Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Sarah Kay Bierle
Part two in a series
Growing up in Virginia and Maryland and attending both northern and southern schools, Henry K. Douglas could have fought for either side. He explained his pre-war thoughts in his memoirs: “All the land seemed full of uneasiness, but I was too young and hopeful to give much attention to gloomy forebodings or prophecies…I did not believe our people would ever take up arms against each other…I had no more doubt of the right of a state to secede than I had of the truth of the catechism. Yet I could not make myself believe that there could be a dissolution of the Union…”[i] Douglas goes on to mention his move to St. Louis, Missouri, where he practiced law for the winter of 1860-61. Then the foreboding words, “…and wisdom came in the spring.”[ii]
“When on the 17th of April, 1861, Virginia passed the Ordinance of Secession, I had no doubt of my duty.”[iii] Douglas left his law practice in Missouri to return home to Maryland. That state seemed in no rush to join the Confederacy, and, having ties to Virginia also, the twenty-year-old decided to cross the Potomac River and enlist with the southern forces assembling at Harper’s Ferry. Making it clear he was not fighting for slavery[iv], he proclaimed the states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution as his reason for enlisting. He had followed his conscience and beliefs when making his choice, but the consequences would be serious.
Henry Douglas would survive the war. He would begin the conflict as a private and finish as an officer. He would serve on several Confederate generals’ staffs, including General “Stonewall” Jackson. His reminiscence of the war details many humorous incidents, hair-breadth adventures, and veiled romances. At first glance Douglas’s story is about an enthusiastic young man, rollicking and philosophizing through war. And yet a dark undercurrent begins to emerge. His increasing frustration and bitterness against the Yankees is triggered and intensified by the treatment of his family in Maryland. Douglas may have been fighting “Virginia’s war”, but he was cleared bound to Maryland. On several occasions, Douglas risked his commanding officer’s ire and snuck across the Potomac to visit his family.[v]
At the end of the Sharpsburg (Antietam) campaign, with the Confederates retreating south across the river, “war was brought home with terrible earnestness…”[vi] Douglas continues his narrative, “My father, mother, and sister were prisoners in their own house, without the freedom from danger which prisoners usually enjoy. Unfortunately, there were two sons in the Confederacy and the sufferings of those at home must be vicarious; these are harder things to endure than battles and wounds. To invade his house at pleasure and search it as a whim…looking through the contents of bureaus and wardrobes and pitching beds upon the floor with bayonets, using brutal language to all the inmates – this was scarcely the way to improve the loyalty…of the house.” [vii]
Concerned about his family and their relations with their neighbors who undoubted knew of his position in the Confederate army, Henry Douglas asked General Jackson for permission to go to see his home. With admonitions to be careful, the general let his officer go. “It was a bright and quiet morning when I reached Shepherdstown and I immediately rode to the river cliffs opposite my father’s residence. From there just over the Potomac…I saw the rifle pits on the lawn, a piece or two of light artillery, and soldiers in blue lying…on the stonewall and in possession generally. I saw my father come out of the house and walk down toward the burned barn. It was not a cheerful sight…”[viii] The day improved though when Union troops spotted Douglas watering his horse and invited him to come over. Thinking it was a cruel joke, he refused. The soldiers persisted, promising Douglas complete safeguard and a chance to see his mother. Warily, he accepted. His father was not permitted to speak with him, but Douglas spent a few precious minutes with his mother. When he left, the Union sergeant promised to do his best to safeguard the family, and, as far as Douglas knew, kept his word.
But the sergeant and the compassionate soldiers were moved, and the situation devolved. One night the house shutters were blown open. Though innocent, the Douglas’s were accused of signaling to the Southerners with candles. Mr. Douglas was arrested, but told he could go free if he would take an oath of allegiance to the Union. He refused…and disappeared. Eventually, the truth was known: Mr. Douglas was imprisoned for six weeks at Fort McHenry and finally released when the Provost Marshall realized there were no charges against him.[ix]
For Henry Douglas, the enemy was not just on the battlefields. The enemy was insulting his sister, troubling his mother, and imprisoning his father…because of his known choice to fight for the Confederacy. Coming from the Border State of Maryland gave Douglas’s war an element that perhaps few of his comrades understood. He had walked out of his current home state, joining the Confederacy to fight for ideals he believed. There was personal peril on the battlefield, and yet, his choice also affected his family. This knowledge and the constant anxiety for his loved ones trapped in hostile territory with unfriendly neighbors is part of a Confederate Marylander’s war.
To be continued…
[i] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 5.
[ii] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 5.
[iii] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 5.
[iv] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 3.
[v] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), pages 159, 187-189.
[vi] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 180.
[vii] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), page 181.
[viii] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), pages 187-188.
[ix] Henry K. Douglas, I Rode With Stonewall (1940), pages 181-182.