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(Enlarge) A state historical marker at Route 152 and Old Joppa Road commemorates one of the few skirmishes involving Union and Confederate troops that took place around Harford County during the Civil War. (Matt Button | Aegis staff)

Second of two parts.


I-95 and Route 40 get most of the transportation attention in Harford County nowadays, but when the Civil War broke out 150 years ago this week, it was the new railroad linking Philadelphia with Baltimore that caused all the fuss in these parts.

Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, said the railroad became a battleground of sorts, one which brought Harford County to the forefront of the war.

“I think its location was very pivotal in terms of the transportation between Philadelphia and Baltimore,” Kummerow said.

The society’s museum in Baltimore is launching today (Friday) what it says will be Maryland’s largest and most comprehensive Civil War exhibit, called “Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War.”

Although Southern supporters did not destroy either of the bridges in Harford County, they did succeed in damaging them enough to cut off Baltimore from Philadelphia in 1861, keeping any Northern troops on trains from reaching Washington, D.C.

One major event was a raid by troops led by Maj. Harry Gilmore, which happened later in the war.

Gilmore, from a prominent Baltimore County family, led his band of Confederate troops through northern Maryland and Pennsylvania, destroying railroad tracks and bridges and cutting telegraph lines.

He was most noted for violence at the Magnolia Station of the railroad, in Harford County, where the troops set trains on fire and destroyed a central portion of the bridge over the Gunpowder River.

The war’s explosion of violence showed how dangerous it is when people can no longer talk to each other, Kummerow said.

“I think it’s a perfect example of issues becoming so polarized that compromise is impossible, and I think that happened in the spring of 1861,” he said. “I think Maryland became ground zero for that because they had these railroad lines going through Harford County.”

That example seems just as relevant now, when fervent politics and culture wars still lead people to draw lines and define themselves in opposition to other Americans.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Kummerow said about the war. “I think it’s a strong tale for us today, to be really careful that you don’t get into these polarizations.”

Historians debate whether the Civil War was inevitable.

As far as slavery goes, Kummerow, for one, said he believes it could have been ended even without such a violent conflict.

“I think probably in the end, it [slavery] was unsustainable because the rest of the world had pretty much abolished slavery very early,” he said.

“The biggest problem was, because slavery had existed for so long, there was a huge population of Africans who had no education; they were living in squalor.”

Underground and under wraps

Harford’s location also made it a site for another type of railroad: the Underground Railroad, a secret network involving a variety of people and groups devoted to helping runaway slaves get to freedom — often just one state away across the Mason and Dixon’s line, the border between
Maryland and Pennsylvania, that also forms the northern border of Harford County .

Jim Chrismer, a longtime Harford resident and major researcher on the Civil War, explained in a 2006 presentation called “Bound for the Line: Harford County and the Fugitive Slave” that the large number of freed slaves in the area was one reason the Underground Railroad existed in the county, although he also says Harford was not a major hotbed of underground abolitionist activity.

Fugitive slaves took routes that included going north along the P.W. & B. Railroad Bridge over the Susquehanna River, on foot on Harford Road or the current Route 1 and on ships up the Chesapeake Bay to Havre de Grace or to the Gunpowder River.

Chrismer said while older or more traditional narratives about the Underground Railroad portray the efforts of whites in helping blacks escape, newer interpretations stress the role blacks played in their own escapes.

He said the most common modern image shows whites assisting, but acknowledges that blacks did most of the work to get to freedom in the North.

Local efforts against slavery

The members of one religious community in Harford were especially active in the Underground Railroad: the Quakers.
James Pickard, a member of the Deer Creek Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, said he has been studying the Quaker community’s involvement during the Civil War.

At least 300 Quakers were in the county in the early 1860s in congregations that included Fawn Grove, Forest Hill and the Scarboro Road area, he said.

“They were definitely involved, and you have to remember there were a whole lot more Quakers than there are now,” Pickard said.

The number of slaves who were actually helped, however, and information about who did the helping is harder to come by.

Pickard said the Quakers did not mention their work with the Underground Railroad in their minutes and made no record of their activities because they were afraid of being discovered.

“There were houses in Darlington that did this, but as to who did what, it’s very hard to say,” he said. “I don’t know of any really legitimate research that has been done. There’s been a lot of hearsay and a lot of maybes. They do know that it went on.”

Quakers had been specifically focused on slavery for decades earlier.

“They abolished slavery much earlier than the nation did. In 1800, there were almost no Quakers who owned slaves in Harford County because they had been working on this issue for about 25 years,” Pickard said.

The late Hunter C. Sutherland, of Fallston, extensively researched the history of slave sales and manumissions (the formal granting of freedom by the owner) in Harford County from Revolutionary War times until 1865, the final year of the war. Mr. Sutherland’s research has been published in book form by historian Carolyn Greenfield Adams.

Long-lasting impact

According to C. Milton Wright’s “Our Harford Heritage,” written in 1967, the war’s end brought nothing but unity and harmony.

“The residents of Harford County, like true patriotic citizens, placed the good of the country above selfish desires and settled down to work together to repair the friendships and join in the restoration of confidence in the government,” Wright wrote.

“Men went back to their plows and women to their household chores with a determination to reconstruct their institutions of religion, education and government,” he went on.

Presumably, that statement did not apply to blacks, whose post-war lives probably involved more than a return to housework.

Schools for freed blacks were set up following the war by the federal Freedman’s Bureau. Two such prominent schools in Harford County, Hosanna in Darlington and McComas in Joppa, still stand. The Hosanna building has been fully restored and 144 years following its original construction serves as a museum and community center.

But while the end of the war opened economic and educational opportunities for the former slaves, they were essentially treated as second class citizens in Harford County for much of the next 100 years, as was the case throughout Maryland in what became known as the Jim Crow segregation era.

Black children in Harford County went to segregated public schools until 1965, and county political and education leaders continued to actively resist school integration for the decade following the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated school facilities.
Social realities

The social realities of the Civil War — both its beginning, middle and end — were a lot less romantic than what many post-war interpreters tried to paint.

“It really was a much more terrible war than anyone could have imagined,” Kummerow, of the Maryland Historical Society, said. “It took forever for the bitterness to disappear.”

Chrismer said that was partly true.

“Everybody’s happy the war was over. Everybody’s happy their loved ones returned,” he said. “There were lingering grudges and lingering ill feelings.”

“If you believe Cornelia Nixon, there was an enormous amount of ill will,” Chrismer said, referring to the author of the 2009 novel “Jarrettsville,” which is set in Harford County during Reconstruction and is based on a true story about the murder of a Union cavalry officer, in front of his troop and other witnesses, by his fiancé who was tried and acquitted.

Chrismer said the Civil War did not affect Harford Countians anywhere near as much as World War I did, but it did make itself felt.

“It did disrupt families,” he said. “Grudges remained, ill will remained.”

With the number of prominent judges, government officials and community leaders who continued to stand behind Confederate ideals, Chrismer also hinted that the United States stayed less united than C. Milton Wright, who was a county school superitendent in the segregation era, implied.

“In Harford County, as in the country, the South and Southern supporters lost the war, but won the peace,” Chrismer said.

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