this case, we feel more hopeful and confident for the future.

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names—liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to-day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty. Recently, as it seems, the people of Maryland have been doing something to define liberty; and thanks to them that, in what they have done, the wolf’s dictionary, has been repudiated.

President Abraham Lincoln delivered these remarks in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 1864. Just 19 months before, in that same state, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of Antietam, leading to over 23,000 casualties and becoming forever known as the bloodiest single day in American history. Through all the bloodshed of September 1862 at Antietam, the battle there had afforded President Lincoln an important opportunity—it was a Union victory, as Confederate forces were effectively pushed out of Maryland after the guns fell silent. Five days after Antietam, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, setting the stage for the final version to be signed, issued, and placed into effect on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared that all slaves in those states then in rebellion would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Yet, as we previously discussed on our blog, Maryland was unaffected by this document because of its status as a Border State. Thus, when Lincoln spoke in Baltimore in April 1864, there was still more work to be done to advance the cause of freedom in Maryland.

A divided Border State during the Civil War, Maryland was the scene of both military and political struggles during the four year conflict. Early in the war, in April 1861, as Southern states were banding together and the onset of war was occurring at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the people of Maryland were caught up in the middle of the great secession crisis. Maryland shared strong ties with the states of the Southern Confederacy—of the nearly four million slaves in the United States at the time of the Civil War, over 87,000 lived within Maryland’s borders.

With numerous slave states breaking away from the Union in early 1861, Maryland felt the pull of her sister slave states to protect her interests and leave the Union behind. In fact, the same secession commissioners who journeyed through the South during the winter of 1860-1861 preaching secession, states’ rights, and slavery, also made their way to Maryland. In December 1860, Judge Alexander Hamilton Handy from Mississippi addressed large crowds in Annapolis and Baltimore. Handy was born in Maryland but moved to Mississippi several decades before the Civil War. Mississippi’s own declarations of secession made clear the purpose of their cause: "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world."

In Baltimore on December 19, 1860, Handy spoke with similar language and purpose, declaring, “The moment that slavery is pronounced a moral evil—a great sin—by the general government, that moment the safety of the rights of the South will be entirely gone.” There was no ambiguity; when Handy spoke of Northern Republicans and their intent to “overthrow the constitution and subvert the rights of the South,” the one right above all others which was in jeopardy was that “by which one man can own property in his fellow man.”

Three years later, when Lincoln spoke in Baltimore, enough history to fill three decades had occurred, and the situation in Maryland had changed dramatically. Because of political and military actions, Maryland did not follow the call of other slave states, and it remained in the Union. Lincoln himself was involved with this, suspending Habeas Corpus in Maryland in April 1861, after Union soldiers were attacked coming through Baltimore. General Benjamin Butler declared martial law in Baltimore, and the Maryland legislature’s convention on secession was moved to Frederick, a much more pro-Union location than Baltimore or Annapolis on the Chesapeake.

With Maryland still in the Union, it was a prime target for Confederate forces. In September 1862—with the goal of possibly peeling Maryland away from the Union in mind—Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia came north looking for a battlefield victory over Union forces on Union soil. His hopes for such a victory were dashed along the banks of Antietam Creek on September 17, in the bloodiest single day in American history. After Antietam, Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and everything changed once again.

After Antietam, pro-Unionists became increasingly powerful in the state of Maryland, taking greater control of the state government. Starting in 1861, Unionists made gains in the Maryland legislature. As a result, pro-Union representatives imposed harsh penalties on those who had Confederate sympathies, including loyalty oaths to the Union as a condition for future voting. Many pro-slavery Democrats fled for the Confederacy, leaving a mixture of conservative and radical Republicans and Unionists in Maryland. Through the course of the war, this mix led to a growing number of abolitionists—men who before the war never dreamed of abolishing slavery began to see it as a positive political move for the state. Of the two factions, two plans emerged.

The conservative plan, headed by Montgomery Blair, suggested a path toward emancipation that involved compensation for slave owners and was drawn out over time. Radicals in the legislature, led by Henry Winter Davis, favored an immediate and total emancipation of slavery in Maryland. In support of this latter plan, Davis declared that slave owners needed no further compensation for slaves, as the lands which had been farmed and cultivated for them for hundreds of years by slave labor was compensation enough. With increased gains in the 1863 elections, pro-abolition forces gained more control and power in the state. A convention was called to write a new constitution for Maryland in early 1864. President Lincoln himself weighed in on the issue, writing, “I am very anxious for emancipation to be effected in Maryland.”

The same month that Lincoln spoke at the Sanitary Fair in Baltimore, Maryland held a constitutional convention. Meeting in Annapolis on April 27, 1864, the convention lasted for several months, wrapping up its work on September 6, two years to the day from when Confederates under Lee came north on their way to Antietam. The end result of the convention was a constitution with provisions declaring the immediate emancipation of all slaves in Maryland. All that was necessary was a public vote, scheduled for October 12, to ratify the new document. Now, for over 80,000 slaves in Maryland, freedom would be determined by the ballot box.

