Historians have long treated the patriotic anthems of the American Civil War as colorful, if largely insignificant, side notes. Beneath the surface of these songs, however, is a complex story. “Maryland, My Maryland” was one of the most popular Confederate songs during the American Civil War, yet its story is full of ironies that draw attention to the often painful and contradictory actions and beliefs that were both cause and effect of the war. Most telling of all, it was adopted as one of a handful of Southern anthems even though it celebrated a state that never joined the Confederacy.
In Maryland, My Maryland: Music and Patriotism during the American Civil War James A. Davis illuminates the incongruities underlying this Civil War anthem and what they reveal about patriotism during the war. The geographic specificity of the song’s lyrics allowed the contest between regional and national loyalties to be fought on bandstands as well as battlefields and enabled “Maryland, My Maryland” to contribute to the shift in patriotic allegiance from a specific, localized, and material place to an ambiguous, inclusive, and imagined space. Musical patriotism, it turns out, was easy to perform but hard to define for Civil War–era Americans.
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Maryland and the Coming of War
Bargain Patriotism and the Need for an Anthem
"On Monday the citizens of Baltimore and vicinity observed with becoming spirit the eighty-third anniversary of the Independence of the United States," declared the Sun on July 6, 1859. Cannon fire at dawn opened the city's celebration, and flags were unfurled throughout the city. It was a cloudless day with a soft breeze keeping the temperature mild, so the streets were packed with enthusiastic citizens. Despite the crowds, the paper was pleased to note that there was a lack of "rowdyism and violence, which too often characterize such occasions." Celebrations at various spots around the city included speeches, readings of the Declaration of Independence, and musical performances. The Methodist Episcopal Sunday School of Avalon featured music by a local brass band as well as singing by the children, while in another part of the city the "excellent choir" of the Twelfth Presbyterian Church sang "some most beautiful sacred airs."
In the evening the "most perfect and extensive" fireworks displays were launched over Ashland Square, Federal Hill, and many other neighborhoods. Fireworks caused some fires, including a man who had his hat catch fire, and an unfortunate lady who "had her underclothes ignited by walking over some fireworks." Music was a vibrant part of the evening's merriment. The fireworks display at Monument Square was accompanied by the National Cornet Band, which "discoursed sweet harmonies seemingly without intermission," while a band led by "Capt. Charles" entertained the crowd at the corner of Broadway and Baltimore Streets.
One curious omission in this otherwise detailed and entertaining article is worth noting: there is no mention of what pieces the bands performed. Only later in the article do specific song titles appear, and those were sung mostly by children's choirs. When describing celebrations at the House of Refuge (a public orphanage), mention is made of the children singing "Auld Lang Syne," an unnamed "original Fourth of July song," and the doxology. In Towsontown's festivities, the article describes children singing "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."
Why were titles given for the children's performances, while the brass bands' repertoire was left undefined? For one thing, the youth concerts had less to do with patriotism than they did with the children's innate charm. It amused readers to envision the kids singing; knowing what pieces they were singing simply enlivened the description. There was no need to do the same for the bands and their music. Given the nature of the celebration, it is safe to assume that patriotic tunes were played alongside popular songs of the time. And as the residents of Baltimore were citizens of the United States, there would be no reason to name specific patriotic tunes that were already known by the readers. Marylanders still embraced "Hail Columbia" and "Yankee Doodle," while "The Star-Spangled Banner" was considered a birthright of all Marylanders. Little could the residents of this proud state imagine that within twelve months another song dedicated to their state would serve as an anthem for a new Southern Confederacy.
The residents of Baltimore and Maryland as a whole were largely divided over the issues that were tormenting the country prior to the Civil War. Some were pro-slavery, and others were abolitionists; some felt comfortable with the country's move toward regulated industry and commerce, while others preferred the local autonomy of Jacksonian Democracy that had prevailed in previous years. There was one belief many held in common: Marylanders wanted such disagreements kept to the realm of verbal debate. Armed conflict was the last thing they wanted within their borders.
