Book Review: The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered

Reviewed by Zachery A. Fry

Among the more common images in Civil War political history is that of Maryland being held in the Union at the point of the bayonet. That traditional view—Maryland loyalty enforced by cold steel—highlights a military threat posed by Federal soldiers who occupied much of the state as well as the perceived ruthlessness of Lincoln’s constitutional violations against legions of Southern-leaning citizens. It is a well-worn notion, though, and it often denies the diversity of experience in a state that ran the gamut from secession sympathy to abolitionist activism, Union soldier to Confederate, and slaveholder to enslaved. Charles Mitchell and Jean Baker have collected the work of numerous outstanding scholars to tackle these complexities with their edited volume, The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered. The book succeeds in reaching broadly for new source bases and interpretive trends to tell a more complete story of border state experiences in the Civil War era.

The key to understanding Maryland’s complicated place in the Civil War is to read forward in the state’s narrative, according to Baker, Mitchell, and company. The “mythical Maryland version of the Lost Cause,” like its broader cousin movement in ex-Confederate states, reflects postwar contrivance more than historical reality (2).

The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered is an ambitious volume in that its 300 pages boast an impressive thirteen essays. Most of the essays are therefore on the shorter side, and it would be unwieldly to review them all. The benefit of such a diverse spread is that the topics really do represent the best of recent trends in Civil War scholarship. Nearly half the chapters place the political issue of slavery or the experiences of the enslaved at the core of their studies. Jessica Millward, for instance, uses microhistory to offer an insightful glimpse into the life of Charity Folks, whose complicated story carries “testimony to the multifaceted legacies of enslavement” (55). Millward’s essay is particularly memorable for its call to consider alternate methodologies for chronicling the lives of slaves, since bare-bones archival records can only offer so much on the topic.

A few other strong essays dealing with the military sphere of the Civil War stand out for this reviewer. Timothy Orr, an expert on all things Army of the Potomac, delves into the issue of Baltimore recruitment practices to show the tense politics of promotion in Maryland units. The number of Maryland officers purged from Burnside’s Ninth Corps reflected an army-wide “anti-Maryland bias,” according to Maryland’s ranks serving at the front (167). Jonathan White, whose work Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln (LSU, 2014) ranks as one of the most important books in Civil War history over the past decade, tackles the issue of Maryland soldier voting in a brilliant essay on how Union soldiers gave the state’s new anti-slavery constitution a decisive boost in 1864. White contextualizes soldier balloting within wider political debates about the enfranchisement of men at the front to show that, absent “the votes cast by the soldiers in the field…legal freedom probably would not have been achieved in the state until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865” (236).

Embracing a particularly novel form of historical interpretation is Brian Matthew Jordan, well-known to readers of Civil War literature and followers of Emerging Civil War for his body of work on the long-term physical and emotional traumas of soldiering in the conflict. Jordan examines the aftermath of Antietam—and the Union Army’s role in burying the dead and recovering the debris of combat there—to apply insights from sensory history. Most studies of a battle’s aftermath focus either on the herculean task of caring for the wounded or the impact of carnage on civilians left in the wake (both pioneered, to a great extent, by the late Gettysburg historian Gregory Coco). Jordan focuses instead on what it meant for the psyche of the Army of the Potomac itself to retain the field after America’s bloodiest day.

The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered brings together a wide array of approaches and interpretations, all centered on the idea of reexamining the question of state loyalty and identity in the mid-nineteenth century. The result is one of the more impressive edited volumes in recent years, one that resurrects some previously unknown stories and provides new interpretations for other long-standing questions. Highly recommended.

The Civil War in Maryland Reconsidered

Edited by Charles W. Mitchell and Jean H. Baker

Louisiana State University Press, 2021, $45.00, hardcover.

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