- Historic Sites
Civil War Crossroads
How two devotees of the American flag and one Supreme Court justice shaped the story of a border town—and the nation
September 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 5
The Italianate building at 101 West Church Street in Frederick, Maryland, had by 1861 become a house divided. The patriarch of the Baers, the family who lived there, was staunchly pro-Union, while his son had married a Southerner and taken up her cause. Tensions built up so much between the two factions that the elder Mr. Baer devised a plan: His son’s family would live on the first floor and the Northern sympathizers on the second; the dining room and foyer would be neutral territory, with no political talk allowed.
Baer devised the sort of compromise Maryland, as a border state, adopted as general policy. It had long straddled the widening schism over slavery, its industrial ports siding with the North, its rural areas with the South. Frederick County, in the center of the state, distilled Maryland’s tradition of contradiction and compromise. While Civil War-era demand for grain kept many area slaves in the fields, the National Road, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had each snaked through the county in the early 180Os, encouraging less slave-reliant ventures. But when the time finally came in 1861 for Maryland to jump off the fence, it was in Frederick City’s Kemp Hall that the legislature voted to stay with the Union.
Civil War aficionados today crisscross the county all the time on their way to nearby Harpers Ferry, Antietam, or Gettysburg. But how many stop to consider the import of the places they pass? Frederick City, with its stately brick townhouses and churches and perilously rippling brick sidewalks, is the county seat. The other towns, dotted among the greens hills made calico by cornfields, are scaled-down variations on Frederick, with cat’s cradles of power lines weaving over their narrow streets.
Settlers first arrived in what was then Frederick Town in 1745. Twenty years later, Fredericktonians committed the colonies’ first act of rebellion against the British, burning the tax collector in effigy to protest the Stamp Act. But it wasn’t until 1814 that Frederick’s most famous son had a vision of bombs and rockets that would eventually bedevil tin-eared sports fans across the country.
Francis Scott Key was born in 1779 in what was then part of Frederick County. He had just negotiated the release of a prisoner of war when he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the attack on Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. He is now buried in Frederick’s Mount Olivet Cemetery under an ornate memorial erected in 1898. Atop a huge marble pillar ringed with metal stars, a bronze Key stretches out his arms while statues representing patriotism, war, and music stand below; a plaque affixed to the monument shows three bars of the national anthem, and another lists all the verses. Shrubs in front of the statue spell out KEY .
Tourists can also visit the less-assuming, little brick law office he shared in 1801-02 with his brother-in-law, the man who perhaps more than anyone precipitated the Civil War. Roger Brooke Taney was another of Frederick’s contradictions. He owned slaves, but he eventually freed and paid them. However cloudy his personal feelings on slavery may have been, he made his legal opinion resoundingly clear in March 1857 when, as the Chief Justice of the United States, he wrote the majority opinion on Dred Scott v. Sandford , ruling that blacks could not be American citizens and that Congress could not ban slavery in any of the nation’s territories. As a state senator 40 years earlier, Taney had fought to protect the rights of all blacks, but as a justice he ruled narrowly by the Constitution and found himself hamstrung by a document that prohibited Congress’s infringement on property rights. The Dred Scott decision sent a shock wave through the North, ratcheting national tensions beyond peaceable release.
Taney left personal evidence at a few places in Frederick, including the law office he shared with Key at 104 North Court Street. Taney’s home, a 1799 square brick structure with the sloping, shingled roof characteristic of most Frederick buildings, also houses the Key Museum (and former slave quarters out back) and holds personal effects of both men. The results of Taney’s Dred Scott decision and the war it made inevitable stand out all over the county.
Sandwiched between Pennsylvania and Virginia and less than 20 miles from Harpers Ferry, Frederick County was a crossroads for both armies. Confederate troops originally occupied Frederick in September 1862 on their illfated first attempt to invade the North. Robert E. Lee wanted to push through to Pennsylvania, but the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry was in the way of his supply line. By September 10. when Confederate troops marched down Patrick Street, most of Frederick’s more than 8,000 residents had nervously taken down their American flags. But as the troops passed a tidy two-story brick house on the west side of town, a 95-year-old widow named Barbara Fritchie leaned out one of her dormer windows and waved the Stars and Stripes.
“Give me your flag, Granny, and I’ll stick it in my horse’s head,” one of the soldiers is reported to have yelled. When she refused, another soldier shouted, “Shoot her damned head off!” To that a commanding officer advised, “If you harm a hair of her head, I’ll shoot you down like a dog.”