Unfortunately, Marylanders could not always dictate the role their state would play in the coming conflict due to geography if nothing else. With Washington DC and Richmond (the eventual capital of the Confederate States of America) as neighbors, it was inevitable that Maryland would be pulled into any confrontations between the North and the South. Fate could also complicate matters. In July 1859, just as Baltimore residents were celebrating a safe and spirited Fourth of July, a man claiming to be Isaac Smith rented property southwest of Frederick, Maryland. It turned out that "Isaac Smith" was the abolitionist John Brown, and it was from Maryland that he and his sons launched their attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. No one from Frederick had any idea what Brown was intending, and militia from Maryland assisted Col. Robert E. Lee in quelling the violence. Still, Marylanders were concerned that Brown had begun his operations in their state and equally concerned at the support that many Northerners displayed for Brown's actions.
Maryland before the War
Maryland in 1860 occupied a tenuous social, political, cultural, and geographic location between the soon-to-be warring factions; many families could claim northern and southern kin, while local businesses traded freely throughout the North, South, and West. Maryland was the northernmost slave state; worse still, it surrounded Washington DC, the political if not physical heart of the Union. This fact alone ensured that Maryland had less control over its future than other border states. In addition, Maryland separated Pennsylvania from Virginia, two of the most committed states to their respective causes. No matter where their ultimate allegiance might land, Marylanders knew that their state would be ground under the tread of marching soldiers should war break out.
The political situation in Maryland was tenuous even before the fighting began. Baltimore, the political heart of the state, had been in the iron grip of the nativist "Know-Nothings," otherwise known as the American Party. The Know-Nothings came to power in Maryland through organized violence and maintained control of elections from 1854 until 1859. In letters to his sister, Daniel Thomas of Baltimore expressed his disgust with the rise to power of the Know-Nothing Party and the violence associated with it. "Their principal occupation since the election," he seethed, "has been to beat and maltreat every poor Dutchman or Irishman who is fool enough to go outside of his own door." The riots surrounding the mayoral elections of 1856 proved Thomas right, as anti-immigrant street gangs clashed with supporters of the Democratic Party. Sadly, the threat of violence remained up until 1860, making Baltimore a political tinderbox primed for another bloody eruption.
The Democratic Party finally replaced the Know-Nothings in Maryland, but this brought little stability to the situation. The approaching presidential election of 1860 led to divisions within the national Democratic Party (Northern and Southern Democrats ended up holding their own separate conventions). Some Southern Democrats then threw their support to the Constitutional Union Party and its candidate, John Bell of Tennessee. John Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) won the state of Maryland with John Bell a close second; President-elect Lincoln came in last with a meager 2.5 percent of the vote. That same year the Maryland legislature voiced its commitment to join with the other southern states should the Union be dissolved, though they were not in session when South Carolina seceded, and Governor Thomas Holiday Hicks was hesitant to call a special session that might result in a secession vote. Hicks opposed abolition, yet was unwilling to break ties with the North, and his hesitation allowed matters to overwhelm the state and take the decision out of his hands. Later events would lead Lincoln to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland and move Union troops into the state, so when the secession vote was finally placed before the Maryland legislature, they elected to remain in the Union.
Maryland was fractured in terms of economics as well as politics. The Eastern Shore was home to diverse crops with some slaveholding farms; southern Maryland (including Charles, Prince George's, Calvert, St. Mary's, and Ann Arundel Counties) still counted tobacco as a primary crop and used slaves more extensively; the western counties were the most diversified in terms of agrarian and manufacturing concerns. While Maryland's agricultural production remained healthy, industry and mercantile efforts began to take hold due in part to the state's providential location within the nation. At midcentury, Baltimore shipyards and docks saw a surge in business: the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal reached western Maryland in 1850, and in 1853 the completion of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad linked the Ohio River and the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland was allied economically with both the South and the North; although there were many who saw themselves as "southern" in temperament, the majority of the state would prefer to maintain ties with the Union for economic reasons alone.
