Maryland and “the despot’s heel”

Posted on January 8, 2010 by

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The deeper I get into the history of events in central and western Maryland, the more I am convinced that the “despot’s heel” argument really holds little weight. Not only is the state song out of date, it never really reflected the Civil War era opinion of the state as a whole.

What prompted today’s thought was my seeing a comment made elsewhere about why Maryland didn’t jump in as a seceding state. More or less, the argument was that it was because there were so many Federal troops present that the legislature couldn’t make the move to secession that they (maybe I should place emphasis on “they”, knowing how some legislators in the deeper South made it clear that “they” felt that they often knew better what to do than the citizens) really wanted. This was just part of a larger discussion and Maryland wasn’t THE focus of it all.

In regard to the presence of Federal troops suppressing Maryland’s “will”, I think this is exaggerated. True, we have the incident in Baltimore with the boys from Massachusetts on April 19, 1861 (but they were just passing through), and… even from Unionists, I’ve seen that there was plenty of hub-bub about the control over the legislature (even in the western part of the state) and Governor T.H. Hicks’ handling of situations. Nonetheless, even in the midst of this, there was plenty of pro-Union sentiment being expressed by Maryland’s citizens… especially in the central and western part (keep in mind that this region is the greater focus of my work and I haven’t spent a great deal of time with the eastern part of the state).

There is no doubt that there were plenty who wanted secession, and we can see that more than a fair number of Marylanders ended up wearing gray. I’m sure most of them felt oppressed, repressed, and depressed by the continual downturn of events against their interests, BUT, and this is a critical point… was it any different than the feelings of Unionists in neighboring Virginia? Furthermore, in the aftermath of all that took place in the first half of 1861, Unionists retained a voice in Maryland and it wasn’t by any means weak. Quite a few expressed their support (and, perhaps, may have been able to do so because of keeping the secessionists in check) for the Union by enlisting in Maryland’s Union regiments and many continued to express it in other ways. When we realize the numbers of these people, why is that some still see Maryland as a state under the despot’s heel? Sure, some people felt it, but not the state as a whole.

I think there is a lot more to learn from the Civil War-era Maryland than that presented through the narrow understanding offered through the state song. I especially think that an understanding of Maryland’s secessionists may help us to better understand the feelings of the unwavering Unionists in the secessionists states. In fact, I’ve encountered some interesting experiential parallels between the two groups. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, in examining my home county in Virginia, I’ve discovered stories that reveal a number of heavy-handed methods used by secessionists against anyone who posed a threat to secession and the success of the Confederacy. In turn, I’ve encountered some instances of mob-rule (no different than that which I’ve seen in Virginia) in Washington County, Maryland where secessionists have been not only driven out, but beaten down, literally! I’ll eventually share a story that I found about one rather vocal secessionists and what he experienced at the hands of mob-rule in Williamsport, Md. in 1861.

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