149 years ago today, but, what about a snapshot of 150 years ago today? Life one year before THE battle.

Posted on September 17, 2011 by


I encourage those who are able, to take advantage of all that is going on at Antietam National Battlefield, this weekend. Regretfully, I won’t be able to make it… though I most certainly plan on being there this time next year (and might even take a little time to hop across the Potomac next weekend, during one of the NPS’s free days, on 9/24).

While many folks take-in the stories of the battle of 149 years ago, I figured that I’d share a taste of the area’s history, as of this same date, a year before the battle… albeit with heavy emphasis on nearby Hagerstown. In fact, not too terribly long ago, I made a research trip to Hagerstown, and gathered copies of various newspaper clippings that cover the period from the summer through the winter of 1861… but, as I look over my scant offerings for this day in particular, I wish I had made a few more copies, revealing not so much news of the war, but about life as it continued to exist, in Washington County, Maryland, and well in advance of the big day that was the Battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg. I do have one photocopy of part of a page from September 18, 1861 that I’m working from today… with, of course, my copy of Kathleen A. Ernst’s Too Afraid to Cry, close at hand.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fascinated with the stories of men at war… their experiences, the troop movements, the leaders, the private soldiers… but I think I feel an equally strong pull toward how all of what they did impacted those left in the wake of such actions, and, in fact, how life was before such dramatic impact was made on localities… the yet un-scarred civilians, culture, and landscape.

So, again, before me today, I have this one photocopied page. In the center of this page is the very reason why I made the copy… telling of the struggle over Maryland’s loyalties… which way should she go? Union, or Confederate? Of course, being a Unionist paper (and this area of Maryland being much more Unionists that secessionist), that choice was obvious. So, for the sake of bolstering the cause of the Unionism, the Hagerstown newspaper taps into an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which focuses on the example of Virginia at this time in 1861, and how secession has undermined the citizens and their lives there…

Everywhere in the “Old Dominion” the march of Secession has been a blight upon industry, prosperity and happiness, and its track has been marked by desolation. The rich and fertile counties of Fairfax and Loudoun have been impoverished by the traitors, and their peaceful citizens, stripped of their substance, are fugitives from their homes. All up and down th border, from the sea to the mountains, and from the mountains to the valley of the Ohio, the same condition prevails to a greater or less extent, palliated or aggravated, according to the absence or presence of the Rebel troops. Wherever the crops have not been destroyed, the farmers have nothing in return but the worthless rags of bankrupt Virginia corporations. In some places the land looks as if it has been swept by the wing of the spirit of destruction. From Harper’s Ferry up to and beyond Martinsburg, the charred and blackened ruins of bridges, cars, locomotives and workshops, summing up millions of dollars in property of the Baltimore’s and Maryland’s proudest and greatest improvements, are so many monuments of admonition to the people against the terrible effects of Secession.

Strong words, and no doubt, worrisome to those of Washington County, where the fields were ripe with crops, 149 years ago this month. But also worrisome in other ways. As opposed to life in nearby Martinsburg, one could still, it appears, take comfort in Washington County, in the fact that life continued to move on, despite all that was going on around them. Sure, things had changed already, and more was threatening, but there was still some feeling of normalcy.

On the same page, and to the right of this news about Virginia, were advertisements for the Hagerstown Female Seminary, as well as the new Drawing School that was about to open in Rhode’s Building, at the corner of Washington and Jonathan Streets. And there was also news of a new blacksmith shop in Hagerstown, by someone who had to abandon his shop in Martinsburg.

Then too, as I mention, life went on… in all sorts of ways… when we consider the note titled “SECESSION!”, which signaled not secession of a state, but secession in marriage. Yes, you read that right. It seems Mr. William Hawthorn was quite annoyed at his wife’s leaving him “without just cause”, and that the public should take caution, not to trust her to “pay debts of her contracting after this date.” Estranged wife, Sophia had the opportunity to rebut William immediately below this notice, claiming that she had not “left his bed without ‘just cause'”, rather, “I am for ‘Union’, but not for Union where I am so badly treated.”

Further down the page, there is an advertisement for Thomson’s Tonic Mixture, “the most safe, certain and speedy cure for the Fever and Aque, of any article hitherto offered to the public”. For those wishing to benefit from this tonic, it could easily be had at the establishment of the local druggist, C.W. Smith.

Jacob Weaver’s stocking weaving business also made the ads, mentioning that he had moved his establishment to East Franklin Street, near the residence of John Feigley. As the ad notes, his business was “prepared” to “make to order all kinds and sizes” of his Woolen and Cotton Stockings”, and “on the most reasonable terms.” The ad closed that “The public are respectfully invited to give him a call.”

Ah, and believe it or not, only now, when looking over the rest of the photocopy, have I realized that my third great-grandfather gets a plug in this historical piece. I have no idea what it pertains to, but, hey, it’s cool just seeing it in the middle of all of the other stuff. I also think about how unsettling things would be a year from the date of this notice… with Cyrus’ wife being nine months pregnant, and with the battle going on not too terribly distant from their home, just up the Potomac, and in the same county.

And then, we have another ad… but this one brings us back to a key subject at hand, for this time, in 1861. Even though Unionism is often the focus of this paper, the reality of the balancing act over slavery, to keep Maryland in the Union, is before us. Only because of careful measures taken to maintain the institution in the state, does Maryland not slip from the Union. No, the ad does not tell us all about this, but how can we not see, in this ad, how slavery is preserved in the midst of persuading Maryland’s residents not to abandon the Union? It’s not a pristine copy of the ad, as reprinted in the Hagerstown paper from the Baltimore Clipper, but the impact is certainly there, and gives us reason to stop and think, especially about the significance of this time, in 1862.

So, all said… if you happen to be out and about this weekend, taking-in all of the tours at Antietam, stop for a while and look around, not only for evidence of the battle in the markers, monuments, cannons, and so forth, but for the evidence of the people who lived there, well in advance of the gathering of armies on that field. Who were these people at Sharpsburg, and in the surrounding county, what were their stories, and how different was life, one year before THE battle? Their part of the story is just as compelling, on September 17, whether it be on the 150th of 1861, or on this day on the 150th of the battle itself.