- 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
“Barbara Fritchie put Frederick on the map,” says Maggi Hartzell, a tour guide with the Frederick Historical Society. To be fair, that honor should actually go to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, whose “Barbara Frietchie” romanticized her actions in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863. Visitors to Fritchie’s house today can hear the poem recited by a decent, her voice rising to accent the lines “‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, / But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.” The cozy house is furnished almost exactly as it was in the 1860s, with Fritchie’s china, quilts, and, yes, her flag carefully preserved.
Whittier opened his poem with a description of “the clustered spires of Frederick”; two belong to the Evangelical Reformed Church. That was where Stonewall Jackson chose to worship on September 14, the Sunday before Antietam. The minister prayed fervently for the success of the Federal troops; afterward Jackson assured him he had given “a fine message.” Jackson had slept through it.
What Jackson didn’t know was that Union Gen. George McClellan had gotten hold of Special Order 191, which detailed the location of the Confederate troops in Maryland. That very morning, as Jackson dozed, Union troops reached South Mountain in southwest Frederick County to fight the Rebels there. After battling well into the night, Union forces prevailed. The armies clashed again three days later at Antietam. On September 18, Lee retreated to Virginia, any hope for foreign aid to the Confederacy dashed.
The self-guided driving tour of the battlefields of South Mountain winds through the county’s more rural sections. It starts in Middletown and makes its way through Burkittsville, two sleepy hamlets with brick church steeples peeking though lush oaks. The drive allows visitors a chance to see Maryland’s sylvan beauty; the tour passes an occasional mailbox and grayed barn, but apart from that, the scenery is largely trees and dense bushes. Toward the end, the route veers off onto a steep gravel road through the forest of South Mountain; Union troops successfully fought their way up this hill. It’s much easier to appreciate their effort as the tires of the car struggle to grip the spattering gravel of the sharp incline.
Confederates threatened to destroy Frederick unless the city’s leaders could raise $200,000.
In July 1864, the Confederates were back in Frederick, this time to hold it hostage: Unless Frederick could raise $200,000, Gen. Jubal Early promised to destroy it. City leaders quickly found the money. The day after Early’s threat, his troops encountered Union resistance on their way to storm Washington: Just southeast of Frederick, two Federal brigades under Gen. Lew Wallace tried to block Early’s army from crossing the Monocacy River. This time the Confederates fought uphill and routed the outnumbered Union troops. The skirmish cost Early precious time in his assault on the capital, however, and when he finally got there, Union troops were waiting for him. So the Rebel army retreated to Virginia for the last time.
To modern eyes used to wars in muddy trenches or tropical jungles, this stretch of green farmland, where, as Wallace said, “These men died to save the National Capital,” seems too placid, too mundane to be a battlefield. The countryside, which—apart from a dirt road now paved and a wooden bridge now metal - looks much as it must have in 1864, is also startlingly bare, offering few trees behind which to hide.
The battles at Monocacy, South Mountain, and Antietam flooded Frederick with wounded soldiers. Almost all its public buildings—churches, hotels, schools—doubled as hospitals; at one point Frederick had as many as 29. That’s why it’s the perfect site for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.
The museum is not nearly as gruesome as one might expect, but some of its exhibits do hold a certain morbid fascination. One display shows the bone-splintering effects of the minié ball, which caused 94 percent of all injuries during the war. A photograph of a pile of dismembered feet clarifies why soldiers often went for their guns when the surgeons came around; three out of four operations were amputations. Primitive plastic surgeries made up part of the other 25 percent; one picture recounts how such efforts were often helped along by the concealing effects of glasses and a thick mustache. The faint of heart can still enjoy the museum’s reconstructed field hospital and horse-drawn ambulance or try on a period army uniform and listen to heartbeats through a nineteenthcentury stethoscope.
After the war, Frederick County fell into a series of economic depressions, but by the turn of the century a business boom had perked up the area. Today Frederick is at home with its history, as exemplified when Hartzell, leading a tour and clad in a long, sprigged Civil War-era dress, dust cap, and wraparound sunglasses, strolls into a busy downtown Frederick intersection with a hand raised to stop traffic. Her tour group gasps, but she shrugs off their protestations. “Who would hit a woman in a outfit like this?” she says. Dutiful drivers, clearly used to the spectacle, slow down without batting an eye.