The day of the scheduled vote—when the people of Maryland went to the polls to decide the future of freedom in their state—a major figure who had influenced national policy on slavery for decades passed from the scene. Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Roger Brooke Taney died on October 12, 1864. The author of the infamous Dred Scott Decision, it was Taney whose words had spelled out the increasing plight of sectionalism and slavery in the years before the Civil War. In the 1857 case, Taney declared that property rights of slave owners precluded any restrictions on where they could and could not take their slaves, seemingly opening the door for slavery to spread throughout the land. Taney’s court had also ruled that blacks were never intended as citizens of the United States, and thus had no right to sue for their freedom. Taney passed at the age of 87—he was born the year after the Declaration of Independence—and his passing served as a reminder that the old Union, one where the Dred Scott decision was issued, was quickly fading, giving way to a new Union that was made possible by the sacrifices of soldiers on the battlefield and political advances throughout the nation.

On October 12 and 13, Marylanders went to the ballot box. Across the state, in the varied political climate of wartime Maryland, individuals decided the fate of the new constitution. In Washington County, where the Battle of Antietam was fought just two years before, the constitution received significant support, with 2,441 for and 1,633 against. Washington county had seen a sharp drop in the number of slaves in the years prior to the Civil War: in 1820, out of a population of 23,075, there were 3,201 slaves and only 627 free blacks. Forty years later, when Lincoln was elected and the secession of the South began, out of 31,417 people, there were 1,435 slaves and 1,677 freed blacks. Clearly, Washington County was a strong example of Maryland’s trend toward being a Unionist state.

Elsewhere, the vote totals did not go as well for the pro-emancipation side. Overall, of the civilians voting in Maryland, the tally was 27,541 for, 29,536 against the new constitution. Based solely on this, the 1864 Constitution would have failed.

However, much as would happen in the presidential election just a few weeks later, the soldier vote made a tremendous impact on the final count. Maryland sent nearly 80,000 men off to war in between 1861 and 1865, many of whom fought for the Union. Of the nearly 60,000 votes that were ultimately cast for the 1864 Constitution, roughly 3,000 were absentee ballots from soldiers in the field. Of that number, 2,633 were in favor if its passage, and only 263 were against. This made the final count 30,174 in favor, and 29,799 against. The 1864 Maryland Constitution passed with a margin of fewer than 400 votes.

On October 29, Governor Augustus Bradford, who had only until recently been opposed to emancipation in his state, declared that the new constitution passed. The document was to take effect on November 1, 1864. On October 31, 1864, Frederick resident Jacob Engelbrecht recorded his feelings in his diary, proclaiming, “The foul blot of slavery will be stricken from the Constitution of Maryland, Huzzah for Liberty!”

The reaction to the new Constitution reflected its importance for the state. In Baltimore, the act was greeted with proclamations and a salute of five hundred guns. The Baltimore American and Commercial Adviser editorialized on the magnitude of the occasion:

This is the birth-day of Maryland freedom. This day the shackles fall from the oppressed within our borders. The bonds are broken forever, and the captive is set free. This is a proud day for Maryland. It is the day of her regeneration. It is the dawn of a new regime and a healthier existence. The triumph of justice is consummated; the aims of a sound economy are satisfied. Henceforth the first of November will be a blessed day in the calendar. It will be commemorated with thanksgiving and praise.

Later that month, Frederick Douglass—a man who was born in Maryland, lived in slavery in Maryland, and successfully escaped from Maryland—spoke in Baltimore on the coming of emancipation within his native state.

What a wonderful change a few short years have wrought! I left Maryland a slave; I return to her a freeman! I left her a slave state; I return to find her clothed in her new garments of Liberty and Justice, a free state! My life has had two crises—the day on which I left Maryland, and the day on which I return… The Common Council and city authorities have promised to be present at the next meeting in Baltimore. I shall be glad to see them. I shall return to them with freedom in my hand, and point to her Free Constitution, and as the olive branch was a sign that the waters of the flood were retiring, so will the freedom which I shall find there be a sign that the billows of slavery are rolling back to leave the law blooming again in the purer air of liberty and justice.

The same day the new constitution took effect, President Lincoln also offered his thoughts on what the day meant for both Maryland and the nation. Addressing a group of free blacks who had gathered at the White House, Lincoln spoke in broad terms, both expressing his joy at the occasion and his desire to see the end of slavery:

It is no secret that I have wished, and still do wish, mankind everywhere to be free. And in the State of Maryland how great an advance has been made in this direction. It is difficult to realize that in a state, where human slavery has existed for ages, ever since a period long before any here were born—by the action of her own citizens—the soil is made forever free. I have no feeling of triumph over those who were opposed to this measure and who voted against it, but I do believe that it will result in good in the white race as well as to those who have been made free by this action of emancipation….

Lincoln’s words described the magnitude of the event, placing it in historical context. An institution which had held people as slaves for generations had been eradicated by the people of a slave holding state. Certainly, the vote was close, and it had required the soldier vote to push over the margin of victory, but the political process had resulted in a move toward freedom in Maryland.