Maryland legislators argued the advantages of staying with the Union or joining with the southern states, as each offered fiscal incentives in the midst of Maryland's transitioning economy. Generally speaking, the Eastern Shore sided more with the South, while the western counties leaned toward the Union. Ironically, this transition was the result of a shift away from a slave-based economy, one of the primary causes of the war. In the first half of the 1800s, Maryland farmers drifted away from tobacco and took up less labor-intensive crops. The lower demand for slaves led to increased manumission, so much so that by the start of the war Maryland's slave population had dropped to half of its size in 1800, and the free black population was one of the largest in the country. Maryland had declined to participate in the Nashville Convention of 1850 where other slave states had gathered to discuss the growing hostility to slavery from the North. The Maryland legislature met on March 6, 1860, to finally address slavery and tentatively gave their support to the South, but that support was guarded; in historian William Evitts's words, "Rhetoric was as far as Marylanders could bring themselves to go; the call to action was hesitant and hedged." Slavery may have been a way of life in parts of Maryland, but it was not a defining characteristic of the state or a primary economic concern. In yet another ironic twist, Maryland would not be called upon to release its slaves in 1863 because it did not fall under the Emancipation Proclamation, which called for the liberation of slaves from those states under rebellion. As a result, the state would not implement emancipation until November 1864.
"The actual state of feeling in Maryland was difficult to get at," wrote journalist William W. Glenn just prior to secession. "Many of the staunchest supporters of the South at a later period were then really Union men ... even the Secessionists per se were too timid to attempt to act without Virginia, and Virginia clung to the Union." Yet while there were citizens passionately devoted to one cause or the other, many if not most Marylanders were primarily concerned with the material catastrophe that would fall upon their state should war break out. Merchants on both sides of the Potomac bemoaned restrictions on trade and were more anxious about their own commercial ventures than any grand political agendas. There was talk of forming a "middle confederacy" made up of the border states (including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri), a buffer of sorts between those hardline states on either side with more of a stake in the war. Indeed, the possibility of an "armed neutrality" was debated well past the point where such concerns were even viable. Maryland would probably have preferred to follow Kentucky, which went Union in its elections but declared itself neutral in the conflict. This was never an option for Maryland.
W. Wilkins Davis, a student at the College of St. James near Hagerstown, Maryland, released his nonpartisan frustrations in a letter to his father: "Can it be that northern men are so blind as calmly and indifferently to sacrifice their dearest interest for the attainment of an end so trivial? and can it be that southern men have been so carried away by high flown panegyrics on states' rights, and vague declamations on northern aggression, as to allow their better judgement to be so utterly perverted?" Yet the sometimes precipitous acts of two anxious populations often triggered spontaneous allegiances from passionate young men; just five months later young Davis would proclaim himself "a straight out 'Southern Rights' man." Sadly, Davis's transformation was not unique. As talk of war intensified, emotions grew heated, loyalties solidified, and ideological differences deteriorated into interpersonal conflict and physical violence. Communities grew divided and families were split apart; Maryland would eventually supply regiments to both the Union and Confederate Armies. While Southern sympathizers in Maryland loudly lamented their treatment by fearful and autocratic Federals, Unionists in neighboring counties across the border fared little better. In Loudon County, Virginia, purported Unionists were rounded up and sent to Leesburg to sign an oath of loyalty. Many Virginia Unionists fled to Maryland.
Whether focused on the immediate community or caught up in national debates, Civil War Americans were passionate in their beliefs. Years of debate had added weight to the already substantial issues dividing the country, so much so that previously distant issues grew increasingly personal. Robert Crist of Indiana was thoroughly disillusioned by the political wrangling he saw around him. A devout supporter of the John Bell–William Everett ticket in the 1860 presidential elections, Crist was crushed when he learned that Bell had announced his support for the Confederacy. "I have lost all confidence in mankind," he wrote his father, "a person dare not trust any one." The political lines being drawn were no longer merely fodder for lively discussion. They were chasms that ruptured communities.
