Looking back 150 years to a county as split as the country on slavery and Union

By Bryna Zumer of The Aegis


Posted 4/12/11

First of two parts

In early 1861, Priscilla Griffith, a prominent Harford County diarist, complained that the area’s free blacks were making her own slaves “troublesome” and that no one who dared express opposition to the Lincoln administration was safe.

“Such tyranny is unheard of in civilized countries,” she wrote in her diary, according to an account by Jeffery Smart in a 2000 issue of the Harford Historical Bulletin. “Oh, if war [were] only over, and the Southern Confederacy established.”

But while Griffith

wrote plenty about her fervent support for the South and disdain for Lincoln’s troops, she also mentioned attending a “splendid”

Christmas party with two Federal officers present, enjoying music by the New York regimental band in Havre de Grace and worshipping, apparently peacefully, alongside Union soldiers at Spesutia Church.

If one person’s life could be that contradictory, it was only a small example of how divided Harford County was in 1861 on the eve of what we today call the Civil War.

With the Confederate States’ attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. harbor, which marked the start of the Civil War exactly 150 years ago on April 12-13, 1861, the country would be plunged into a grim struggle to define itself, when it was not at all certain that the concept of a “United States” would survive.

Maryland was one of the most divided states of all, with its proximity to Washington, D.C., the capital of the Union; Harford County was no less conflicted. Besides directly affecting the lives of late-19th-century Harford County residents, white and black, that division and ambivalence would continue to define the county to this day.

‘Pro-South,…never pro-slavery’

According to the 1860 Census, there were 23,000 white people living in Harford, along with 3,600 “Africans,” who were roughly evenly divided between free and slave.
There were also at least 200 slaveowners, clustered mostly south and east of Route 7, in the southeastern edge of the county.

All of that meant there were plenty of divided loyalties and complicated politics, Jim Chrismer, a longtime Harford resident and prominent researcher of the Civil War, said.
“Harford County was horribly divided,” Chrismer said, explaining that those who were staunch supporters of the Confederacy were careful about how they explained themselves.

While the popular view today is that the creation of the Confederacy and the succession of its member states was all about slavery, Chrismer said its supporters tried to avoid mentioning the word and it is inaccurate to conflate the two.

Harford’s slaveowners “were prominent, old-line, Anglo-Saxon planters – not plantation owners, but farmers – and had in years previous relied on slave labor,” Chrismer said.
The slaveowners considered themselves “pro-South; they are never ‘pro-slavery,’” he said with a smile.

They were also far from a representative slice of Harford residents.
“They were loud and they were vocal, but they were a minority,” Chrismer said, questioning statistics that show Harford being more pro-South than he believes it was.

For example, C. Milton Wright, who wrote the 1967 book “Our Harford Heritage,” claimed 1,000 county residents signed on for the Confederate Army and 1,000 for the Union.
Chrismer disagreed with that.

“I can come up with maybe 200 [that] join the Confederacy,” he said.
The proof of substantial support in Harford for the Union side comes from the presidential election results.

Because Harford was dominated by the Southern Democrats, in the 1860 election, “Lincoln got very few votes in Harford County. He got very few votes in the state of Maryland,” Chrismer said.

Chrismer said, however, the Harford vote was fairly evenly divided between John Bell, of the anti-secession Constitutional Union party, and John Breckinridge, of the more fervent Southern Democrat party.

“Harford County was divided, but not decidedly pro-Confederacy, not decidedly pro-secession,” Chrismer said.

In 1864, just four years later, “Lincoln was overwhelmingly the choice of Harford County,” he noted.

While secessionists had the megaphone, “the silent majority was supportive of the Union,” Chrismer continued. “That doesn’t mean they want to free the slaves. They want to keep the Union together.”

Anxiety of the times

The newspapers, which were all organs of political parties at the time, showed the anxiety and dark mood the county was facing.

The Southern Aegis, headed by the very pro-South John Carroll Walsh, had the slogan of “Let us cling to the Constitution as the mariner clings to the last plank when the night and tempest close around him.”

In an April 13 edition, just before the war erupted, The Southern Aegis worried about the “foul-mouthed infidel” Republicans who would support “an antislavery Constitution, an antislavery Bible, and an antislavery God!”

The paper, of which today’s Aegis is a direct descendant, also gave voice to the state’s uncertain prospects.

“If civil war with all its horrors is to be precipitated upon the country by the insane ravings of the fanatical hordes of the North forcing those in power who now represent them to inaugurate it, what then is to be the position of Maryland?” the newspaper asked.

Ambivalent history

The historic marker announcing Tudor Hall, off of Route 22 near Bel Air, makes no mention of the estate’s most direct link to the Civil War and its most notorious resident: John Wilkes Booth, who was born on the property and spent his childhood there, before going on to kill President Lincoln at age 26.

Dinah Faber, coordinator of Spirits of Tudor Hall, a group that works to preserve the home and its link to the Booth family’s artistic accomplishments, acknowledges the county’s historians have tried not to shine a light on the black sheep of the Booth family and instead focused on the other Booths, who were largely Union supporters as well as famous actors.
“Harford County has not been anxious to be identified as the home or the breeding ground of a presidential assassin,” Faber said.

Meanwhile, the county’s Historical Society devoted an entire bulletin to John Wilkes’s brother, Edwin Booth, who Faber said was the Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp of his day.
A large painting of Edwin performing in the Harford County courthouse is prominently displayed on the wall of the Bel Air Post Office.

“Harford County has chosen to focus more on Edwin,” Faber said, noting he tried to overcome the infamy of his brother. “I think a lot of people are interested in Tudor Hall because of John Wilkes, but we don’t put too much focus on John Wilkes because we figure people already know about him … We try to put John Wilkes Booth into that context of his father, his other brothers and sisters.”

But while John Wilkes’ name is instantly recognizable, much of his life, including what drove him to shoot the president, has been downplayed or made ambiguous.
For one thing, Faber said, “I don’t think people realized how young he was.”

She said many accounts also try to portray John Wilkes, who followed in his family’s acting footsteps, as less successful or less popular than he really was.

Like Edwin, she said, “[John Wilkes] had also established himself as an actor and was quite popular as an actor.”

Despite claims to the contrary, “he was quite a successful actor,” she said.

The unwillingness to deal with the less flattering side of history could itself be a tradition in Harford County.

Faber noted another “little bit of scandal,” in which she said a plaque at the Bel Air courthouse dedicated to the Daughters of the Confederacy mysteriously disappeared after The Aegis ran a picture of it in 2000, as part of feature story about the courthouse portrait gallery.

“That plaque was removed from the courthouse and the Historical Society refused to accept it, and I don’t know what happened to it,” Faber said.

The stories behind places like Tudor Hall and the courthouse show that even a century and a half after the Civil War, its legacy lives on in Harford County.

“It’s like Maryland still has this kind of ambivalence,” Faber said.

Coming Friday at http://www.exploreharford.com and in the print edition of The Aegis: A divided population and strategic location kept Harford County on edge throughout the Civil War