Yet, while these oft quoted remarks are indeed a reminder of how important the Maryland Constitution was, perhaps Lincoln’s remarks the day before, on October 31, 1864, while addressing the soldiers of the 42nd Massachusetts, are yet an even more fitting summation to the story of freedom finally arriving in Maryland. As Lincoln spoke to the men from Massachusetts, soldiers whose enlistments were coming to an end, he praised them and those like them who had served in the long and grueling war. Lincoln was sure to note the link between service and sacrifice on the battlefield and the advance of freedom across the nation. Without battles such as Antietam, fought within the state of Maryland, the momentous occasion would not have occurred. Lincoln said as much when speaking to the soldiers:

Tonight, midnight, slavery ceases in Maryland, and this state of things in Maryland is due greatly to the soldiers. Again I thank you for the services you have rendered the country.

Without the measures to keep Maryland in the Union, the bloodshed of Antietam, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the political maneuvering by radicals and Republicans, the new constitution of 1864 would have never been possible in the state of Maryland. The constitution was not perfect—it still only allowed while males the right to vote—but it was a major step in a state that just a few years before had seriously considered joining the Confederate States of America, which itself had a constitution forever protecting the institution of slavery. The Maryland Constitution was in some ways a precursor for the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1865. It reminds us that the long road towards freedom and progress is always complicated, never easy, and only made possible through hard work and sacrifice.


Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Volume 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Dew, Charles. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2001.

Flood, Charles Bracelen. 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010.

Levine, Bruce. The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South. New York: Random House, 2013.

Mitchell, Charles, ed. Maryland Voices of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

Oakes, James. Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mark Your Calendars! Maryland Emancipation Day at Antietam, this Saturday, November 1st!

Hello again everyone, just a reminder that this Saturday will be our Maryland Emancipation Day at Antietam, where the park will be hosting several speakers to discuss the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Maryland, which occurred on November 1, 1864, when a new state constitution took effect in Maryland.

We have published the schedule on this blog before, but if you haven't seen it yet, please check it out here.

Also, we have noted that our keynote speaker will be best-selling author and journalist Todd Brewster. Mr. Brewster will be speaking at 7 p.m. that evening and signing copies of his latest book, Lincoln's Gamble, at the Antietam Visitor Center.

Today, we want to highlight two of our speakers for the morning of November 1st: Edie Wallace and Dr. Tom Clemens.

Edie Wallace will be our first speaker of the day at 10:00 a.m. Her program will discuss local African Americans in Sharpsburg and Washington County, Maryland, and how freedom came for these individuals, and what their experiences were like during the war.

Ms. Wallace is a historian with a Masters of Arts degree in Historic Preservation from Goucher College, where she received the 2003 Hiram McCullough Award for her thesis on preserving African American historic resources in rural Washington County.  She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of Delaware and a Certificate in Historic Preservation from Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Ms. Wallace leads historical research and historic context development services for Paula S. Reed and Associates, Inc. in Hagerstown, Maryland.  She currently serves as President of the non-profit Friends of Tolson’s Chapel, dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and interpretation of the historic Tolson’s Chapel in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Ms. Wallace will also be speaking and taking part in the events at Tolson's Chapel in Sharpsburg that afternoon. The website for Tolson's Chapel can be found here. They will be having events from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.

Our next speaker at the battlefield that morning will be Dr. Tom Clemens. At 11:00 a.m., Dr. Clemens will discuss emancipation in Maryland from a state perspective, looking at how the process occurred and how the state constitution of 1864 came to be. 

Tom earned a B.A& history at Salisbury State University and a Doctorate of Arts, at George Mason University where he studied under Dr. Joseph Harsh, author of the trilogy on Confederate strategy through the Maryland Campaign of 1862. He taught at Hagerstown Community College for 34 years, retiring recently as Professor Emeritus. He has published numerous articles and book reviews in various Civil War magazines, and has recently done an edited version of Ezra Carman’s Maryland Campaign of September 1862: South Mountain published May 2010 by Savas Beatie LLC; Vol. II, Antietam in September of 2012. Both volumes received the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award. He is currently working on Vol. III which will include the battle of Shepherdstown Ford.

Tom appeared in several documentary films including the National Park Service film Antietam, A Documentary Film, shown daily in the Visitor Center, and has been featured in MD & DC Public Television programs as a historical commentator. He was an on-screen historian for: two episodes of A & E’s Civil War Journal and other History Channel programs.

In addition to his teaching career Tom is a Licensed Antietam Battlefield Tour Guide, and a 30+ year volunteer there, including several years of doing cannon-firing demonstrations. He is a Founder and current president of Save Historic Antietam Foundation Inc., which has preserved in perpetuity three structures and hundreds of acres of land around Antietam Battlefield. Tom is also a board member of Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association.

We here at Antietam are very excited and thankful to have Edie Wallace and Tom Clemens taking part in our commemoration of the 150th anniversary of emancipation in Maryland on Saturday, November 1st. We hope to see you this Saturday!

The Maryland Monument at Antietam