Yet there was a naïveté underlying the passion. So long as no bullets were flying, it was easy to make bold claims and to see the issues as straightforward and readily defended or denounced. It was easier to talk about "right" and "wrong" than it was to do something about it. William Bullitt of Kentucky was firm in his beliefs but unwilling to even consider that the tensions would erupt in armed conflict. "Some are very much alarmed from a dread of civil war — a ridiculous dread in my opinion," he wrote his brother at the end of 1860. "If the South are firm and united — The North dare not attempt such a thing — The state of things give me no alarm — nor regrets — It is the first time in my life that I have seen the South take a manly course." That the South's "manly course" could indeed lead to violent bloodshed was not even a consideration for Bullitt.
Sadly, such uninformed stubbornness also meant that neither side was willing to back down. "But reconciliation was impossible," declaimed Rufus Cater of Louisiana to his cousin after having joined the Nineteenth Louisiana Infantry (CSA) in 1861. "The seeds of discord and of hatred sown so long ago by factionists in northern soil had grown too deeply ever to be eradicated. They were deaf alike to the voice of reason and the entreaties of justice." While Cater's diatribe echoes many such proclamations, his follow-up thoughts ring with the tone of a zealot: "They recognized no God because they regarded not the laws of God and with curses and imprecations, with a madness unparalleled in the history of the world have rushed forward swearing to 'wipe from the face of the Earth the southern People.'"
Cater's exuberance might be explained by his recent enlistment. Few could resist the allure of marching men in fancy uniforms, regimental bands playing stirring airs, flags waving, and crowds cheering — in short, patriotic displays "made for good spectacle." If nothing else, the glitz and glamour of military ceremonies was a known attraction for young recruits. "Blue cloth & brass buttons enlist more soldiers than patriotism if we are to judge from their actions," observed the cynical Charles Haydon of Michigan. Not all were swept up in superficial displays, however. For some, the stirring sound of an anthem performed by a regimental band was inseparable from their patriotism; the music was a symbol of the country and cause for which they were volunteering to fight. The eighteen-year-old Albert Higley could barely contain his enthusiasm when he wrote his sister of the sights and sounds he witnessed after joining a regiment in Albany, New York: "Oh! Maria I wish you could be here and see us on Battallion drill once. ... The band placed on a knoll which commands a view of the whole ground and playing to which every man keeps step. I tell you it looks fine. There was a hollow square formed and [General Clark] made us a speech inside of it the band then played the Star-Spangled Banner and on the whole we had quite a patriotic time of it." This was no passing fancy from a star-struck young boy, as he explained to his sister. "Well the time has at last come that I have been so anxiously waiting and wishing for we are to be mustered in to the United States Service next Tuesday." The music, the marching, the excitement he was feeling, the desire to serve: this was genuine patriotism as Higley understood it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Maryland, My Maryland"
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Table of Contents
Contents List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction: Patriotic Music and the Civil War 1. Maryland and the Coming of War: Bargain Patriotism and the Need for an Anthem 2. Spring 1861: The Pratt Street Riot and the Birth of a Song 3. “Maryland, My Maryland”: Lyrics, Music, and Publication 4. Fall 1861: The Cary Invincibles, Flags, and Symbolic Patriotism 5. Spring 1862: Marylanders, the Military, and Regionalism 6. Summer 1862: Tropes, Class, and the Rise of an Anthem 7. Fall 1862: Antietam and the Battle of Parodies 8. Spring 1863: pows, Civilians, and Military Patriotism 9. Summer 1863: Gettysburg, Slavery, and the Patriotism of Sacrifice 10. Fall 1863: Women, Hospitals, and Diverging Audiences 11. 1864: Monocacy and the Victory of Song over State 12. 1865: Performing Patriotism and Nostalgia after Appomattox Epilogue: “Maryland, My Maryland” after the War Notes Bibliography Index