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History Happened Here

Civil War Crossroads

June 2024
6min read

How two devotees of the American flag and one Supreme Court justice shaped the story of a border town—and the nation

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.”

“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.

—Christine Gibson TO PLAN TRIP

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